Category Archives: Winter

A Necessary Virtue: Saturday Morning

bronze_armchairA busy day awaits, so I tried to make a virtue of necessity and allowed myself an hour to write this morning. Here’s what came up with, probably more exercise than composition, but all I can manage:

Quiet seems more complete when the heater’s blowers die, and the outside noises that our inside noises erase suddenly become audible—the L roaring past, tires crushing snow, a whoop of laughter into a cell phone. Inside, everything is still but an insulating film over the fireplace, a covering my wife added during bitter cold two weeks ago. It bellows with drafts and winds, and I imagine it as a giant eardrum, sighing on its own as it gathers every vibration and variation of pressure.

The house is so still this morning, I see myself in every object and perceive them as companionable. My family shares our home with things we admired, wanted, needed, received, surrendered to. Sometimes these things have their own voices, announcing their provenance as your eye falls on them:

  • a drawing an art teacher at my old school gave me, a casual doodle that once seemed the dissected limb of an alien but now, sun worn, returns to whiteness again.
  • my daughter’s backpack beached beside the chair we threw it out of
  • boots and shoes on a mat by the door, speaking the desperation with which they were thrown off, home at last—their hulls bump as if some unseen current moved them
  • the cutting board squeezed between the drainer and the sink wall in the part we never use, the board’s face scratched and scarred with incidental art
  • a nearly finished sweater, a Christmas present from mother to daughter—green nearly black in the twilight this time of day—draped over the back of the couch and trailing yarn to the floor. It looks marine to me, a sinuous creature attenuated by life in the sea and unsuited to gravity
  • a badly stacked pile of folded New York Times Book Reviews, all unread, their half-faces staring up blankly

Meanwhile, as I create this list, the day stirs. Three floors down, someone scrapes the sidewalk of last night’s snow. Upstairs, my wife clicks the computer mouse. These noises don’t advance time as a watch ticking does, but, irregular as they are, they mark moments as well, alerting me to the doing I ought to start too. The L passes. The heater kicks to life—the blower followed by the throat-clearing ignition of flames to heat air. No silence will stay. I can’t stay. Light, even the gray light of an overcast day, demands motion.

Maybe things watch me as I do them, each of us having our instant of visibility, our utterance, our place, our beginning, our purpose. Something calls us, and we are. Something prods me on.

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Filed under Blogging, Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Identity, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Place, Prose Poems, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Urban Life, Voice, Winter, Writing

A Christmas Message

Burning Christmas candlesI’ve been thinking recently about necessities fulfilled without human notice—the season change, the hibernation of plants, the sleepy obedience of animals, the shifts in daylight and night and all the planet’s other restless but essential motions. Other animals do what nature requires much more than we do. We set ourselves apart and operate as if noticing were a burden.

Truthfully, we follow necessity too. The tides of sleeping and waking pull us daily. We sense the shifts of clouds overhead as they extinguish the gentle warmth sun lends a cold day. We smell cooking when the wind wheels to a new direction, and some deep hunger stirs, bigger than the promise of food. We hear a bird cry in the cold and can’t help feeling how out of place its solitary song appears, how strange we feel in empathy.

But maybe I’m speaking for myself. A few weeks ago, some beloved readers commented on the despair they hear in me, the “vague loneliness” of “some melancholia or something heavy-pressing on the soul.” I try to laugh too (in my muted, sardonic way), but I suppose they’re right. It’s in the cadence of my posts, in my quiet enthusiasms and fitful peevishness, in stoic descriptions of shadow and weak sun. I guess this time of year stretches me out, attenuates pleasures I know I ought to appreciate more.

Which makes it important to compose what I hoped to today—a Christmas message. You see, I am appreciative. My faith in humanity wavers, days seldom deliver the joy I hope, and the frictions of existence chafe me endlessly. Still, I care about you. It will sound silly—corny even—to say so, but I never greet another person without real warmth. Though I can’t always show it, meeting another mind is such consolation and relief to me. When someone is open to talk, I’m equally open, and I love to hear a student’s latest lament about an unfair question or quiz, a cabby’s story of his biggest fare, a colleague’s memory of a disappointing fourth birthday, or a stranger’s gratitude when I give him the dollar he asks. And, though I sometimes have to withdraw from the world to meet it again, I don’t really like being alone, either in my thoughts or in my affections.

I’m especially appreciative of family—extended and nuclear—that accepts me as I am and doesn’t ask me to pretend to more. They forgive me when I need it and prod me when I need it and reassure me when I need it and offer me solace when I need it. They keep me, in the absolute sense of that word—to hold, protect, preserve, and cherish. And I try to keep them as well… partly by keeping Christmas.

Christmas doesn’t mean anything to some people and everything to others, but it’s just a day. The frontier of dawn races around the planet as it always does. People wake to jobs and responsibilities, to troubles, to tiny disasters and private triumphs and loss and love. The dishes shuffle. Mouths and minds fill with words and empty again. Eyes drift over the familiar and unfamiliar, storing it all.

But, even if you regard Christmas as the sorriest excuse for materialism and an emblem of Christian myopia, indulge me at least this Christmas message. I meet you today with peace and love. I’m grateful for you. And I mean to appreciate the world more.

Merry Christmas.

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Filed under Apologies, Blogging, Christmas, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Modern Life, Resolutions, Solitude, Thoughts, Voice, Winter, Writing

When Winter Arrives

chicago+at+dawnTwice 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.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Apologies, Chicago, Confucius, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Winter, Words, Worry, Writing

Special Report From Snowpocalypse Chicago

Snow crowds the air today—it’s Chicago’s “Storm of the Century,” the debilitating dump that has nearly every Chicagoan home staring out windows.  I’ve been watching the skylight in our common room.  The snow falls. Wind sweeps it away.  Repeat.

As I write, I hear a neighbor working at the piles around her car.  Occasionally another neighbor passes by saying something I can’t hear, but I imagine it’s “Are you crazy?  Go inside.  Don’t you know God gave us this storm as a day of rest?”

Perhaps I’m projecting.

We are free from school, and I’m happy to find myself lost.  Certainly, I could shovel (though more will fall) and certainly I could grade (though more will fall), but found time is the sweetest sort, too precious to waste at familiar labor.  If it weren’t so miserable out, I might join my neighbor, move a little of her snow, and have the conversation we’ve never had about any subject safe to assume common between us—the weather, for instance.

The way the snow is falling, however, she’ll be gone before I can don the spacesuit necessary to be outside today.  So instead I’ll just stay in my dream mode, as if I were in that spacesuit and floating in liberated time.

Days like today make me wonder how we spend time, whether “spend” is the proper verb at all.  Why does it take the storm of the century to make us still?

This afternoon, when the sky stops falling, we will emerge and see our shadows.  The plows will push the snow, and cars will grind it into gray water again.  My neighbor’s car will be missing from its spot, the bare rectangle proof of her initiative.

You’ll find me inside, still at the window, secretly wishing for another snow day, wishing for a snow day every day, all year.

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Filed under Buddhism, Chicago, Essays, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Snow, Thoughts, Winter, Work

“Winter Wonderland”: An Exegesis

In that last few weeks I’ve read many, many critical essays on literature, so I thought I’d offer this parody suited to the season.  None of the papers I read are really this crazy, but perhaps it says something about the critical essay form that it can be twisted this way.

Don’t worry.  I’m not serious.

Recent criticism of the song “Winter Wonderland” has focused on it as a work of faith—Nagurski called the poem, “A utopian examination of how the coldest and least lively season, naturewise, can be really pretty cheery” and R. Grange mentioned it in his respected collection of critical essays, Songs that Make Me Grin.  However, to see the work correctly, a reader needs to note its accretive fiction and the purposeful delusion that piles up like so many deep snow drifts.  Doing so leads to the same conclusion T. S. Eliot reached when he said the song was “more a work of doubt than faith.”

As Eliot pointed out, the initial question in the song really frames the entire work.  The first line asks, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” and the astute reader might ask in response, “Am I listening?  Of course I’m listening.  Wouldn’t I hear some damn sleigh bells if they were ringing?” The true question behind this seemingly innocent inquiry is whether the listener is willing to participate in an obvious fiction.  The song queries, “Are you willing to accept the sound of sleigh bells?  Conjure them now, if you will.”  If the reader is unwilling to conjure, the end of that first verse, “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight / Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” rings emptily, offering an unsubstantiated, entirely unjustified happiness. Who is to say “We are happy tonight” after all?  What is the basis for this so-called happiness?  All the reader has to go on is the “glist’nin’ snow” in the lane in the third line.  Is that enough?  What if the reader had to drive somewhere—because some readers work at night, remember—would glist’nin’ snow make them happy?  The aesthetic question “What is beauty?” also lurks like a creepy, half-inflated, ghostlike front lawn Santa.

Some readers undoubtedly will cry for suspended disbelief, but the poet, it seems, expects just such skepticism.  The next verse makes no effort to rouse a reader or justify his or her elation over a little “glist’nin’” snow.  In fact, it opens with an absence, “Gone away is the bluebird.” As an established symbol of happiness, the bluebird’s disappearance is conspicuous.  The happiness so tentatively granted in the opening moments immediately disappears as well.  It is gone, and in its place is some unnamed “new bird” a reader is supposed to find so comforting.  An unnamed bird that arrives in winter when all of the others are flying south is worth comment.  Few readers speak bird and thus could say with certainty whether this clearly lost bird is singing a love song or a lament that he is freezing in a climate for which he is clearly unsuited, the average tolerable temperature for a small bird being 45°F  or 7°C, well above freezing.  Does the author even expect a reader to swallow what is now the fifth supposition of the poem.  Is it believable?  It is not and—this is the song’s brilliance of course—it is not meant to be.  This text looks happy, but like the glist’nin’ snow, its shiny surface hides a pretty bad car wreck waiting to happen.

The accumulating fictions continue apace in the third verse.  “In the meadow”—does a reader need to be told it is a meadow; is not a reader just being reminded of what it is not—green, lush, and full of life?  Then “we”—the author is careful to include readers so they begin to chafe against the restrictive hempen restraints with which he binds them so very, very, very tightly—”can build a snowman.”  Yes, a reader could build a snowman, but would he?  And if he did, would said snowman be anything more than an empty white figure who really stands for nothing and no one, a symbol of the companionship so many people so desperately seek and cannot find during the holiday season because no one really understands the workings of another mind, particularly a discerning mind that sees so, so much more in what others simply accept as “happy”?

By the appearance of Parson Brown, the enigmatic center of the song, the fiction has begun to wheel like the falcon in Yeats’ “Second Coming.” “We,” the identity superimposed on the reader, superimposes the name “Parson Brown” on a white no one.  The name is pointedly bland, generic, but the color is interesting.  The juxtaposition of white snow—which at its best might represent new hope—and brown—the color of decay and decline—is pointed.  Similarly the verb “pretend” stands out.  It is out in the open now, the reader is pretending and knows it.  The conversation with this specious parson is not any more comforting.  He says, “Are you married?” which is quite a personal question from a pile of compacted frozen precipitation.  Yet the reader answers, “No, man!  But you can do the job when you’re in town.”  Again the fiction stretches beyond the bounds of credulity.  Even if readers could accept they are out in a frozen meadow having a conversation with what amounts to an icy mannequin, even if they could accept that this frozen figure is endowed with a name and a job, even if they can accept that they are going to marry whoever is the narrator of this song, would any sane reader call a parson “man”?  “Parson Brown” evokes early New England and “man” evokes Jack Kerouac and smoky nightclubs.  The two cannot be in the same sentence. G. Sayer argues that it is the only way the rhyme would work, but a reader might remain unconvinced because the reader could have been convinced that a reader is supposed to be unconvinced by what is patently unconvincing. “You can do the job when you’re in town” obviates the failure of these multiple fictions.  The parson / snowman is in town, and he cannot do the job because, based on thorough research into international statues, snowman weddings are not legally binding in any state or country.

Ultimately the poem leaves readers huddled by the meager consolation of a tepid fire. Readers “conspire” because they know it will take some cabal, some magic obviously absent in the early twenty-first century world, to make our “dreams”—aptly named—happen.  The seemingly optimistic promise that readers will face their plans “unafraid” just illuminates the fear they do feel and can only attempt to face.  Why do readers need to fear their own plans unless they know that these plans, like the parson statue still standing like a post in the empty meadow, are vulnerable fictions, ideas they cannot ever completely convince themselves are real.  The final image of “walkin’ in the winter wonderland” leaves readers thinking of Lear wandering the moors, all anchors lost.  It is indeed a “wonderland,” but readers are left wondering that they did not perceive its emptiness before now.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, High School Teaching, Humanities, Parody, Satire, Teaching, Thoughts, Winter, Work, Writing

In Transit

This time of year in Chicago, the day goes gray around four-thirty.  The sun, if there is one, hides behind the buildings, and shadows flow through channeled streets.  If it’s cold, you’ll find no one out but grumpy dog-walkers, hands shoved deep in their pockets, heads turtled into their coat collars, minds willing the business necessary to let them back inside.

I’m usually walking home then.  I listen to my footsteps on the sidewalk, and the rhythm is some comfort.  My necessary business will soon be over too.  This commute is time to survey what awaits me—rereading books to prepare for the next day’s classes, grading papers.  If I’m lucky, I’ve carved time to work in my sketchbook or write something.

Usually not.

Sometimes my thoughts twist like smoke around some event—I’ve lost my temper, or I’ve quarreled with a colleague, or I’ve forgotten to do something important—then my step takes on the tattoo beat of fixation.  I won’t calm myself by walking faster, but the release of energy seems an essential steam valve.  A strange pool of sweat forms in the small of my back when, within my many layers, exertion signals my body’s flight instead of fight.

I’m grateful for space between home and work—if anyone is home before me, they don’t know how grateful they should be.  I like the sound of the heater whooshing to life.  As long as I’m inside, I like the sound of the passing train down the street.  These noises remind me of safety and psychological quiet.  It isn’t even so bad if then I need to play scholar and work.

I’m a homebody.  Sometimes I take my place in a leather chair by the window and watch the evening deepen into dark.  Soon, I’ll see the colored lights of neighbors’ Christmas trees.  Soon, I’ll see our own.

It’s  early winter in Chicago, the start of a long hibernation, a time to thank fate for home and companionship and whatever peace we find in our busy lives.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Home Life, Kenko, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Urban Life, Winter, Work

You Pick

After five abortive starts on this week’s blog post, I decided to write fifteen opening sentences instead. Maybe you, Dear Reader, can help me choose which to pursue…

1. Even when snow doesn’t fall, winter can leave you snowblind—lost between landmarks and anxious for traction.

2. It’s unfortunate self-loathing is my great subject, as no one wants to read about it and, of course, I don’t blame them.

3. Those who call blogging the land of confession need to remember it’s also the land of amnesia.

4. People seem surprised when they discover I follow football, and, to be honest, I’m embarrassed.  I’m a fan despite myself.

5. Insomnia has taught me all about lonely hours, ones that leave you feeling you’re earth’s last inhabitant.

6. New advertisements on TV beg Catholics to return to the church and, a fallen away Catholic myself, I hear them luring me to the rocks like a Siren song.

7. One of the indignities of aging is how little sympathy it elicits.

8. Emerson said “Imitation is suicide,” but, if it is, it’s the slowest sort.  Most of our days are a deliberate imitation of the day before.

9. In my running list of ugly emotions—anger, hopelessness, contempt, and many more—envy is moving to the top of the chart with a bullet.

10. After five years in Chicago, I understand the appeal of urban living.  I’m addicted and have trouble even picturing suburban or rural life.

11. Recently I’ve been thinking about Chuang Tzu’s fantasy in which a man dreams of being a butterfly and wakes to wonder which is real, the dream or his life.  That’s exactly how I feel about work and home.

12. The body replaces every cell in seven years.  My mind replaces memories much faster.

13. The other day someone told me Kafka’s friends found him hilarious.  I can’t believe it…  but maybe that’s because I don’t understand humor myself.

14. Sometimes I envy people who carry only fatigue home from work.

15. One of my friends has a peculiar gift for being eloquent even when he has nothing to say.

PS. Should YOU want to write a post using one of these openings, please do.  Just leave a link in my comments section.

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