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The Torpors of Winter

It’s cold in the house and I am too lazy to get up from the desk and fix myself a cup of tea. I would welcome the warmth, and the pleasure of holding a cup of hot tea in my hands to warm my fingers. But I won’t do it. I’ve persuaded myself there’s not enough time to get up and fool with the electric water pitcher, measure out loose tea into the strainer, wait for the water to boil, pour it slowly into the glass tea pot, steep it for four minutes, dump the tea into a thermos bottle, and pour off a cup. But I’d like to have one to sip right now. I’d thank someone who might come in just now with the steaming mug and set it down next to me. But I don’t want to ask my wife to do it -- she’s painting in the room above me. I can hear her brush rattle from time to time as she gets more paint on it and goes about limning the trunks of skinny silver birches, her favorite subject of late. She paints them in such a way they remind you of the slender legs of ballet dancers standing in awkward poses while some dance instructor goes over his notes and seems not to notice how a line of girls is waiting for him to get the class started.

She likes to paint in the black stains on the trunk, where the bark is peeling, and to make the trunks as real as possible. She would honor me by coming downstairs to make the tea, and not complain about having to put down her brush. That’s how she is. She might even like the distraction of breaking off from some trunk that is not quite emerging under her thin brush. Maybe a few minutes off the job might give her an idea, or a reason to rub out the line that wandered too far. But I don’t think she’s looking for a break. The quiet from above tells me she is concentrating, that the work is proceeding apace.

So I sit here with the two windows over my desk allowing me to see a wedge of snow and the scraggly lines of naked branches, some belonging to sugar maples, the wild kind that make very little sap, and ray out in patterns that seem like gigantic Chinese ideograms against the pewter-colored sky. I say a wedge because I have closed the striped curtains to keep out the drafts. But someone or thing keeps nudging them open a little – just enough to let in the daylight, such as it is, filtered and lifeless as it spreads out over my papers. Nothing much would grow in such light; the earth is quietly sleeping, one breath every ten minutes or so. I would imagine a human shout would die almost instantly in such solemn, cathedral-like sanctity. A car barely disturbs the thick, insensitive base of reality as it passes by.

On a hill behind my study, lives a huge groundhog. I saw him last year on a boulder by the roadside, and at first mistook it for another boulder. As I stared at the pile of rocks, one of them moved. It was the precise color of the boulders around it, a kind of silvery matte gray, and to suddenly observe a flicker of soft, watery shadows play over the rock without help of a passing cloud or a bird, made me suck my breath. It was huge, a powerful, round, featureless blob of life that moved sloth-like down the boulder and into the grass. It was early spring, and the earth was not yet thawed out. Its burrow was about fifty yards up the hill, and there it lived in a serene, colorless isolation, with mud walls and fur-speckled clay to mark its only decorations. A quiet, ruminative animal easily turned aggressive if challenged by a hunter or a fox.

It is part of the sleeping earth as I sit here now. It’s the last day of January and the depth of cold has perhaps reached its peak. February will be snow-laden and muffled in silence, but the old timers here say January 20 is a kind of reckoning point – the nadir of winter’s mood, the very nucleus of its brooding temperament before it begins to turn its vast neck to the sun and to observe the days lengthening toward March and the winds out of New York. But for now, in this final day of the two-faced god Janus’s feast month, we are in mourning and hold the rags and the broken bones of last summer. And the ground hog lies snug and unconscious in its mud-walled parlor. It too would welcome a cup of tea and some kind face appearing in its dreams. But the hour slips by and the dream is unbroken. The groundhog’s willing suspension of awareness is blissful and uncontaminated by petty desires .

I should have been a groundhog. It almost seems I was one once, in some previous incarnation. I like dark rooms far from the noise of human beings. I must have something of Proust’s sensitivities. He had his writing room lined with planks of cork to keep out the noise of the Paris streets. The coaches passed beneath his tall windows and the horses were shod with metal that rang loudly on the cobble stones, and he could snuggle in his silk dressing gown and unscrew his fountain pen and proceed with the excavation of his youth and his tangled emotional history as a son to a mother who knew to push back his filial devotion, his outright passion to be kissed and held by her. His reward for pain and longing was this cork-lined burrow in which to recreate his vanished youth, his first taste of a madeleine brought to him with a cup of tea by his mother, wearing dark clothes and smelling of the scent of other rooms, of a much larger and more complicated world where she was a prima donna. A beautiful woman, the very face who might have surprised the sleeping groundhog in his burrow with a similar cup of tea and a small, decorated plate on which was placed a napkin and the crusty round figure of the madeleine. At such a moment, perhaps, winter would have been shattered by heaven opening overhead and filling the mortal world with splendid bursts of sunlight and warmth, birdsong, rainbows, girls singing under a newly leafed apple tree, men rushing to work, women sprawled out in lawn chairs reading novels and wearing straw hats.

But it will not happen on this pewter-lined, this cork-engirded subjective world I sit in now, trying to imagine what form of will it would take to produce a cup of tea and to hold it in my chilled and slightly numb hands. Nothing is supposed to happen at this time of year. It is when you become a monk and dissolve your thoughts in a monotonous repetition of prayer as you walk through the covered halls of the cloister. Winter is that moment in which nothing can be achieved, nothing realized. It’s the moment at which will is thwarted and you are thrown back on the soft, moldy-smelling boundaries of fantasy and craving.

It must be like the first thirty years of Christ’s life, when he merely lived moment to moment, without a thought of what he could achieve or how to go about pursuing his father’s business. An ordinary, anonymous life of a man living on the edges of an ascetic sect of Essenes to which he had been born. And before him, at the end of his thirtieth year, he would have to step out and become something else, like Buddha did when he left home and sat under the lotus tree and was divinely inspired with his mission to change the world. There sat Gandhi, as well, thinking through his own idleness and frozen will, before determining the need to march to the sea and harvest salt, and defy the British who had made it illegal to take salt without paying a stiff tax. He threw off the winter of his life and became one with the prophets and the martyrs.

I am unable to think like that. I want to be warm and to sit here with this lamp on, to enjoy the silence without feeling abandoned to the heartless expanse outside my window.


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