A meditation for winter

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Pyrrha in the snow.

I despise the cold, but I’m finding some joy in the winter this year. This attitude has been helped along by daily walks, with the aid of competent warm-weather gear and my good German shepherd, the perfect walking companion; more time to read, and read by the fire; and the quietness of the landscape. This winter, more than others, feels like this restful season of anticipation. Spring brings new life (literally for our household this year), and I am enjoying thinking of winter as a time for appropriate dormancy.

A poem along those lines:

“The Cold”
Wendell Berry

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.

. . .

A new person

Solutions

  • More women in leadership, everywhere
  • Less time on Twitter for everyone
  • At least two clementines a day for the entire season
  • Moisturize your face; it’s winter, you savage
  • Walk your dog(s)
  • Start studying again that foreign language once knew and have since mostly forgotten
  • Tell people how you feel, even if you’re not sure how to articulate it

Our dearest friends welcomed their son, their firstborn, into the world on Saturday. We met him and held him, talking quietly in a peaceful hospital room that overlooked the university and the mountains beyond while this little 6-pound bundle warmed my ribcage. His parents’ faces were alight with an exhausted kind of wonder. They were so relaxed, watching us carefully exchange their baby, and competent. They’ll parent him beautifully, and we are privileged to act as witnesses.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” — The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

The best piety is to enjoy

Garden in June
Bee enjoying a daylily in my front yard.

For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.

We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.

I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.

The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.

For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.

“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”

I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.

“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”

— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot

I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”

That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.

And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.

Happy Tuesday!

What I have left out is the interstitial time

Richmond Park
Richmond Park, this past summer.

“Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”

— John McPhee, a letter of advice to his daughter, quoted in his 2013 New Yorker piece

What kind of times are these

Protest at UVA
A protest of Trump’s immigration and refugee ban at UVA.

I am not sure of many things anymore. I want to write something revolutionary and moving, but I am tired. I am so tired. I am tired of the news, of Trump’s face leering behind the desk in the Oval Office, of self-appointed pundits on the left and the right.

I am not sure how to balance this emotional/intellectual/mental exhaustion with the need to fight back. The threats seem very real and yet the actions seem to be merely theoretical in effect.

I have nothing profound to say in response to this new American order that has not already been said. I take refuge in the flesh-and-blood people in my life and in books.

 

Protest at UVA
Fellow protestors at UVA.

In dark times, at least we still have poetry.

I have been enjoying more poetry lately; it feels especially fitting in a gloomy winter, in a political season that seems to only get more evil with time. At least we still can read Adrienne Rich. At least Trump hasn’t taken our books from us yet. And so I leave you with her.

What Kind of Times Are These

ADRIENNE RICH

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

October with Wei
Trees at a nearby vineyard.

We are American writers

220/366
Near my father’s childhood home in Indiana. 2008.

“We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.”

— Joy Williams, in a lecture. Quoted in her Paris Review interview.

Dark though it is

W.S. Merwin published this poem back in 2005, but it is so beautifully fitting for the beginning of 2017, a year for which I feel a strong sense of dread for America. Savor his words and feel some solace and strength.

First night in the Lake District

Thanks

W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Collect, overbalance, and fall

Camden and Regent's Park area

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. 

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Camden and Regent's Park area

I am alive—I guess—

I am alive—I guess—
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory—
And at my finger’s end—

The Carmine—tingles warm—
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth—it blurs it—
Physician’s—proof of Breath—

I am alive—because
I am not in a Room—
The Parlor—Commonly—it is—
So Visitors may come—

And lean—and view it sidewise—
And add “How cold—it grew”—
And “Was it conscious—when it stepped
In Immortality?”

I am alive—because
I do not own a House—
Entitled to myself—precise—
And fitting no one else—

And marked my Girlhood’s name—
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine—and not mistake—
And try another key—

How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—the birth I had—
And this—besides, in Thee!

Emily Dickinson

Mysterious existences

Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, letter from Paris, 17 February 1903