“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.

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.

The Night Cary Grant Hooted

Photo courtesy of Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

It started with Cary Grant screaming.

Well, maybe you’d call it more of a hoot. “Squeal” is too high, “scream” too sharp. It’s this startled “whoooo!” sound that’s rather difficult to describe.

It was 2006. The Olympics were in Torino and I was in Alaska. It was February, one of our warmer weeks of that month, and the sky was overcast.

Your television options were pretty limited back in 2006 in Glennallen. There was satellite or analog antenna—which basically meant satellite or nothing. My antenna picked up a fuzzy NBC that cut out regularly.  Sometimes. The rest of the time it picked up nothing. Thank goodness for VCRs, DVD players, the local library, Netflix, and the personal collections of friends. Golden resources for your entertainment needs.

I’d borrowed Bringing up Baby from the library. Videos were typically a better bet from there—the DVDs were regularly scratched. So I was watching it on video when my friend Kristie called to chat. I pressed pause. And we got talking.

Remember how on VCRs, if you put the video on pause, it would hold for about 10 or 15 minutes and then it would start playing again?

I was standing in the kitchen, back to the living room and the TV, deep in the midst of our conversation. And then Cary Grant hooted. Scared me out of my bones. I squealed.

Kristie laughed at me as I recovered myself and explained what had happened. I scrambled to find the remote, this time planning to press STOP. I tracked it down on the couch and pushed the button with the little white square.

And I had TV.

I’m pretty sure those precise words came out of my mouth, actually.

“Kristie! I have TV!”
Her response was just as excited. “You do!?”
And in the instant it took her to say that much, I’d realized what was on my screen. “It’s men’s figure skating! It’s the Olympics!”
Kristie responded with the only logical question: “Can I come over?”

She did, and we reveled in the wonder of television. (Note bene, when you don’t watch TV for a long time, commercials become interesting.) We watched as sport after sport was shown. Bob Costas expertly guided us through the evening’s events.

And then he introduced us to Snowboard Cross.

Photo from AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott

The sport was making its Olympic debut that year. I’d never seen anything like it. The ski and snowboarding events had always been my least favorite parts of the Olympics, mostly because they were races against the clock, not another competitor. If you’re going to race, I’ve always thought, you should see your competition out of the corner of your eye. But here it was: a snowboarding event with four racers at a time.

We watched until they turned off the Olympic coverage that night, and I didn’t get TV again for the rest of its run.

It was one magical night when the stars aligned (somewhere, high above the low-lying clouds*): a good friend by my side, an entertainment treat, and a new sport to look forward to watching every four years. Just think, if it hadn’t been for that night, I might not have discovered Snowboard Cross until 2010.

And I owe it all to Cary Grant’s hooting.

 

*I’m fairly certain that these low-lying clouds were the reason for our serendipitous signal that night. On clear nights, I never saw anything on TV.

Stopping by the Woods: A Review of A Year in Weetamoo Woods

I’ve never written a poetry review before, so perhaps I’m doing this all wrong. Perhaps I should talk of meter and rhyme, cadence and word choice. But I’m not going to do that. I shall leave such things to those better versed in the criticism of poetry.

Instead, I shall approach these verses as a reader. For, though I’ve studied its creation and taught its analysis, I am simply a reader when it comes to poetry. From time to time my thoughts present themselves in poetic structure, but such is a rare occurrence. More often I find myself going to poetry as a devotional experience—my favorite poems being those which consider the things of this earth, the things of heaven, and the age-old wrestling match between them.

I shall have to add some pieces from Christopher Yokel’s new book of poetry, A Year in Weetamoo Woods, to my collection of wrestling poems. As the title implies, it is a book of nature poetry, primarily. For a year, Yokel walked in the woods and wrote his poems and then collected them by season in a book. And honestly, if you had woods nearby named “Weetamoo,” wouldn’t you be moved to use their name in a title?

I like the pictures Yokel presents of his creation process throughout these poems. In “Arden” he writes, “Here I come/ where Adam’s curse is felt/ less cruelly, . . . / Here there is space to think/ to be,/ to draw out poetry from trees.”  In “The Price of Art” he writes, “I have flung myself over/ tree and trail,/ rock and stone,/ in payment for what I have come to take.”

Overall, what stood out to me about Weetamoo Woods were the pictures. Yokel is gifted in painting with simple words images of what he sees (or smells, or hears, or feels)—both in physical reality and in his imagination—and making them clear to his reader.  Leaves, branches, paths, stones, water, earth, wind. All are seen, felt, smelled, heard, touched: the rush of a breeze in “Stirring,” when he says, “All the trees stir together,/ as God passes/ through the midst of the garden”; the fluttering summer leaves  in “Flags,” when he writes, “The sun glinted and glimmered through/ a hundred spear shafts standing to the sky/ their bright green banners snapping in the breeze”; the frozen fields in “Tinidril,” when he says, “The fields are laid to rest/ stiff with winter’s embalming.”

Perhaps it is because I read these poems in the short, dark days at the turn of the year that those in the section titled Winter stood out to me most vividly. “The Barren King” was a favorite poem of the collection; its images of a frozen stream and the snow-covered forest bring to mind memories of hushed walks through winter woods in northern climes. Yokel captures precisely what I’ve always thought of those days in his final stanza:

Snow glorifies the branches of winter,
covers over their naked shame,
and makes them kingly for a day,
with memories of greening leaves.
The monarch in winter is a monarch still.

The images of “Ghosts of the Old Year,” also stood out from the rest—“dead leaves creak/ like ribs rubbing together,/ quiver and vibrate/ like frozen cicadas.” I love the idea of the old leaves as ghosts of the old year—what is gone is not forgotten in its lifelessness. There is a solidity to that season that looks like death, though we know it will give way to resurrection in the spring—as Yokel writes in “Awake O Sleeper” looking at the “corpses of trees” he hears “the sound of the/ robin, singing the first/ notes of resurrection.”

In this, you see, there is that wrestling of heaven and earth—and of the New Heaven and Earth with this one that will pass away. Yes, I shall have to add some of these poems to my collection.

And perhaps, after mulling them for a while I will find myself where Yokel does at the end of his year—looking back to where he set off, “another person ago.” I will be changed, like a tree in a wood from season to season changes, and I may not know myself at the far end. But perhaps, to paraphrase Eliot, that is where I will know myself for the first time.

The End

When you come to the end,
to the place where the light is
you will look back and see
the weight of your soul,
how the journey has given you
more than you carried
when you set off another person ago,
how you traded your cheap wares
for precious possessions,
ingots of memories,
experience in folds,
to arrive like a beggar in guise
but your treasure
all carried inside you
where it cannot grow old.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods was released on January 6, 2014. More from Chris Yokel can be found at his website: chrisyokel.com. Yokel’s book of poetry is available for purchase from Lulu, Amazon, and B&N.

A Year in Weetamoo Woods Book Trailer

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.

Bright Morning

At a biblical university, even the geese walk on water.

It made me laugh, which was a delight on this bright morning. My sister wrote about comic relief yesterday, at the end of the surgery. She likened the moment to the steam coming off a pressure cooker – laughter.
And this morning, in the bright sunshine, I gloried in the silhouettes of trees against the sunrise. It brought to mind the lyrics of a favorite carol: Disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
And I laughed at the geese.

Not Quite Winter Yet

I sometimes have a hard time believing that winter will really come here, to Philadelphia. Already, the sticky heat of summer has pushed the memory of snow piles up to my elbows deep into the recesses of my mind – I have to force myself to realize that I made those snow piles less than a year ago.

A reliable weatherman, a coworker, has predicted that there will be a snowstorm within the next two weeks, and, based upon his track record, I’m inclined to trust him. But for now, I look out at the sunny early mornings and late afternoons, at the brown leaves clinging to the trees, at the rakes still standing in front of the hardware store, and I think, “Not quite winter yet.”
The view out my office window, late afternoon

Newtown Hardware, ready for anything

The single tree across the street, whose leaves alone have filled my driveway