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WHERE ARE THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR?



The yard looks like a thrift store exploded and left behind all these threadbare white shirts, many of them stained and knotted up. But of course that is not laundry out there, but the scraps of old snow lingering long after the enchantment of a snowfall has died away. Lots of animal prints, and the detritus of trees shedding dead limb ends, branch trash, a few enduring leaves the wind has shaken loose. When Francois Villon, the medieval French poet, asked, where are the snows of yesteryear, he was posing a metaphysical question about fleeting reality. But if he wanted to know, I could point outside my window and show him how unromantic the past remains as it sprawls there in fragments and tiny heaps, humps and turmoil turning muddy-colored, with all sorts of blackened seed jackets and other wind-borne flotsam speckling the ruins.

The weather has a sense of humor. This is what happens to lofty purity when it is allowed to grow old. The wrinkles appear on its face, the blemishes becomes moles and wens, and form little sacs below the landscape's eyes. If I knew my bird tracks better I would point out the telltale crowfeet that mar the once beautiful face of youth and innocence. That explains the melancholy of winter; the magic that dazzled us in one moment becomes the slow decay of mortality the next. I can't step outside without feeling a vague remorse build up in my chest as I trudge down to the mailbox. I am reminded of my own advancing age, my sore knees, my trick ankle that will easily send me tumbling if I don't see the little rut ahead of me. I creep along like all those old codgers I used to find so hilarious as I passed them on my lightning-quick bike. Youth has no compassion, alas. I only felt joy at my own buoyancy, and looked upon the slow-motion melodrama of the elderly as slapstick comedy. Now, I am one of those broken-down vaudeville comedians limping on stage and falling over my own shadow to gales of laughter from the gallery.

My son sent me a video clip of his children going down a learner's slope at a ski park in Geneva. They are graceful, their knees know no reluctance as they weave in and out of other skiers, their faces bright as ripe apples. They are delighting in the momentary liberation of youth, not even knowing what they are laughing about. I sink down in my easy chair to study their pliant, rubbery bodies and faintly remember my own agility once. Oh to be that young again, like the new-fallen snow with all its twinkling brilliance, its power to make us forget our woes. The kids are at the threshold of flight, and with a little more tension in their extended arms could easily sail off into the snow-burdened sky over them. They could look down between their skis and see a world of satin-wrapped roofs, each with a chimney puffing out custard-tufted balls of smoke. They could reach up and touch the moon's cratered face and get a boost to higher air. But they don't quite get airborne on their magical ride down the gentle slope.

More snow is forecast for the following day, with nine inches expected near Buffalo, New York, the so-called lake effect produced by a fertile pouch of colder air over Lake Erie. We will be painted anew in white wash, made to dazzle briefly in our brown shelters, each weathered face looking out with curiosity at the transformation of reality. Birds are scarce these days; they have moved south to more moderate quarters. Stags roam the forest nibbling on saplings and curling up to sleep on the frozen ground as the snow covers them in silver filigree. Tire tracks meander over the gravel road behind us, as if they were practicing their penmanship on sheets of stationery. The lumbering snowplows are parked in strategic places to get ready to scrape and pile up ridges along the road. They come along at all hours of the night, yellow lights throwing off brilliant ribbons of sunshine as they head into the darkness. The moment they are gone, the winter smothers the air with profound gloom again, as if a circus had just passed with all its rumbling, jingling music.

We are as far from Tahiti as you can get at this jaw-clenching hour. The only palm trees around here are the ones swaying at the end of the mind, in a pastel never-land of longing. Think of the music, the smell of roasting pig, the laughter at the beachside bar, the girls swaying to the tempo of a jukebox. I ache in every joint to be there, to be lifting my glass of rum and lime, to be throwing my head back for a roar of laughter. I don't need to hear a joke at that moment, just a feeling of happiness to be in the emerald halo of the sea, to smell the warm sand as it is crunched by passing feet. to hear kids grunting as they jump to punch the volley ball back over the net. There they are again, the ubiquitous magic of youth adorning our daily world, letting our eyes feast on the joy of fleeing gravity's dire purpose.

But there is no Tahiti for me to slip into; I only see the debris of a street where the parade has just passed, leaving behind the confetti and the popcorn bags, the broken kazoos and soda straws to be cleaned up by street crews. The majesty of time towers over us, like the pillars of Hercules. No one can ignore the power of eternity, its inexorable will quietly observing the irony of our fragile lives.

I recall the day when I was very young, fifteen I think, when Marines had just been brought to the shore of Beirut on huge landing crafts to quell an uprising in the city, the beginnings of the religious war that would fracture this young country for years to come. The men were not much older than myself, crew cut and brawny, slogging through the surf only to hear rock music playing in an open cabana on the beach and to see young French girls in skimpy bikinis dancing with each other. When they approached, the girls held out their arms and the soldiers put down their bayonets and joined them, clomping around in their combat boots. They were smiling as they slipped their arms around a slender waist and moved about sinuously. In time, they were called together again but there were no convoy trucks to take them into the battle zone, such as it was. Instead, they hired taxis to bring them downtown, with their rifles jutting up out of the rear windows. I read the NY Times the next day and under the headline, "Ike sends the Marines!," was the story of how our brave sailors came to rescue this vulnerable, easily conquered democracy. Well, maybe. But it was more ephemeral snow that had fallen over the eyes of Americans. To be lounging on the beach that day, you saw the burlesque reality of war, in all its frivolous make believe, with soldiers bobbing and weaving as the long hair of girls washed over them like the fronds of palm trees.

Night comes early in the newly begun month of January. Already the shadows have frayed to mere blurs, and the snow lies shriveled up like so much waste paper tumbling from a trashcan. Our only consolation is that even this shadow-plated gloom will only last a season. The moon is above, as cold as a ball bearing in a car that won't start. The soft, fluffy patina of oblivion that has fallen on us is as diaphanous as the air from our breath. Voices travel in this frozen hour, clear, crisp sounds of human beings calling to one another. The spirit prevails no matter how begrimed the landscape becomes with its discarded memories. But I am holding onto my image of children gliding effortless through the icy wedding cake of a ski slope, poles tucked under their arms, blond hair blowing freely behind them. Eyes slightly teary from the wind rushing up against them. The wind, ah, the silky counterpoint to everlasting joy, the base note in a Beethoven string quartet. When you hear that base note, you shiver a little, not form the cold, but from the ancient wisdom imparted on the air like stray beads of ice from the clouds above.

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