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THE WINTER SOLSTICE

The Winter Solstice came and went without much notice. It used to be a transformative event when pagan cultures ruled Europe. It was the principal hinge of the solar year, on which the earth opened and closed its strange valve and let in death and eased shut the access of life to its dim gray interiors. A solemn time in which little happened but the tightening fist of the cold, gathering rocks and ice and naked trees into a bouquet of stone. Whatever memory of laughter and sunlight and falling in love might have endured up to then, it was gone when the air wove its threads of snow into a pall and hung it over the world. But the media is so obsessed with the panic over Trump and the unfolding terrors of a vast explosion of fireworks in Mexico and a truck running amok in a Berlin Christmas market, what the planet does is of no consequence to the drama of purely human emotions.

Here in stony, pale Vermont the vast green carpets of grass and the deeper emerald glow of the maple trees have been scrubbed clean of their fertility. All that remains are the gleaming aluminum curves of rivers rimmed in waist-high weeds shagged with snow and bits of spidery ice web. The sky is a vast Paleolithic cave wall with the wispy outline of a few clouds posing as bison and antelopes before dissolving into heart-breaking emptiness once more. The air has no meaning; it lacks any language with which to communicate the desolation it feels hanging from the stars.

The only expression of hope is the sudden motion of sparrows out of a ditch as a car comes along. Or the pairs of crows that defend their field against owls and red-tailed hawks. Crows are loud and unforgiving, and fearless in their rage to be left alone. They descend from the iron-black oak tree like fragments of a meteor as the owl rises on immense wings and pulls the air behind it like some Olympic swimmer. It escapes, but just barely. The turmoil is breathtaking, like a spasm of pure erotic joy. On the ridge of a hill are the monkish shapes of wild turkeys meandering along through the stubble of a cornfield, pecking at stray seeds. Otherwise, we are in the nave of a vast morbid cathedral full of shadows and the glints of morbid light streaming through its windows.

It is hard to reconstruct the long slow days of summer in this moment. Nothing remains of its romance, its make-believe, the torments of waking up to love for the first time, the terrible free-fall of being disappointed by someone in the rose-heavy, pollen-logy afternoon of a vanished July. One took for granted the bursting of fruit from the trees, or the dark green pregnancy of the tomatoes as they hung heavily from the branches. All those voices we thought we heard have turned to ghosts by now. But when we heard them, each syllable was ripe with secrets that could change our lives.

The car wouldn't start a few mornings ago. The engine had succumbed to the inertia of the season. The key turned and the terrible disappointment of silence was the only sign of its inertia. The tires were fastened to the icy ruts of the driveway; the seats were cold and smelled of rust. The steering wheel didn't turn. Nothing about its immense armature and complexity gave way to motion. It was as still as a lost planet turning in space. One closed the door with finality and went back into the house to sit in a chair under the mineral light of afternoon.

I made coffee in the little espresso pot and poured out the steaming mud into a brown cup. I tasted its black bitterness and went back to the living room to read an old New Yorker. The smiles in the photographs were rehearsed and no doubt had bloomed countless times on the young women's faces as they pretended to be in love, to be dazzled by the glamor of their lives as they went down Fifth Avenue with an expensive leather purse swinging from an arm. After the shoot, they might well head back to Brooklyn and share a sofa with three other women trying to get a start in New York. They sipped on their mugs of sour coffee and stretched out their slender legs. It was winter out, and the rain was slowly congealing into pills of numbing ice.

The Winter Solstice has so little poetry in its veins. The sun is weak, and old, and its arteries are clogged with the soot of spent fires. It dies behind a cloud and may not reappear again for days. I imagined it rattling around in its orbit trying to understand its purpose, its destination. But there was no goal, no point at which it might stop and climb down from its celestial coach and say it had arrived. It moved forward, as if there were some promising direction it pursued when in fact it was nothing more than a vast circular track at the edge of a fathomless infinity.

I make a fire in the grate and coax it to life with a bit of tinder and wadded up newspaper. I hear the first reassuring crackle of the dry splinters as they catch. The little sooty window of the firebox begins to throw out gleams of heat. My pants heat up, my knees are no longer stiff with cold. I feel some stirring of life in this dark room. I am doing what men and women have done for hundreds of thousands of years -- lighting little fires in honor of the sun's ancient service to us. We draw close and stare down into its gathering embers and points of flame and feel a gratitude too old for words. When all else diminishes and dies out, one is left with the final residue of being human -- the symbol by which meaning escapes from time, and hangs above us -- a sun grown thin and papery that floats upon the vaporous islands of the winter sky.

The intricate hieroglyphics of the snow-wrapped trees make one think there is a voice in nature, but we are deaf to it. The light is everywhere at once, without a shadow to texture it, or make one feel that what lies outside the window is real. But there it is, a painted paradise of ice and death, radiant with inhuman joy.

Time is a junkyard full of relics of what we did and thought and laughed about. Every hour built another castle in the air and let the wind carry it away. In the barn, a rusty pail and shovel gather dust. But when they were new, the sea roared nearby and the sand was infinite. And everyone was learning how to walk and talk and maneuver the shovel into the dry, unstable surface of reality. And below these flaky illusions of the beach was something more substantial, the gray moist cement-colored basis of time itself. We dug into it and carried up sopping heaps of it to pile around us, to be shaped into the walls of a imaginary fort with turrets and arched doorways, and by three in the afternoon, when the tide gathered up its waves and rose stealthily toward us, erased our labors. It filled the heart with longing and astonishment that something so patted and whispered over could be dismantled effortlessly by the face of the water.

Time is a miser with its miracles and transformations. And winter is its favorite season, when what was given freely with one hand is taken back with the other. Hanging from the sky is that miserly uncle's gold watch, the sun. And he consults its slender arms now and then before sitting down to his nap in the easy chair.

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