Winter's Ordinary Beauty
At latitude 53, Edmonton is the Northern-most North American city with a population over one million. Winter seems to go on forever here. It started the night before I left to visit our daughter in Ontario for Thanksgiving and Rob slowly drove me to the airport on the slushy roads with snow hitting our windshield all the way there. When other places are experiencing spring, we'll often have snow into May. If your mindset is to sullenly wait winter out, that's fine, but it's a long wait.
So many of our friends have long ago moved away from Edmonton and more are planning on moving. Maybe you have to be naive to live here. To let the particular silence and solitude of this place seep into you. The darkness, the cold of winter, turns you brittle. Delicate in ways that you can’t imagine in summer. The place tries to erase you and you let it, you want to disappear into the snow, and you wish on the snowflakes that land on your eyelashes as easily as others wish on butterflies or lottery tickets.
In the deep of winter, walking along the stretch of highway by the utility corridor strings me out. The huge power poles, the way the wire hangs in the sky for impossible lengths. And the coyotes that live in the stands of trees at each end of the field, waiting, their hungry eyes watch as humans walk by. In the winter we are all coyotes.
There's a particular winter-pink sky at sunrise, hallucinatory, fleeting. Dreamers like a severe winter, so says Baudelaire. But it’s one thing to talk about the cosmic negation, as he calls it, and another to live the obliteration.
Maybe it’s the winter that makes poets of us. Maybe that’s the thought that's going to save me.
The last couple of winters I've listened to a song over and over by the Swedish singers in the band First Aid Kit:
Well it’s a new year, with it comes more than new fears.
Met a young man who was in tears, he asked me,
“What induces us to stay here?”
I said, “I don't know much and I’m not lying,
But I think you just have to keep on trying.”
And I know I am naive, but if anything
That’s what's going to save me
That’s what's going to save me
The Irish writer, Edna O’Brien has said, “In a way Winter is the real Spring - the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”
I think it holds true for me - winter is when the inner things happen. There is even the feeling, mid-winter, that it would be better to go on wintering. There is even the wish that the spell of winter not be broken.
In winter the world is new with every snowfall.
The world is new, and you
have been chosen to say this poem,
because you are the one with the love bites on you.
Your love has brought us to this silence,
where the only obligation
is to walk slowly through a meadow
Winter is the poem I’m obligated to say, the silence to which I’m obligated to listen, the contours and the bones of the world I’m obligated to see revealed.
Maybe it was a year ago that I came to an essay by Li-Young Lee, titled, “The Subject is Silence.” Maybe it was last winter. In it he says, “The real subject in poetry isn’t the voice. The real subject is silence. It’s like in architecture, where the medium is not really stone or metal, but space. We use materials—brick, glass, whatever—to inflect the immaterial, space. I would say that the real medium of poetry is inner space, the silence of our deepest interior.”
Maybe I found this essay when the snow fell for two days straight and I remembered the quiet of winter, the silence that finally seeps into one, watching the snow accumulate, watching the snow italicize bare tree branches. The subject of winter isn’t snow, it’s silence.
Winter is difficult. And the snow brings us a difficult beauty. But it is beauty. At the beginning of winter, our eyes will adjust to seeing colour, this muted palette, with surprise, and with some degree of disdain. The bones of trees are caressed and winter seeing begins. A more patient seeing?
Although I don’t love the freezing cold aspect of winter so much, I do prefer the loneliness of it. There’s something holy about winter if you let it come to you. If you keep a sharp eye out. And maybe we use our imagination most fully in winter when so much is hidden, buried. We become attuned to subtle variation in colour and line and we notice small movements. A coyote on the horizon line in a white field. A small bird hiding in a tree eating berries. The artist Andrew Wyeth, known for, among other things, his haunting winter scenes, says, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.”
And Rumi asks a similar question,
Do you love winter or summer more?
You may have whichever you like,
winter for you, summer for me.
After you have lived in a winter place for so long, in my case all my life, there isn’t a question of preference. What happens is that winter becomes a part of you – it quietly whispers itself into your being. The American poet, Diane Wakoski writes in her book, Emerald Ice:
I remember always the word
that defines my life
How stark even the word winter can be – how cold and desolate and even biting, angry. This aspect of winter can’t be ignored either. Winter can be relentless, dark, extreme, intense. Winter makes us ache and shiver. Winter can sharpen one’s emotions – and as a writer, this can be a useful thing.
Winter can also facilitate a certain way of coming to know oneself. In a poem called, “The Cold,” Wendell Berry says, “How exactly good it is / to know myself / in the solitude of winter.” The nights are longer, and so it often feels like we’re closer to our dreams in winter – those waking reveries can draw us inward in productive ways. Here is when we can examine the architecture of our inner silences and measure them against the deep silence of winter.
And besides, as First Aid Kit sings in another of their songs, “I was born to endure this kind of weather.”