A Mind of Winter

END THE YEAR WITH YOUR CHILL INTACT (nice double entendre here, revealing that attitudes toward cold weather and the holidays have somehow become inextricably mixed).

YES, IT’S OK TO BE SAD DURING THE HOLIDAYS (another example of the above and a plug for the generosity and helpfulness of the NYT, ever a problem solver in moments of crisis).

A BEACON TO COMBAT SOMETHING BEYOND JUST THE WINTER BLUES (see above; ooh, we move into deeper, scarier territory; not surprisingly, ads for therapy lamps, $200 range, follow.

A Mind of Winter

What is a mind of winter? Did Vivaldi have it? Shubert? When he composed Winterreise or Winter’s Journey, which, according to Oussama Zahr in the New Yorker, traces its narrator’s movements through the snow and his unhappy circumstances over twenty-four songs. The mood is despondent yet gripping in its narrow focus… This got to Leonard once when I’d been listening to these songs obsessively for several days. He begged me to stop, which I huffily agreed to do. Maybe he was right -- they were a bit much. Emily Dickinson describes a certain slant of light she observes in the afternoon, in Winter, oppressive but fleeting as she begins before revealing its permanence in Seal Despair, crash landing in the Distance/On the look of Death. At the end of The Dead, Joyce buries his Dubliners and indeed the whole of Ireland in faintly falling, falling faintly snow. Yeats disappeared in the dead of Winter, according to Auden, and the day of his death was a dark cold day. How many dysfunctional characters can contemporary novelist Ali Smith invite to Christmas dinner in Winter? In winter I get up at night, says Robert Louis Stevenson, and Marian’s nose is red and raw in Shakespeare’s Winter poem. I deplore that line, which I have always taken as a personal insult. How dare Shakespeare cast me as ugly, lower class? My father remembered dressing by yellow candle light, adding that where he grew up in North Dakota, people buttoned themselves into their long underwear for the duration. Of Winter. No wonder we are sick at heart like Francisco up there freezing on the battlements at the opening of Hamlet, console ourselves with trips to Hawaii and the Caribbean, with artificial light, with tanning salons, as we await the avalanche of climate change amid nightmares of Nuclear Winter. That Solstice to end them all when, after which, as medieval folk so keenly feared, our days will NOT begin to lengthen ever so imperceptibly at first. No. We will hurtle in darkness toward extinction.

Whew!

And now I see I have left out Christina Rosetti’s bleak midwinter, Eliot’s Maji. A cold coming they had of it on their journey, he tells us, having left behind regretfully the summer palaces, silken girls. Hans Christian Andersen’s,The Snow Queen and the piece of glass he lodges in Kai’s heart. Certainly to me that was a mirror made of ice, the Little Match Girl’s fingers burnt and frozen. Some of the above are examples of what John Ruskin called the Pathetic Fallacy, scolding painters and writers for assigning human feeling to inanimate objects, but he also admitted that anthropomorphism and personification allowed artists to describe and express pain and heartbreak faithfully.

Winter scares us, coming round again each year with a reminder that death is common, all that lives must die. Nature is less than benign, not altogether on our side. Couples divorce. Women get pregnant. We hasten to gather evergreens, bestrewing them about the house where their odor promises renewal. We cook. We drag in the Yule Log, fatten up with a Bûche de Noël, call on Jeannette Isabella to bring torches, light candles left to right Eight Nights running. Candles which burn down to wax clogging the Menorah. Christmas lasts Twelve Days, or as far into Winter as Candlemas, February 2.

But is the equation of human misery, sorrow, and fear of death with forces in nature inevitable? Irresistible? So Wallace Stevens seems to say at the beginning of his well known poem, The Snowman (see below). Everything turns on the potent monosyllabic must. Are we so constructed that we would be less than warm blooded if we did not see ourselves in the weather and the weather in ourselves? Or are we urged to strip ourselves bare of emotion in order to understand that we are the nothing of which nothing will come?

In a nature center when Sirène and I went to look at the fields which bloom in springtime in the Mojave Desert near here, I read the charts and saw, absurdly for the first time, that these short-lived, radiant poppies do not bloom for us, no matter how many prayers and hymns of praise and thanksgiving we offer up to a god who doesn’t exist. Banish rainbows, covenants, the Book of Genesis. We are not not not, nothing nothing nothing, a soon to be forgotten unnecessary blip. And again, more strongly, in the salt beds of Death Valley where nothing takes root. See it and die. Infertile, inhuman, no birds no bees no flowers, the Earth will burn itself out as physics requires in formidable beauty unwitnessed, unremarked. Perhaps it is the current political climate so full of bias, arrogance, greed, narcissism, and corruption that makes me incline toward purity, toward objectivity.

But this mood never lasts, though I cannot agree with a friend and fan of Elon Musk who says we must shift our sights, conquer another planet, cold or hot, no matter how inhospitable. No matter that we’ve ruined this one. The human brain, the great, the only, must be protected and preserved, be central to our thoughts and plans. Our brains will see to us, will sort it, as the British say.

My friend Carol Brown, later Carol Brown Spencer or CBS, strode through the halls, hollered on the escalator, I going up, as she was coming down: BALLSAC! This was in the sixties. We were studying, working on MAs in literature. We talked incessantly, called each other every night, every call ending, “Call me,” “Call me.” We perfected our New York accents. We ate terrible Mexican food at Ernie Junior’s in Pasadena, trolled for greasy tacos on Whittier Boulevard, I in a nightgown under my trench coat because she’d surprised me in the middle of the night. She echoed the great questions: What does it all mean? What will become of us? Rhetorically, of course. Facetiously, perhaps. But she asked them, while I worried about losing my virginity, finishing my paper on The Wasteland. Louisa May Alcott, she called me, a Girl Scout. She was a troubled person, brilliantly witty, sexually ambiguous, an alcoholic, her children suffered from that dreadful syndrome. She brought me my first California kitten, took me bottom fishing in Baja. Lung cancer took her in the end. The merest failure to breathe. I summon her. I call her back. A small act of resistance, like studying the Talmud, as small groups of women in New York have begun doing, like saying the Nicene Creed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve when I don’t believe a word of it.

Fire or Ice? Bang or Whimper? I puzzle, like Othello, perplexed in the extreme. Perhaps this is what I like about The Snowman, that I cannot come to the end of it, cannot solve the riddle Stevens poses, identify the listener who listens in the snow. A snowman may be the perfect emblem for our time. Gutless and brainless. Sexless, or nearly. There are Mermaids and Mermen. But a Snow Woman? I’ve never heard of one, have you? He cannot remember. He cannot give anyone a hug (fine with me) run or speak or see or hear. We make him in our image, yet he melts away without a trace. No need of burial or cremation. He’s no trouble at all, this fellow, might benefit a crocus or two next spring. Bit of a clown sometimes in the imagination of his nose and mouth. Will he smoke a pipe, wear his top hat rakishly? Elegant ermine cape or tattered coat?

The Snowman (1923)

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens


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