Like Kai in the Snow Queen’s cage, my corner of Berlin is trapped in a late midwinter paralysis. Expected post fails to arrive. Glass and grünpunkt recycling have not been collected from my building in Prenzlauer Berg since before Christmas – which means a lot of glass has piled up. Until they were finally carted away yesterday, the bodies of obsoleted Christmas trees lined the kerbs. The streets are two thirds swept, one third still littered with scatterings of grey grit from the heavy snowfall of mid December, and with the mashed card and paper detritus of the New Year fireworks. If you’ve never experienced what goes up in Berlin on New Year’s Eve: trust me, it means a lot of firework detritus.
My first winter in Berlin was the hard Jahrhundertwinter of 2009-10; during which I learned to appreciate that routine street maintenance and waste collection go by the board in the depths of a long freeze, when keeping the pavements gritted is a much higher priority. I also learned to appreciate routine street maintenance and waste collection, which, as an unexceptional city-dweller, I otherwise take entirely for granted.
This year, though, the weather is not so intractable. From just before Christmas until last week, the temperatures were relatively mild – around 8 degrees Celcius in the daytime – and even now, back below freezing under a patchy crisp film of white, there is no accompanying repeat of heavy snowfall and ice forming, only the daily lid of motionless pale grey cloud suspended in the sky.
Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil includes a sequence about the Japanese New Year festival of Dondo-yaki, which consists in reverently collecting together and burning the debris from all the other New Year festivities. The turning of the year inevitably brings new broom feelings into life; it’s hard not to want to sweep up briskly, burn and move on, and the more the remains of the festive season past are stuck behind littering the place, the harder it is to do that.
Or so I tell myself, looking to blame the bags of packaging overflowing from the yellow dumpster in the hinterhof for the fact that it took me until January 17th to resume what passes for normal service in my world, and that getting through these days remains an uphill drag, clenched against losing breath and losing my footing (literal and metaphorical).
As I’ve written before (ghosts of needless repetition haunt this season too), coming out of the turn of midwinter into gradually lengthening days is a good time to clarify intentions, but not necessarily to move with them. Many New Year resolutions founder – especially, I suspect, those that involve doing something physical out of doors – because energetically, at least in the northern hemisphere, this is a brutally unconducive moment for initiating change. It’s tuned rather to the Janus state: looking backwards and forwards at the same time, using the pause of slowly returning light and feeling to take stock, then allow momentum to return of its own accord.
In this frame of mind, the part-swept pavements and accumulated sekt bottles are a gentler reminder of what season we are in, than the post-New Year haste back to work, tinged with Puritan remorse, that I’m more used to from England. Back there, detox rules and discarded pine trees are whisked away efficiently by the local Council, but what lingers is a touch of regret that the celebrations must be over so soon, that the workaday world must snatch back the upper hand so insistently from the perceived threat of a nation descending into perpetual Saturnalia.
I have a recurrent reverie these days of being swept upside down and suspended. Either I am trying out a friend’s inversion table (a real device for relieving back pain, which is like a massage table with firm ankle straps and a lever for flipping the user into an inverted position and back again), or else catching one foot in a noose trap in a forest and being hoisted into the air. This is the position of the Hanged Man in the tarot deck, hung head down by one foot. I don’t dwell so much on what it’s like to have to hang there, without bearings, waiting unexpectedly for as long as it takes for the unexpected to arise, but on the moment of being swept abruptly up and away from where I thought I was, the rush of blood to the head and the reversed sudden awareness of gravity’s pull.
Looking down at the patterns of old detritus surrounding me, waiting for the momentum to arise in which I will, simply, hang; suspended.