Twice a week, I find myself here at my laptop considering what else I might possibly have to say. It isn’t work exactly—so far, the crop yields—but it’s daunting. Often I wonder if I’m using my thoughts properly, whether they have a purpose other than expression.
As I write, it’s dark. The streetlamps preside over a still and empty block and, though I’m safely inside, it looks cold out. The branches shed leaves weeks ago and, where their reach crosses patches of sky, they are frozen in place, no wind to stir them. They aren’t waving but standing. The sun won’t be up for another hour, but a hard blue is already dawning, and it will be a beautiful day, the uncomplicated sort, without rain or any of snow’s ambiguous varieties.
In second grade my class spent what I remember as weeks studying maple syrup production. For a boy in coastal Texas, the subject felt curious—trees bleeding their sap, the children gathering buckets, the boiling and steaming vats, the sleds and snow, the faded illustrations of harvest celebrations with people so swaddled in coats, hats, and scarfs they were only blobs of ink. I knew no other liquid crops, nothing so hidden in reserve, nothing so latent.
Late December begins Chicagoans’ withdrawal. Thus far uncharacteristically mild temperatures mean people wander as they usually do—and they have shopping to do. But wind will inevitably deliver weather to discourage going out. I’m ahead of the fronts by sitting and staring out the window. Whatever the weather is today, I’m not ready for it. I’ll have another cup of coffee and put aside my real work for a while longer.
My own sap barely flows this time of year. A maple tree must want to keep its life—why would it sacrifice its essence?—and I need reserves to sustain myself in this sometimes terrible world. The news brings fresh calamities, the worst parts of humanity amplified, and it makes me think maybe a miserly soul is the only sure protection. Confucius said that, even in safety, a prudent person doesn’t forget potential dangers or forget that ruin awaits everyone. “When all is orderly,” he says, “he does not forget that disorder may come,” and a sensible person is thus sustained.
But I don’t want his solution—it hardly seems possible to hibernate and at the same time guard a sense of imminent danger and readiness. Something in me needs to be safely home, to quiet my anxieties and obsessions. Here I am telling you so, but I worry I’ll run out of words if I don’t keep some thoughts to myself, if I don’t keep to myself sometimes.
The L never stops rumbling down the block when I write. I just stop noticing, and now I notice cars cross the intersection. Early light draws defined shadows. The streetlamps will blink out soon. People and dogs have begun walking by again. I will have to stop typing and rejoin a life where others want words from me, but my seasons of rest seem too brief. This time of year I think I could be content sitting with silence as company, that I might never speak again if I can’t find peace now.