Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a mind of winter

Wallace Stevens was a lawyer who ran an insurance company in Hartford for most of his life. He was also one of America's greatest poets, who composed much of his work during his daily commute to and from his office. In 1921 he published "The Snow Man":

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
There are lots of reasons to read poems, but one of the most powerful is that, on occasion, while you are in the midst of unusual circumstances, a poem will come to you and suddenly your mind will yawn open into understanding like a stop-motion flower.

The last stanza of Stevens' poem came to me yesterday while I was hiking home across the city in the first blizzard of the year. I'd gone on an expedition to Target in order "to buy a snow shovel" (i.e. to indulge my masochistic Viking-blooded love of being outside in horrible winter weather), but it wasn't long before the pleasantly bracing walk I'd planned on taking became an hour-long frozen slog across sidewalks and empty parking lots that had been transformed into tundra by the snow and 50 mph winds. (Two miles to the east, 20-foot waves on Lake Michigan were exploding into icy spray against the hard edges of the city's beaches—as captured off to the left here by my hearty, and still partially-frozen, friend Tom.)

Two-thirds of my way home, I crossed the Webster Avenue Bridge and paused on tired legs in the gathering dark to look south down the Chicago River. Through the swirling snow I could see a group of ducks swimming upstream in the dirty water; behind them, half-obscured by the whiteout, the brick chimney of a former factory. There were no cars out and nearly no sound save that of the wind. And then there were Stevens' words:
For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The raw clarity of winter! The stark space within which we can behold "nothing that is not there": to see things as they are. To remember who we are and what we need and what we really want.

I'd made the decision this past week to forgo moving in favor of staying put here in Chicago. For a person like me, in love with the power of leaving—of shutting doors and shutting off, definitively—this was an important and difficult choice. To stay is much scarier than to go, because if you stay, you can get stuck. Or be hurt. Or fail.

But here is the other thing about winter: with
clarity of vision also comes clarity of feeling—the sensation of one's own breath and pulse, thrown into relief by the cold and the dark. Within "the nothing that is" we are somehow still alive, and we celebrate that with the people we love the most. We cram our studio apartments full of beautiful smart kind friends and stuff them with butter, sugar, and booze; we bring trees indoors with our families and drape their still-green needles in lights. We hold each other and give each other gifts and tell stories about life's irrational persistence: oil that burned for eight days instead of one; a poor woman giving birth to a baby in a barn.

Of course commitment is terrifying—it's predicated on hope. But in this season it's easy to find where the warmth lies, and right now I think that Chicago is it. Who needs an institution or tradition or fear to wrap you up, when after beholding your life with a mind of winter this is exactly how you feel?


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