I saw two squirrels playing this morning, chasing each other up the black trunks of trees. They didn't seem to have a care in the world. Then one jumped down into the thick snow and hopped about, and reversed his steps. You can't go too far in this bleak weather without being spotted by a vigilant hawk. So he too disappeared into the stark shadows of a tree and the game was over. The snow continues to fall in thick swabs of cotton, heavy at times, light and crystalline at others. The sky has a boundless capacity to drop these slivers of forgetfulness down on us; the wind is stalled, and the turgid sky seems moored to some invisible stanchion above us.
All this celestial theater is beyond our powers to control. We merely observe, helpless and mortal, and bewildered by such austere will. We can do nothing but stand at a window and gaze like some dazzled believer in a god. We're at the bottom of a sea of ignorance and feebleness, and events transpire beyond our grasp to comprehend. I know what a fish feels like who comes to the edge of a river and sees men leaning over with their fishing rods trying to lure it to the bait. There's little one can do in such circumstances except back up with a few twitches of one's fins and sink down into the murky depths for safety. My murky depths are vague ideas and preposterous explanations for what life means.
There is a profound silence that hovers over the earth as it snows. The fields disappear slowly, the trees become spikes of jasper jutting up into the gray silk air, the birds are hovering under barn eaves, and nothing speaks. The ice devours the sense of hearing in its bleached maw. Once in a great while the grinding plow blade of a snow truck can be heard, as it throws up a skirt of dirty ice onto the lawn and spews a delicate thread of sand onto the roadway. Otherwise, we are perched at the edge of the living, situated on a cliff high above the abyss. Nothing lies beyond our fragile human condition but the frozen air, the drift of smoke from some neighbor's chimney. We are all sliding under consciousness as the snow shears off the last remaining memories we have of the year.
I once saw a man building a brick wall in his yard. I was ten or eleven, and it fascinated me how he could scoop up a trowel of moist cement and flip it onto the tier of bricks, smooth it out, and carefully place a new brick on top with the tap of the trowel's handle. He was very clever with his hands, and his eye gauged the right thickness to make the wall even. He was excluding his neighbors from his own life, and he applied himself with a profound certainty of his right to do so. His wife watched him from the window with her cup of tea; her gray hair was pulled up into a bun. She wore a faded dress and a sweater made of soft, loosely knitted wool. Her arms were frail and her hands were delicate, used to feeling the rims of plates and glasses, of sprinkling salt into a pot of boiling soup. She watched as the primal instincts of her husband worked to further isolate her from the joy of living. Even then, young as I was, I felt sorry for her. She hardly ever laughed; she could barely smile with those wrinkled lips. Her eyes were sunken under a clear, porcelain brow. She was stranded at some desolate edge of human existence, as if she were watching the snow cover her in the merciless grip of winter.
There are times when loneliness becomes the overpowering apparition in our lives. I have sat in rooms where the presence of this ghost became so palpable I could feel myself being touched on my arms by some longing that seemed to inspire it to come closer to me, to whisper to me, to beg me to let it drag me off to the realm of the dead. I felt that, and know I will feel it again. It is just a part of our human hunger to be loved, and it appears when we are left with the silence too long. The snow is falling in the windows, and the milky light that fills the room we sit in is like the satin lining of a coffin. It makes you stand up and draw breath and take careful steps out to the hallway, the stairs leading down to the street, just to be near the sound of other human beings.
The squirrels I watched from the kitchen window were free of any self- pity and remorse. Their lives were predicated on a stash of acorns in the notch of a tree, the urge of their loins to mate, the joy of flexing those powerful hind legs and lunging into the fragmented air. They had turned themselves into music and were exploring some melody only they could hear. That's the difference between us. They were enjoying the throb of pure existence. Why should I be burdened with my doubts, my misgivings? I went away and sat down in the cold corner of my living room, wishing I could pick up some book I loved and continue reading. But I had none. I only had the stale pages of yesterday's newspapers, which lay scattered on the marble table in front of me. Somewhere in the world people were sitting down to lunch in an outdoor cafe, toasting their glasses of cold white wine, and pushing forks into the soft interiors of a grilled fish. The tang of charcoal rose to their noses and gave them a feeling of bliss, of utter contentment with their lives. That's what I must think about as I sat there. I should realize that the looming sky was not everywhere, just here, over the house, rooted in some gap of my understanding.
I'm sure the weather is an ever-changing mural of divine creativity. If only I could think like that, and look up with the hunger of a painter whose canvas has been blank all morning long. I would relish the opportunity to articulate my mood with a brush soaked in red paint, and to apply the fine bristles to a dry, unconscious canvas and slowly, by such strokes of glistening pigment, bring back spring, make the trees awake full of bird song, and fill in the crannies of a dry creek with the jeweled crests of a rushing creek. Imagine Monet in his garden at Giverny observing the lush disarray of his water lilies, the thick loops of vine hanging over the water humming with bees. He was old, and his hand trembles as he painted in a trance of concentration. His eyes were alive in his wrinkled face as the light fractured into prisms and he translated each of their hues. He was far from the snow; the ice meant nothing to him. Even if age was the slow accumulation of a snowdrift on his shoulders, on his ears, his shaggy eyebrows, he had flow away from his mortal awareness and become part of the breathless pantomime of nature. How I envied him.
It's as if time were being ground in a mill above me and all its material content was being shredded into snowflakes. All that was left of time was its character as eternity. The snow was the confetti of history, the dust of wars, the powder that resolved all the great empires. Nothing was left but the empty cry of human exasperation that so much effort could end in this chaff blown from a combine, this pulverized memorial of all the ages. When I looked out the window all I could see was the graceful heaves of a white comforter, as if I were a child staring up across the expanses of my parents' bed. I was still in the grasp of the eternal as I observed the shape of my father and mother under the covers. They were sleeping. It was early Sunday morning and I dared not disturb this one of rest. I stood there in my pajamas gazing at the mystery of my creation, at the forces that composed me and set me in motion in this world. They slept under this thick coat of oblivion, and I was alone.