Three Essays I Re-Read Every Winter
When the world outside looks bleak, these nonfiction works help keep me warm.
Essays are truly one my favorite art form. A good essay is capacious, bursting with ideas that linger inside your brain long after you’re done reading. There are some essays that dazzle me every single time I revisit them, because they’re so effective in probing a feeling or laying the writer’s perspective bare. Each time I reread these works, they pull me into a private world and change me in some way, then send me back out into the everyday world, ready to become a better writer myself.
I always find myself returning to these essays in the winter. Part of that has to do with their subject matter: they explore the subjects of seasonal affective disorder, grief, and the lonely resignation of deciding to stay in the closet, all very wintry subjects my mind gravitates to when the world is grey. January is always a period of solitude and low-key, functional depression for me, and curling up with good writing from people who have also known bleak times brings me a lot of comfort. These works also help remind me that even when I feel depressed and disconnected, I have the potential to reach and comfort other people, and to be reached and comforted.
So here they are, in case you’re in the mood for some dreary, thought-provoking, and ultimately redemptive art: the three essays I reread every single winter.
In this piece, which originally ran in Seattle's’ The Stranger in 2007, writer Megan Seling details how she kept seasonal affective disorder at bay one especially dismal winter by setting out to bake every single cookie recipe in Martha Stewart’s Holiday Cookies magazine. What ensues is an at-times comic, at-times horrifying exploration of baking, perfectionism, suicide ideation, and ennui, set before the gloomy backdrop of the Pacific Northwest.
I’ll never forget the first time I read this piece. It was late November and I was bumbling my way through college. The only people I hung out with were my boyfriend at the time, and our roommates. I hated myself and I was obsessed with excelling in a field that it was slowly dawning on me would never bring satisfaction. My sadness made me feel crazy and self-destructive, particularly late at night, and the only way I could keep myself from crying all evening and slapping myself in the skull was by driving to the local Wal-Mart and meandering the aisles.
Seling’s essay opens on the exact same scene: she’s staving off her winter depression by haunting a grocery store. Her career as a music writer is unfulfilling. Her social life is a void. She’s sad as hell, staring the items on the store shelves in the hopes one will awaken feelings of desire or even hope. Eventually she lands on the Martha Stewart cookie magazine, and in its cheery photographs, Seling finds a promise of better times.
“There was nothing in this magazine that made me feel like crap.
…I was going to make every single cookie in that fucking magazine.”
From there, Seling embarks on an obsessive baking project that drains her bank account, keeps her up late at night prepping ingredients, and occasionally gives her the opportunity to bond with other people. Though the essay’s discussion of suicide is intense and triggering, Seling ultimately makes it through her long winter in one piece, and commits to finding a depression treatment that actually works for her. One thing that I particularly love about revisiting this essay year after year is that I now know its long-term resolution: Seling has gone on to become a successful cookbook author. The piece never fails to ground me when I’m feeling unmoored.
Best-selling author and powerhouse of Chicago’s live literature scene, Samantha Irby is most famous for her humor. Her essay collections and blog Bitches Gotta Eat make me scream with delight and squirm disgustedly in my seat on a regular basis. Her performances at Chicago live lit events like The Paper Machete have routinely given me laughter-induced face aches. But as much as I admire Irby’s wit, my favorite piece of writing by her is the deeply serious, heart-rending essay she published in The Rumpus in 2012, My Mother, My Daughter.
When Irby was nine years old, her mother (who was already experiencing degenerative symptoms of multiple sclerosis) got into a life-changing car accident and sustained a serious head injury. An incredibly sensitive, sheltered child, Irby is suddenly thrust into the role of her mother’s caretaker, forced to change her diapers, manage her finances, and ward off the suspicions of social workers and teachers who begin to sense that the family’s home life is falling apart.
“My mother became my daughter when I was nine years old.”
For the rest of her childhood and adolescence, Irby inhabits a parental role. But she isn’t ready to care for a baby yet, especially since that baby is a fifty-year-old woman who is meant to be looking after Irby herself. So their shared home descends into filth. Irby steals precious minutes of sleep at her desk during class. She runs to the check advance shop around the corner after school and desperately shuffles money around so the lights can stay on. When Irby is in high school, her mother’s gets placed in a nursing home, and Irby is forced to process the slow death of her “child.”
This essay breaks me every time I read it. I know how frayed parental boundaries can fuck with your head, but I cannot imagine surviving a loss so profound. Irby’s essay inspired me to reach out to The Rumpus with an essay about my own parental trauma, though honestly the pain of being my dad’s de facto therapist pales in comparison to Irby’s experience of being her mother’s mom. I can’t help but think about how our pains dovetail — and diverge — every time I find myself laughing at a piece she’s written about shitting her pants.
Jennifer Coates’ mind-shattering essay about her choice to remain in the closet is the best piece of writing I have ever encountered on Medium, and one of my favorite essays of all time. I wish every person who has not experienced transmisogyny would read it, carefully and patiently, and let Coates’ words slowly soak into all the nooks and crannies of their mind. And not just because it will fundamentally shift how they think about issues such as sexism and transphobia — but because it’s a soul-moving work of art, and a powerful meditation on the state of social justice.
Coates’ piece tracks her life from age six until twenty-six, highlighting pivotal moments of discovering her womanhood and having it repeatedly erased by others. She explains how even within feminist spaces and gender studies classes, she is silenced and criticized because she appears to be a “straight cis man.” She also describes, with heart-breaking tenderness, how many of the cis straight men she befriends are just as haunted and pained by the gender binary as the cis feminists in her life are.
Ultimately, Coates decides that despite how painful being ignored and demeaned can be, she she will continue to live in the closet. Transitioning wouldn’t resolve in a way she’d find satisfactory, and it would cost her a whole lot. She decides to instead seek affirmation in her writing and acceptance in the women, men, and nonbinary people who actually value what she has to say on its own merits, without having to know first what her identity is.
“I wish I looked like that but I don’t and can’t. It sucks and it makes me feel really awful if I brood on it. That’s why I focus on my writing — I’d rather make things. Investing in and building things that aren’t my body helps me cope with the body issues I’ve been saddled with against my will.”
Coates’ writing begs that we rethink simplistic, binary views of gender-based oppression how it presents in the world. The essay illustrates beautifully just how unhelpful concepts like “male socialization,” and “toxic masculinity” can be, when applied to individual lives. And Coates’ journey reminds all of us that a life of the mind can grant us a sense of authenticity, even when our bodies or social roles feel profoundly inauthentic. Every time I dive into this piece I find something new to highlight and share, without fail.
These three essays are keeping me company on a cold, dark winter night yet again. What essays stayed with you long after you finished reading them? Who are some writers whose work brings you comfort on depressing, dark days? Let me know in the comments, or write a piece of your own and tag me. I’d love to hear.