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THE DEEPENING SNOW


Brandon, Vermont, where I live, is under dust wraps, packed up like an old English mansion. The hedges are draped with enough snow to bow the thickest branches. The trees have no fuselage on them at this time of winter, having sloughed off leaves and twigs, and anything birds might find of use, like a few hawthorns or some acorns. To drive in such a wonderland, the color of my father's white shirts, is to feel an ache deep in the heart for something gone, something forever missing from the world. Winter doesn't have tears; it has icicles the size of shark's teeth, and it has no patience with the flimsy, the ephemeral, the delicate spider webs of memory. So I don't go there as often as I should. I have enough milk in the fridge, some sticks of butter, a half-gallon jug of maple syrup, and some frozen sliced bread in the freezer to get me through the sieges of March and early April.

Even the snowplows are taking a break. My little road is the color of talcum powder and no one comes around with the salt or the big rubber-edged blade to push away the crystals of confetti. Maybe four-wheelers and spiked tires are enough to get through safely. But I don't trust myself with my pickup and its "mud and snow" tires, which is to say, the big rubber-cleated treads that may or may not grip the surface when you need them to. I listen to the stereo instead, the incongruous sounds of summer flutes and the light trotting of horses on a Russian meadow. I like the feeling of being anonymous, even to myself, in such moments, when the silence is almost unbearable outside.

I think of Emily Dickinson writing or just daydreaming in her bedroom in Amherst. She spent much of her adult life in that room, letting her mind drift just to the edge of syntax and modifiers, so that her line became only her own, no one else's. I feel my own mind drift away from me, with me running after like a boy whose balloon came off the stick and was now buoyed by the chilly air of March. My hands reach up, and as I trip on a stone and fall face-first into the still half-frozen earth, I feel my logic scatter its little connectors. That was childhood for me, a time in which the hard rules of the adult world came unwound and I was left to think like Emily Dickinson in my own bedroom.

Outside, someone is cranking a flour sifter over the house. It could be my mother is making another pie and she turns the crank to let the snowy powder pour down on the canvas where a black circle marks the limits of her piecrust. She works her tongue between her teeth as she cranks, not at all sure why she should have to take this extra step. But the sifter is fine, squeaking a little and favoring some parts of the canvas over others. But then, my mother is not here. The snow is falling by some other agency, a set of conspiring wind currents, some water-bloated air carried from the Great Lakes and lumbering along the Atlantic coast until it reaches our New England boundaries and unloads its freight.

It's been snowing since last night. I looked out between the blinds to observe our lonely pole lamp in the yard, where the snow was floating like moths around a lamppost. Big flakes, wet and heavy, wingless, falling and tumbling in the black night air, hovering close to the lamp to gather some momentary illumination before dying on the ground. There are no tears in winter. Just these momentary vignettes of creatures entering their last moments of breath. They died without a thought, a regret. They had been conceived in a cloud and dangled over the distant roof tops of Vermont for a few minutes before becoming too heavy and beginning their descent. It must have been thrilling to feel the momentum of the wind around you, and to have your body pushed by an invisible hand toward the waiting ground. And here was my house, with its quilted roof and puffy hedges, its monochrome domain suddenly offering an inhospitable landing.

The hills gleam with light this afternoon. They wear ermine robes and lie there obese and half asleep like some medieval king who has overly indulged himself at a banquet. The timbrels ring dully in some indeterminate fog in the distance, as if the jesters were loath to go home to their rustic hovels. The king was snoring in his bed, or was that the wind again? I am so easily seduced by fantasies and mirages in this weather.

With nature deep in its seasonal coma, it is hard to be realistic about anything. Somewhere far from here a politician is planning his next campaign, this time against newly aroused Democrats running for his office. He makes phone calls and pleads with old donors not to abandon him; he will show more steel this time defending the NRA and gun rights. He will stiffen his will against the rising cries of indignant women demanding equal justice and pay. He will vow anew not to let the teachers' strikes break out into a national rebellion. Education is mainly for the poor and the minorities; he will not show tolerance for their cause. He will cast a longing look at his watch and lament he has ten more phone calls to make before leaving for home in the snow and tasting his first scotch of the day.

Meanwhile, the earth snuggles down into its vast comforter and heaves a contented sigh.

I will build our nightly fire in a few hours; the wood is in the barrow in the garage, and the smell of its damp bark and rot is like animal musk. The logs are heavy and difficult to maneuver into my leather sling. But the work is satisfying, if only because in a few more minutes I will have the first flickers of light rippling over the darkness of the fire bricks. I will sit down and gaze absent-mindedly into the uneventful theater of my fireplace, the ancient center of the world, the place where the dead commune with the living. Gaston Bachelard once wrote that a house has no soul without a "hut dream," the ancient core of shelter with its hearth. It's the place where one gathers for serious talk, for story telling, for allowing the ghosts of the past to rise up and fill the mind with quiet longing. With the day fading away into dusk, nothing is more important than this moment in which the fire begins to create the past. It makes you grasp your fleeting mortality with spiritual hands. You can almost feel how like a snow fake you are, tumbling end over end through the night sky to land in some alien glow as a man looks out his window at your lonely fall.

I rise to get another glass of wine now that night has drained its inkwell over us. I can wander into the dark corridors of my mind, if the silence endures. I know I am on a sandbar in a dark sea, a man encompassed by his own vast ignorance as he wastes his hours pacing the little rocky seashore of his existence. I once wrote a poem in which I said, "He didn't know the dark had walls." Naomi Shihab Nye read the poem and commented on this particular line, telling me she had never quite thought of the dark this way. That it had walls. That it might actually represent the reality we can't see, but that is there. I was grateful she picked it out. Much earlier, I wrote a poem in which I said, "We might have done better/ in another kind of weather. / Life isn't everyone's season." The poet Dabney Stuart liked those lines and said so, and I discovered I could fly on the power of that compliment. I walked two feet higher than my fellow students, and vanished into the light when I could not repeat them anymore.

I thank winter for cutting me loose, for shearing away the bindings that make me join the Volga boatmen in their terrible labors pulling a heavy wooden barge. I played the dark notes of that song to my piano teacher, and each time, the cold winter chill of the basement in that ancient convent where we sat entered my heart. She sat beside me nodding as I played, wearing a black habit with a sparkling white wimple, her face without make up. Her skin was the color of snow just as the sky brightens after the storm.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen