“A Good Word for Winter”

I discovered James Russell Lowell’s “A Good Word for Winter” a couple of weeks ago—to my utter delight. I could probably quote from it for hours. For now, though, on this Winter Solstice, I’ll simply give you the meat of his argument:

“I am going to ask you presently to take potluck with me at a board where Winter shall supply whatever there is of cheer.

DSC_6957“I think the old fellow has hitherto had scant justice done him in the main. We make him the symbol of old age or death, and think we have settled the matter. As if old age were never kindly as well as frosty; as if it had no reverend graces of its own as good in their way as the noisy impertinence of childhood, the elbowing self-conceit of youth, or the pompous mediocrity of middle life! As if there were anything discreditable in death, or nobody had ever longed for it! Suppose we grant that Winter is the sleep of the year, what then? I take it upon me to say that his dreams are finer than the best reality of his waking rivals.

“‘Sleep, Silence’ child, the father of soft Rest,’ is a very agreeable acquaintance, and most of us are better employed in his company than anywhere else. For my own part, I think Winter a pretty wide-awake old boy, and his bluff sincerity and hearty ways are more congenial to my mood, and more wholesome for me, than any charms of which his rivals are capable. Spring is a fickle mistress, who either does not know her own mind, or is so long in making it up, whether you shall have her or not have her, that one gets tired at last of her pretty miffs and reconciliations. You go to her to be cheered up a bit, and ten to one catch her in the sulks, expecting you to find enough good-humor for both. After she has become Mrs. Summer she grows a little more staid in her demeanor; and her abundant table, where you are sure to get the earliest fruits and vegetables of the season, is a good foundation for steady friendship; but she has lost that delicious aroma of maidenhood, and what was delicately rounded grace in the girl gives more than hints of something like redundance in the matron. Autumn is the poet of the family. He gets you up a splendor that you would say was made out of real sunset; but it is nothing more than a few hectic leaves, when all is done. He is but a sentimentalist, after all; a kind of Lamar-tine whining along the ancestral avenues he has made bare timber of, and begging a contribution of good-spirits from your own savings to keep him in countenance. But Winter has his delicate sensibilities too, only he does not make them as good as indelicate by thrusting them forever in your face. He is a better poet than Autumn, when he has a mind, but like a truly great one as he is, he brings you down to your bare manhood, and bits you understand him out of that, with no adventitious helps of association, or he will none of you. He does not touch those melancholy chords on which Autumn is as a great as master as Heine. Well, is there no such thing as thrumming on them and maundering over them till they get out of tune, and you wish some manly hand would crash through them and leave them dangling brokenly forever? Take Winter as you find him, and he turns out to be a thoroughly honest fellow, with no nonsence in him, and tolerating none in you, which is a great comfort in the long run. He is not what they call a genial critic; but bring a real man along with you, and you will find there is a crabbed generosity about the old cynic that you would not exchange for all the creamy concessions of Autumn. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” quotha? That’s just it; Winter soon blows your head clear of fog and makes you see things as they are;  I thank him for it! The truth is, between ourselves, I have a very good opinion of the whole family, who always welcome me without making me feel as if I were too much of a poor relation. There ought to be some kind of distance, never so little, you know, to give the true relish. They are as good company, the worst of them, as any I know, and I’m not a little flattered by a condescension from any one of them; but I happen to hold Winter’s retainer, this time, and, like an honest advocate, am bound to make as good a showing as I can for him, even if it cost a few slurs upon the rest of the household. Moreover, Winter is coming, and one would like to get on the blind side of him.”

From My Garden Acquaintance: A Good Word for Winter, A Moosehead Journal by James Russell Lowell &The Farmer’s Boy by Robert Bloomfield, pp. 49-53

The Melancholy Ones

Each year, I grow a little bit more convinced that I’m not alone—that there are others, many others, I think, who prefer the melancholy Christmas songs over the rambunctiously joyful ones. My completely non-scientific research has led me to this conclusion. For what other reason would there be eleven different renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in my Christmas playlist? Or nine versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”?

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

There’s something in this, I think. Something more than just the beauty of the minor key or the nostalgic lyrics. For some reason, our hearts are drawn toward sorrow in this season of joy.

I wrote a blog post a year ago that I shared again at the beginning of December this year. It is the most-read blog post on my site—by a lot. And I think one reason is that it’s about the hard task of being joyful at Christmas when so many of our lives are swamped in sorrow, so much of the world bearing pain. And guess what? It has a melancholy song in it.

There’s something about the melancholy ones.

Perhaps it is that First Christmas (more another time on how I’m defining that this season) is, in one way, an inherently sad event. God left all the wonders of glory to live in dirt. He sent His son—to live as a human, yes—but knowing He would have to die. It is, as Selah puts it, a mystery: that God chose to create man knowing that man would rebel; and not only that, God sent His son to save the traitors.

So we wonder as we wander in the bleak midwinter and we live in this tension of celebration. As we ache in the agony of waiting for God With Us, we still rejoice. We push our troubles far away by hanging a star upon the highest bough. We listen to the bells on Christmas day, looking about at hate of man against man, and hear them tell us that God is not dead—nor does He sleep.

My favorites of the melancholy ones are those that seek out the joy in the midst of the darkness. Most of them do. Because that’s another thing about First Christmas: it is all about light entering darkness—and the inability of darkness to overcome it.

Pie

I’m convinced that God made pie to bring me joy.

I baked my first pie of the fall season this evening. It’s a little shocking to me that I’ve managed to delay this long. I think I may have been actually tricked into delaying by the southern temperatures that have hovered closer to 70 degrees than 60. I don’t hate the temps, but I am frustrated that they’ve confused my internal pie-maker.

PieI’ve written before of my love of pie. I love pie. I love most kinds of pie. I have established myself as the pie-innards maker in my family. My father, on the other hand, has established himself as the pie crust maker in the family. That only bothers me a little bit.

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and Philly and knocked out a power plant in Newtown leaving me without power for the better part of four days. Fortunately, I had a gas stove, so with a lighter and an iron skillet, I was still able to cook food and not forced to subsist on emergency rations—though I do remember drinking a whole lot of milk the first night.

I’d made a pumpkin pie right before the storm, and it became my primary sustenance in those four days. I kept it out on the dryer in the lean-to (because when the weather was 55 degrees or less outside, that made as good a fridge as any, and it saved me having to open my own fridge and let the cool out).

I’d slice a piece of the pie, set it in the skillet, light the burner and slowly warm it through. Toasty-bottomed pumpkin pie. A quality life choice.

My final evening without power, I was done. Our house had been built in the 1800s and between the drafty windows and the stone and plaster walls, all the warmth had been drawn away by day four. Power had returned to campus, so I’d worked that day, but when I got home and took one step inside my frigid kitchen, I looked at the pumpkin pie and bade it farewell.

Joy-in-a-pan though it was, sustenance though it was, balanced meal though I argued it was…Applebee’s had power again and I was going out to eat.

The Quaker Maple

I’ve got an app on my phone called Timehop. Every day it gives me a catalog of all of my social media posts on this day in previous years. I shall begin by saying with pride that I have not yet used it to find fodder for this month’s blog posts. I shall then break my victorious streak and tell you that I am using it today. You do what you can when you get into the final third of the month.

One of my posts, from a year ago on Instagram, was a photo collage of a tree I call the “Quaker Maple.” I loved the Meetinghouse across the street from our apartment in Newtown for a number of reasons. I loved the clean white lines of the building, the porch with swings I always wanted to go sit on but never felt brave enough to. I loved the graveyard beyond it, full of the seeds of resurrection, the sinners and the saints. Everyday people buried in everyday graves, marked with simple stones. It was a lovely place.

I loved the parking lot and driveway, which were typically empty, and in which Christine and I often directed friends to park if we had a house full—not an uncommon occurrence. As we said to one another, after all, they’re Quakers; it’s not like they’ll be mad, they’re pacifists.

Missing the Quaker Maple this year. #autumnisadrugforme #newtownpa #courtstreet #timehop

A photo posted by Carolyn Givens (@carolyncgivens) on

But most of all, I loved the gargantuan maple in the front of the lawn. I loved it in all of its moods, all of its seasons. I watched its branches dark against steel skies on wintry days, lined with white on snowy ones. I watched it burst with pale green in the spring and thicken into a miniature forest of glossy dark leaves standing up from the branches in the summer. It was typically the first herald of autumn—and that was my favorite mood.

It would burst. Burn. Flame. Golds and reds and crimsons and browns. In the morning the tips of the top branches were alight with the sun peaking over the housetops. In the afternoon the low light shone between the houses and lit it from within.

It dropped its leaves, filling our driveway multiple times each autumn, but I couldn’t mind. It was worth it.

Oh, yes, I do miss the Quaker Maple.

Fireplace

Someone posted a photo of a woodstove happily burning on Facebook this evening. It glimmered in my sight as I scrolled passed.

At first, I bemoaned the not-quite-fall that we seem to be having here in Charlotte, but then I paused, noted that I had been chilly for most of the day, and suddenly recalled that I now have a gas fireplace. It ain’t a woodstove, but it’s better than nothing.

fireplaceSo I figured out (with the help of Google) how to get the pilot lit (Dad’s lessons from June had been forgotten), and now have a cozy little fire going in the living room.

Fireplaces are a sign of my childhood. Until I was 10 years old, we heated almost exclusively with our woodstove. The bedrooms upstairs were chilly, so we spent our winter evenings in the family room and kitchen, nearer the stove and its warmth.

On Sunday evenings, the doors opened on the front of the stove and we roasted hot dogs or sandwiches or marshmallows as we picnicked indoors watching Murder She Wrote after evening church.

Most weeknights, Jessie and I would take baths before bed and come back down with my wet hair and Mom would turn the blowers on high. With me in front of one fan and Jessie in front of the other, we’d sit, drying our hair, and listening as Mom read to us from Little House on the Prairie or The Chronicles of Narnia. Loren sat at the kitchen table doing her homework. Dad worked on projects nearby.

I’m certain these memories are golden-colored with age, and those quiet evenings were probably not as often nor as idyllic as I recall them; but I’m happy to let the memories lie. Ideals are lovely things. And even if my future is more likely to be a family all examining their smartphones simultaneously, I think I’ll still turn off the heat and gather them near the fireplace, so at least they’ll do it together.

Seasons

I drove into the North Carolina mountains today and watched the beginning of autumn as I did so. Green maples tipped with red, birches shading to gold. The speckles of the light shining through the green canopy. Here and there and evergreen staying strong, Remaining what it was. Forever.

Seasons

When I was in college, we took a trip to the Poconos to go camping. It was April and we left after watching the storm roll in across from the west it shined everything new and in the glowingly sunset, We took off glad the rain had it say.

As we drove up the highway I watched the greens in the woods. Penn’s woods. It was the bright green of spring, the pale color of green tea. In the spring, the tulip trees have leaves smaller than my palm, but I knew that in the summer those leaves would grow to be bigger than my hand. In the spring, you can pop a tulip tree leaf, capturing pocket of air smacking it through the membrane, crack. But tulip tree leaves in the summer are far too strong for such things. Far too green.

I think of the black spruce in Alaska, those “evergreens.” Except most of the year they don’t seem green at all. Against the contrast of the white snow they fully live up to their name and the monochromatic winter is halted only by the sky. But in the fall they are evergreen. Against the bright golden yellow of the aspen trees, all the highlights of the needles come forth and for a glorious two weeks—a season—you see the contrast of the green and the gold and the blue and the brown.

I’ll take the seasons. I’ll enjoy the speckles of gold in the green of the trees. The flash red here in there as autumn begins to take its hold. I’ll glory in the sight of the sky through the canopy of the woods in the deep of the winter when the branches are bare. I’ll revel in the pale green spring—the flowers, the brightness. And summer, even summer I’ll take. I hope it will be like Michigan in June. Though in North Carolina I’m more likely to get the heat of a southern August. Even so I’ll take summer because its presence reminds me of all the other seasons that I will get to see.

After all, I live in a place where there are seasons.

 

The Phone Booth

I stopped at a mountain gas station this morning, between hillsides spread with leaves about to turn spotted with the scarlet flashes of the precocious maples.

At the corner of the building, empty of its original instrument, was a phone booth.

I was reminded of the path from the road up to my university campus. The campus, prior to being bought by the college some twenty years before I attended, had been a Catholic boys’ school and monastery. Major renovations had taken place, but around the campus there were a few remnants of its former existence.

One of those remnants, at a bend in the aforementioned path was an empty icon shelf. It sat there, quietly growing over with vines, a reminder that things sometimes outlive their original purposes and find new existence as a ruin.

imageSomeone had set their empty coffee cup on the vacant phone booth. Another had graffitied the upper corner.

A few years ago, in another phase of renovation, the university tore down that old icon shelf, ending it’s physical existence altogether and leaving it a mere remnant of memory, a story I could one day tell my children if I took them to Homecoming.

I suppose someday all the empty phone booths will be torn down as well…and they will become just a remnant of cultural memory. And to keep them from passing away altogether, we’ll tell our children and grandchildren stories of trying to find a phone booth and hoping we could find a quarter in our pocket to make a call.

Making Applesauce

I made applesauce today. It was technically my third batch of the year—though the second was scarcely worth mentioning. I’d gotten a few apples from the store that were mealy, and rather than suffer through them in apple form, I cooked them down one morning for breakfast. They were delicious once you changed their texture.

Making applesauce is a bit of a family tradition. I haven’t a clue how many years we’ve been doing it, but almost each autumn, some conglomeration of my mom, my sisters, other extended family and friends, and I have had an applesauce day. This year, Dad stepped up to the plate and he and mom handled it alone—as neither of my sisters or I were nearby, scattered about the world as we are.

I’ve thought of making applesauce other falls, and once or twice I’ve run a few apples through the mill, but a busy life and a kitchen with very little counter space conspired against taking on a big batch. But now I’m in a new place, a new job, a new house, and all of them have a bit more space in them for things like applesauce-making.

So I tackled the task this evening, definitely on a smaller scale than the family applesauce day, but enough for eating, for freezing, for giving away. And with each step, moments of applesauce days past moved into the present.

I wash the apples, only two bags of them, thinking of the year after Grandpa Warnemuende died and Grandma was selling the house with its apple trees in the yard. We went out with the apple picker and got as many Jonathans as we could, deeply dark red. It was our last chance to enjoy the bounty of those trees. And enjoy it we did–all 100+ quarts of it. The sauce that year was almost the color of raspberries, bag upon bag of fuschia-infused flavor filled our freezer for the winter.applesauce

I chop them up, using a butcher knife and only worrying about removing stems. The seeds won’t make it through the mill and will be tossed with the skins. While I’m at it I think of using Mom’s ulu knife to chop the other year, getting the hang of the rounded blade, the rhythm of the twisting wrist, the beat of the blade against board. I wondered if any Native Alaskan had ever thought of using the traditional blade for chopping fruit, and then I wondered when the remote villagers first saw apples, and when they spread their palates beyond the native blueberries and lingonberries that grow on their hillsides.

I toss them into the pot with water and turn on the flame, letting the heat and moisture do its work. On applesauce day at Mom’s, we only rested during the first pot’s cooking—for there was always more than one pot, and when you finished milling the contents of one, another was ready. But during the first pot’s cooking, if all the knives were in others’ hands, I could sometimes get a moment away to join my niece Keren, laying on the floor playing with the rattles and toys hanging from her playmat’s arches. I’d hold my hand above her face, catch her attention, and she’d reach up with her tiny gnarled hands and grasp my fingers, pulling my hand down into a hug.

I transfer them from pot to Foley mill, grateful I found it at an antique flea market in Lititz a few years back, walking through with my nephew Zach. He was intrigued by the device I picked up, this metal contraption with a red wooden handle. I showed him how you could use it, told him you put the apples in the bowl and then turned the handle to squish them against the mesh bottom. The pulp would go through, I explained, and the skins would stay in the bowl. And when the mesh got covered with skin, I told him, moving the handle in the opposite direction, you just turned the blade backward to scrape them up again.

And bowl by bowl I empty the pot of apple chunks, put them through the mill, and add to the memories categorized under “applesauce” in my mind.

When Your Tuque Falls in the Curry

The full title of this piece—which, sadly, wouldn’t fit very well—is:
When Your Tuque Falls in the Curry:
And Other Problems of Using Your Laundry as an Outdoor Fridge

-The Annals of a Philly Winter-

Our laundry facilities are in a lean-to by the side of the kitchen that doubles as an entryway to the apartment. It is completely un-insulated and it has two windows and a storm door. So, heat: no.

These facts are unhelpful in the deepest, coldest days of winter when the water line to the washer freezes and you’re stuck, unable to launder your clothing. There’s a space heater in there for just such moments. Sadly, I have a tendency to forget that until after I’ve discovered the frozen water line again.

However, the lack of heat is quite helpful on those late fall/early winter days around the Thanksgiving and Christmas when the temperature outdoors is cool and the kitchen is filled to brimming with good things to eat. Hello extra fridge space!

On Sunday, we were to have seven people for dinner. Due to a snowstorm and horrid road conditions (and, if you were to believe headlines at Weather.com, all kinds of impending doom), we only had three of us. There’s lots of leftover curry. I just set the pot out on the dryer and voila, it’s chilled. Today for lunch I took a ladle to it, dipped, and poured over my bowl of rice, microwaved and had deliciousness.

But I dripped. And I didn’t clean it up immediately. Little did I know the impact that one small lapse in judgment would have….

***

On Sunday, we got more snow in four hours than we had all of last winter. The winter before, it had snowed on October 26. That’s it. I think. I vaguely recall another snowstorm that I missed ‘cause I was out in Lancaster, but suffice it to say we’ve been in a bit of a snow drought these past two winters.

This week has been working to make up for it. Philly/NJ had eight inches Sunday (to our 4” up here) and today we’re looking at 4”-6”.

Here’s the thing about Philly snow, though: it’s wet. There’s almost no getting around it. You know that lovely, dry, squeaky stuff from Michigan and Alaska? The kind you can just sweep away with a broom? A rarity here.

So this afternoon I went out to shovel. I swept the wet piles off the car and then took the shovel to the drive, lifting with my knees the whole(ish) way through. (We won’t talk about how my back hurts right now).

***

Snow BWI live on a tiny street. Most of the houses on it were built 50-300 years before the advent of cars. You can fit two cars side by side, but, well, y’know.

So it’s a one way street.

But here’s the other thing about those houses built 300 years before the advent of cars: nobody was thinking about parking lots and garages. I look at the houses on my street and wonder where on earth they put the horses. They must have had carriage houses somewhere else, ’cause I can’t find ’em.

One would think, with this tiny street and no real parking options, that shoveling would be easy, right? But here’s the thing: one small truck plows one single lane. That’s it. And it’s on the far side of the narrow little street from my driveway. So my drive, filled as it is with a vehicle, with only about four feet between my back bumper and the street, takes on another 8-12 feet of length in its shoveling needs. Lovely.

***

Then there’s the fact that there’s nowhere really to put the snow. Directly in front of my car is a wooden deck. Beside it, a 3-foot by 4-foot garden bed, and then of course, the 1-foot easement across the street—another 12 feet away. It’s always an adventure figuring the best ways to pile snow into our miniscule snow piling spaces. 4”-6” is nothing. I’ve cleared over a foot into those spots.

But all this is hard work. And with the temperature just barely hovering around freezing (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit for you Americans, and zero Celsius for everybody else), you get hot pretty quickly—all that lifting with (sort of) the knees and pushing across the street and piling snow (and the leaves under it) in precarious mountains.

So even when you think ahead, and you only wear one layer under your coat, you still get hot pretty quickly.

I bundled myself up: Columbia jacket, water-resistant lined pants, ear bags (or “ears,” as I call them), gloves, and hat. And 20 minutes in, I was starting to overheat.

I know what to do first in that situation. It’s why I wear both the ears and the hat: remove the tuque.

I set down the shovel, go to the storm door, open it, pull off my hat, and toss it in, aiming for an empty spot on the dryer.

***

I now have a woolen tuque with curry on it, friends.

Slow Burn

It’s been a long autumn this year. The colors have passed their peak (evidenced, if by nothing else, by the fact that I could barely see the lines in the parking lot at work this morning for the carpet of yellow that covered them), but only just, and they began weeks and weeks ago. I saw a flaming maple in the middle of the park at the beginning of October, all alone in its glory, the deep green of late summer still on the limbs of the trees around it. The massive maple across the street has shed most of its foliage, but others are still bearing their yellow and scarlet leaves. I saw sun light the crimson tops of the grand oaks on the front drive as I was leaving work today. Meanwhile the small oak in my front lawn rusts away quietly.

A slow-burn autumn.
My mother has nicknamed me the Dragon. It’s a nickname that brings concerned expressions to the faces of strangers and raises eyebrows among aquaintances and friends sometimes. But family – and I mean that in the non-biological definition of the word – family understands the name. I love the nickname. It reminds me that there’s someone in the world who knows that deep inside of me is a burning intensity that I don’t let out very often, because it’s likely to scorch. That there’s a passion and energy there which I’m constantly reigning in just so that I can function on a day-to-day basis. That when I’ve found something to believe in, or something or someone that I love, I do it fiercely-if quietly, because I struggle to express its force.
A slow-burn intensity.
I write. I write because I’m a storyteller and because I have ideas that can only express themselves through story. But it takes me a long time to get it all down. I mull and mull and mull over scenes or plots for days or weeks or months (or years, sometimes) before I start writing them. I play conversations out in my head before I type them on the page. I run through three options of direction a scene could take before I choose one.
A slow-burn creativity.
I’ve realized that I like a slow-burn autumn. I always say that fall and spring do a lot to make up for winter and summer here in Philadelphia – they have a lot to make up for, winter is usually pretty lame and summer is stupidly hot. Fall tends to be lovely here, with brightly colored leaves dancing in blustery breezes on sunshiny days. But this slow-burn autumn makes me even happier – like all the majestic intensity of this past week when so many of the trees seemed to suddenly realize it was fall and come out dressed for the season together was made better for the wait.
And that has made me wonder if slow-burning isn’t so bad after all.