Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Perishes Is Not Always Lost

What Perishes Is Not Always Lost
Winter As a Time of Survival and Resilience   

In her book Housekeeping, Marilynn Robinson writes of the life of perished things:
I have seen two of the apple trees in my grandmother’s orchard die where they stood. One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not be lost. 

Can we commit to memory what we cannot preserve in the physical world?
Perhaps the challenge, when presented with loss, is to “lose what I lose, to keep what I can keep” (May Sarton, Autumn Sonnet XVII). Can we outwit winter with preparation, with play and compassion? Can we find ways to celebrate? Can we embrace the given temporality of our lives, and the unique cycle that winter brings into our lives? In  The Snowy Day by Jack Keats, a young child climbs the snow laden mountains, makes snow angels, and smuggles a snowball into his warm house—only to find that it is no longer there in the morning. Yet, what is perished is not lost, if we hold it in our memories and cherish it with grace. 
 (Be sure to see the featured story, “From An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard and the writing exercise to help us to preserve the winter memories and images that will stay with us our entire lives).

As the cold assaults our senses, we are confronted with a challenge: how to find beauty and meaning in the leafless tree, the frozen, unyielding earth, the treacherous ice. Jamaica Kincaid, in “A Fire By Ice” revels in the gorgeous garden she had in Antigua and compares it to her later garden experience in Vermont. In Antigua, the garden was lush wit green leaves and the pink stems of rhubarb, flowers and vegetables of every color.
After a heavy rain, she writes,

…everything is strong and itself, twinkling, jewel-like. At that moment I think life will never change; it will always be summer. The whiteness of snow is an eraser, so that I am in a state of near disbelief…

When she hears that that the temperatures will drop to a frost, she writes:

 I cannot help take this personally; I think a frost is something someone is doing to me – only to me. And this is how winter in the garden begins – with another tentativeness, a curtsy to the actual cold to come, a gentle form of it…How can it be that after a frost the entire garden looks as if it had been to a party in Hell?”

Indeed, the alternative to the Garden of Eden is the experience of  winter as a “cold day in hell.” Winter can be a time of intense loneliness, hardship and the struggle to survive.
Some of our finest poets through the ages have inspired us with their views of winter.
Eleventh century Sanskrit poet, Vidyakara, suggests that companionship and a warm body help:

The peasant and his wife
sleep in a grass hut at the corner of the field
with coverlet and pillow made of barley straw.
The frost avoids their slumbers,
a boundary being drawn to its advance
by the warmth emitted from the plump wife’s breasts.

Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet, infused a mystical quality to express universal themes through natural images, from the harvest moon to fleas in his cotttabe. Basho brought to haiku “The Way of Elegance,” (“fuga-no-michi”). He approached poetry as a way of life (kado, the way of poetry) and believed it could be a source of enlightenment. Thus, he writes:

Cold Night
the sound of a water jar
cracking on this icy night
as I lie awake

At the house of a person whose child has died:
bending low—the joints,
the world, all upside down—
bamboo under the snow

first winter shower –
the monkey also seems to want
a mall raincoat

somehow, in some way,
it has managed to survive—
pampas grass in the snows

And to Sultan Bahu, Sufi mystical poet of India in the sixteenth century, love faces down every tiger, every fear. It claps its hands in triumph:

                        Love saw me weak and it came, taking over my home,
                        Like a fussy child, it will not sleep nor let me sleep.
                        It asks for watermelons in winter, where can I find them?
                        But all rational thoughts were forgotten, Bahu,
                                    when love
                                    clapped its hands.

Playfulness emerges in the old Lakota belief in which Woziya, the fierce giant who kills with his frozen touch, breathes frigid air and bitterly wars with his brother, the South Wind. He dresses in heavy furs and lives beyond the pines and guards the places of snow.
Yet with all his ferocity, he is jolly and merry, a guardian of the northern lights. The northwestern Indians and Eskimos of North America joyfully played in the wonderland of winter:

We will watch the Northern Lights
playing their game of ball
in the cold, glistening country.
Then we will sit in beauty on the mountain
                        Abenaki (collected by James Houston)

Robert Frost, in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” stops his carriage  to marvel at the glory of the woods and snow. He pauses as beauty overtakes him. This pause for beauty is not a luxury; it is vital to the spiritual journey.
 Henry Walden Thoreau, living at Walden Pond reveled in the extraordinary glory and the purity and beauty of ice and snow. His writings suggest that winter is a time to bathe one’s intellect in literature, the sublime beyond the present moment, and to appreciate the wondrous cycles of nature. Thoreau, in the following passage, imagines that all of the ancients drink at his well nearby:

I lay down the book, and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Temate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Still other writers and poets reluctantly submit to the coldest, darkest days of the year, and many of us fight our depression and hover closer to the fireplace (if we’re lucky enough to have one!) Some of us take comfort in accepting the cyclical nature of the season, and like seeds waiting to sprout under the ice, our dreams and creative enterprises are percolating in the dark and waiting for the right moment to emerge. One can almost imagine Jane Kenyon puttering about in her pajamas in a house surrounded by snow:
            My plan is to live like the bears: to turn the compost a few more times, prowl around a little longer and then go to sleep until the white-throated sparrow, with its course and cheerful song, calls me out of the dark.

As for me, I alternate between hibernation and spurts of energy, occasionally up writing into the wee hours of the morning, and then at other times, contracting from the cold with a heating pad and a hot tea, dreaming of laying on a beautiful beach in Hawaii, mellowed by the sun and sipping an apple martini.
Whatever winter way you choose to live, may you infuse the cold days with the tenderness of kindness. The Japanese proverb gently reminds us: “One kind word can warm three winter months.”

From An American Childhood

Some boys taught me to play football. This was fine sport. You thought up a new strategy for every play and whispered it to the others. You went out for a pass, fooling everyone. Best, you got to throw yourself mightily at someone’s running legs. Either you brought him down or you hit the ground flat out on your chin, with your arms empty before you. It was all or nothing. If you hesitated in fear, you would miss and get hurt: you would take a hard fall while the kid got away. But if you flung yourself wholeheartedly at the back of his knees – if you gathered and joined body and soul and pointed them diving fearlessly – then you likely wouldn’t get hurt, and you’d stop the ball. Your fate, and your team’s score, depended on your concentration and courage. Nothing girls did could compare with it.
            Boys welcomed me at baseball, too, for I had, through enthusiastic practice, what was weirdly known as a boy’s arm. In winter, in the snow, there was neither baseball nor football, so the boys and I threw snowballs at passing cars. I got in trouble throwing snowballs, and have seldom been happier since.
     On one weekday morning after Christmas, six inches of new snow had just fallen. We were standing up to our boot tops in snow on a front yard on trafficked Reynolds Street, waiting for cars. The cars traveled Reynolds Street slowly and evenly; they were targets all but wrapped in red ribbons, cream puffs. We couldn’t miss.
            I was seven, the boys were eight, nine, and ten. The oldest two Fahey boys were there – Mikey and Peter—polite blond boys who lived near me on Lloyd Street, and who already had four brothers and sisters. My parents approved Mikey and Peter Fahey. Chickie McBride was there. a tough kid, and Billy Paul and Mackie Kean too, from across Reynolds, where the boys grew up dark and furious, grew up skinny, knowing and skilled. We had all drifted from our houses that morning looking for action, and had found it here at Reynolds Street.
            It was cloudy but cold. The cars’ tires laid behind them on the snowy street a complex trail of beige chunks like crenelated castle walls. I had stepped on some earlier; they squeaked We could have wished for more traffic. When a car came, we all popped it one. In the intervals between cars we reverted to the natural solitude of children.
            I started making an ice-ball—a perfect ice-ball, from perfectly white snow, perfectly spherical, and squeezed perfectly translucent so no snow remained all the way through. (The Fahey boys and I considered it unfair to actually throw an ice-ball at somebody, but it had been known to happen.)
I had just embarked on the ice-ball project when we heard tire chains come clanking from afar. A black Buick was moving toward us down the street. We all spread out, banged together some regular snowballs, took aim, and when the Buick drew nigh, fired.
       A soft snowball hit the driver’s windshield right before the driver’s face. It made a smashed star with a hump in the middle. Often, of course, we hit our target, but this time, the only time in all of life, the car pulled over and stopped. Its wide black door opened; a man got out of it, running. He didn’t even close the car door.
            He ran after us, and we ran away from him, up the snowy Reynolds sidewalk. At the corner, I looked back; incredibly he was still after us. He was in city clothes: a suit and tie, street shoes. Any normal adult would have quit, having sprung us into flight and made his point. This man was gaining on us. He was a thin man, all action.  Suddenly, we were running for our lives.
     Wordless, we split up. We were on our turf; we could lose ourselves in the neighborhood backyards, everyone for himself. I paused and considered. Everyone had vanished except Mike Fahey. who was just rounding the corner of a yellow brick house. Poor Mikey. I trailed him. The driver of the Buick sensibly picked the two of us to follow. The man apparently had all day. He chased Mikey and me around the yellow house and up a path we knew by heart: under a low tree, up a bank, through a hedge, down some snowy steps, and across the grocery store’s delivery parkway. We smashed through a gap in another hedge, entered a scruffy backyard and ran around its back porch and tight between houses to Edgerton Avenue; we ran across Edgerton to an alley and up our own sliding woodpile to the Halls’ front yard; he kept coming. We ran up Lloyd Street and wound through mazy backyards toward the steep hilltop at Willard and Lang.
            He chased us silently; block after block. He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets. every time I glanced back, choking to breathe, I expected he would have quit. He must have been as breathless as we were. His jacket strained over his body. It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget oneself, aim, dive.
            Mikey and I had nowhere to go, in our own neighborhood or out of it, but away from this man who was chasing us. He impelled us forward; we compelled him to follow our route. The air was cold; every breath tore my throat. We kept running, block after block; we kept improving, backyard after backyard, running a frantic course and choosing it simultaneously, failing always to find small places or hard places to slow him down, and discovering always, exhilarated, dismayed, that only bare speed could save us—for he would never give up, this man—and we were losing speed. He chased us through the backyard labyrinths of ten blocks before he caught us by our jackets. He caught us and we all stopped.
            We three stood staggering, half blinded, coughing, in an obscure hilltop backyard; a man in his twenties, a boy, a girl. He had released our jackets, our pursuer, our hero: he knew we weren’t going anywhere. We all played by the rules. Mikey and I unzipped our jackets. I pulled off my sopping mittens. Our tracks multiplied in the backyard’s new snow. We had been breaking new snow all morning. We didn’t look at each other. I was cherishing my empowerment. The man’s lower pant legs were wet; his cuffs were full of snow, and there was a prow of snow beneath them on his shoes and socks. Some trees bordered the little flat backyard, some messy winter trees.. There was no one around: a clearing in a grove, and we the only players. It was a long time before he could speak. I had some difficulty at first recalling why we were there. My lips felt swollen; I couldn’t t see out of the sides of my eyes; I kept coughing.
            “You stupid kids,” he began perfunctorily.
            We listened perfunctorily indeed, if we listened at a ll, for the chewing out was redundant, a mere formality, and beside the point. The point was that he had chased us passionately without giving up, and so he had caught us. Now he came down to earth. I wanted the glory to last forever.
            But how could the glory have lasted forever? We could have run through every backyard in North America until we got to the Panama Canal, what precisely could he have done to prolong the drama of the chase and cap its glory? I brooded about this for the next few years. He could only have fried Mikey Fahey and me in boiling oil, say, or dismembered us piece-meal, or staked us to anthills. None of which I really wanted, and none of which any adult was likely to do, even in the spirit of fun. He could only chew us out there in the Panamanian jungle, after months or years of exalting pursuit. He could only begin, “You stupid kids,” and continue in his ordinary Pittsburgh accent with his normal righteous anger and the usual common sense.
            If in that snowy backyard the driver of the black Buick had cut off our heads, Mikey’s and mine, I would have died happy, for nothing has required so much of me since as being chased all over Pittsburgh in the middle of winter—running terrified, exhausted—by this sainted, skinny, furious red-headed man who wished to have a word with us. I don’t know how he found his way back to his car.                                    
Annie Dillard
Dark Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
Eds. Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch, Skylight Paths Publishing 2003, pp. 212-216

Writing Exercise:
Dig through your memory bank and find a winter memory that  is very special to you.
Like Annie Dillard did, write about this memory in vivid detail. If you would like to submit your work for possible blog publication for the Inspiration Column, please send it to Dr. Sherry Reiter at


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