Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Photo-Synthesizing With "A Mind of Winter"

So already, I may be developing "a mind of winter"* as Wallace Stevens calls it in his poem, "The Snow Man." The following just might prove that I'm becoming a bona fide "snow woman": yesterday at mid-morning, I postponed my Cambridge lunch plans without any feelings of deprivation or anger or disappointment or self-pity--just with an abiding feeling that ever-extending winter would probably continue to shape my days. I even felt a little bit of gratitude for all the decisions that could easily be made and all the excuses that could readily be accepted because all those involved generally agreed that winter was in charge.

The night before, I had kept waking up to the back-up beeping of dump trucks and bulldozers on Berlin Street, which runs behind my building; in the morning, the street was twice as wide as it had been when I went to sleep. There was no Boston Globe until 10:30; but then three days' worth of newspapers arrived in one plastic bag, each paper recounting tales of blizzard victims and blizzard heroes. The state was in a state!

The fourth snowstorm was over, but winter wasn't loosening her grip. When I listened to the traffic report to determine when I should leave Quincy for Cambridge, rush hour hadn't yet eased and another SUV had rolled over. It seemed like a good idea to stay put in my dining room rather than sit tight on the Southeast Expressway. Meanwhile, my neighbor's windshield revealed that the day's light snow had begun. Very light snow, not even nuisance snow, just the daily snow.

I've gotten used to the way time passes on these days, each of which seems to resemble all of the others. Despite the beeping of those trucks the night before last, these weeks have generally been silent and freeze-framed; time unfolds slowly, feels infinite, sprawling, and all-containing--broad and blankly dependable. It's that quality, that feeling, of the infinite sprawl of winter that reminds me of my of those times I tried to help my "Religion and Literature" students understand that every one of Hinduism's many gods is an embodiment of and a pathway to the all-encompassing boundlessness of "godhead." I'd write on the blackboard "All gods are one god," "Each god is every god," Each god is all gods," "One god is many gods," and "Every god is infinite." My students came to understand "paradox," even if godhead eluded them.

Near East St. Louis***
I don't think winter, or any part of "Creation," is a god; but there's something about the qualities of winter, this winter in particular, that bring to mind gods, and G-d. A recent performance of the song "River in the Rain" from Big River, the musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, sent me back to the first section of T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages," the first stanza in particular**:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyer of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Until I searched out the poem online, I had forgotten that Eliot establishes the ubiquity of his "river god" by asserting its eternal presence in the round of the seasons. That made me wonder if my "winter mind" experience had something to do with my recent encounters with multiple seasonal cycles as I sorted, discarded, categorized, organized, and revisited the many photographs that I'd boxed up quickly and taken with me when I moved from Cambridge to Quincy in 2003. 

It's par for the course for new retirees to pledge to purge and organize: leaving a job, a profession, a way of organizing of life means bringing home cartons, making decisions about what has value and might have value in the future, and needing to toss and store. I was too unsettled last winter to know what to keep and throw out, let alone how to organize what I would keep. But eleven months after I bid farewell to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, I was ready. So in late December, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of the cartons of photos and other "media" I aimed to sort through and reduce in number in hopes of using my limited storage space more wisely.

Don't ask me what derailed me temporarily from my good intentions. I suspect that actually locating and centralizing all the photos, discs, audiotapes, videotapes, slides, etc. that needed to be "processed" seemed like an achievement in of itself. But in early February, I knew that I'd lost my fire and needed to rekindle it. So right after the third snowstorm, I promised myself I'd see the project through and reclaim the corner of bedroom where it was starting to take root.

It wasn't hard to know what to keep and what to save: "better" photos of people, things, and events were kept over "not quite so good" photos of exactly the same people, things, and events. I enjoyed revisiting my fortieth birthday party, the first ever Pilot School Academic Festival, the Scottish Highlands, the Dordogne River at flood stage, low tide at the Bay of Fundy, and the Olympic Peninsula's sea stacks.

Spring Along the Path, Berlin
The experience of unceasing redundancy and repetitiveness came with going through the photos I'd taken in the Berkshires of spring, summer, and fall every year. They captured seasonal phenomena I've come to depend on: the August contrast between the brilliant goldenrod in our Berlin meadow and the deep, dark shadows at the edge of that meadow; the vibrant foliage panorama surrounding the high field near the RRR Brooks Trail in Williamstown around Columbus Day, equally breathtaking against blue sky and gray sky: snow-dusted Mt. Greylock asserting winter's nearness to the frosted corn stubble of Field Farm in November; and the distinct greens of the Housatonic oxbow and the vernal pools at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield proclaiming Spring! every April .

So yes, I flipped through and threw out a lot of photos of goldenrod, shadows, Mt. Greylock, vernal pools, and red-leafed maples and yellow-leafed birches--but only because they looked exactly like other photos of the same places and phenomena.**** It became tedious, I got faster as I went along, and I was very happy when I was done! Liberating the chair meant re-experiencing many springs, summers, falls, and winters in their various moods and phases. I love all the seasons, especially at particular moments. But I know that they don't love me back; they just are. And they don't need to be more than "Creation."

Completing this task gave me something else to acknowledge, too: over the years, "nature" hasn't changed, or seems not to have changed, but Scott and I have--noticeably. Eighteen years have passed since Scott first introduced me to his Berkshires; there are lots of photos documenting our visiting, watching, and revisiting over the years. Only the limb-dropping Wolf Pine, as it's called on the Canoe Meadows trail map, seems to be aging along with us. For the most part, nature keeps on, sometimes as a "strong brown god," sometimes as a flower-sprinkled meadow, sometimes as a soft white blanket. When it fades and wrinkles as part of the seasonal cycle, its smooth, green rebirth is just months away. Our own time in this world of nature is finite and too precious to wish away, even if it's wintry and demanding.

But if Stevens is talking about winter mind over winter matter, he's also talking about winter mind through winter matter, through mindful but dispassionate encounter with the stuff of winter. Stevens says, "One must . . .have been cold a long time/ . . . not to think/ of any misery in the sound of the wind." Winter mind is about accepting winter, being neither for it nor against it. It means rolling with the blizzard's callous force or the cold's frigid indifference. It's just winter.

But winter mind offers more than a release from irritation and despair. Stevens' "snow man" "beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." There's something bigger going on than winter's drama; there's something bigger than winter itself, something more vast, more empty, more real, and more full.***** Winter isn't god (G-d), isn't godhead, but winter mind might offer a way into something transcendent and worth experiencing.

Recently I posted a photo of a Scott painting called "Blue Self"****** on my Facebook page. It's possible that in the context of this blog post, the blue self is a representation of winter mind. Regardless of the context, the blue self seems to be an aspect of the more conventionally colored figure on the left who, though she seems to be in a dreamlike state, appears to be supporting, even propping up, the blue self. But the blue figure, whose face seems more set and inscrutable, may be the stronger one. While I sense some weariness in the left-hand figure, the pair feels strong in its union. The two heads, nearly equal in size, become the top of the heart shape that dominates the painting formally. The duality, the integration, though solid, conveys ongoing effort.

Having a "mind of winter" requires integration and surrender, taking winter phenomena in--and in stride, watching and waiting--though probably not for what others are waiting for. And so I end with two things: a photo of my window onto the world of winter and lines from Rumi's poem entitled "Buoyancy":*******
I saw you and became empty.
This emptiness, more beautiful than existence,
it obliterates existence, and yet when it comes,
existence thrives and creates more existence!
The sky is blue. The world is a blind man
squatting on the road.
But whoever sees your emptiness
sees beyond blue and beyond the blind man.
Finally, don't think I'm not looking forward to spring--and summer, and fall. I am. But in time, in their time.

  * Robert Atwan chose Stevens' phrase to be the first half of the title of his collection A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season. The book is pictured in this screen shot of <>.
** Eliot, T.S. "The Dry Salvages." Art of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
*** Image has URL <> with the following Creative Commons license: <>. The image has been altered in no way.
**** This is an oversimplification: the beavers run the Berkshires, making change constantly--but the same kinds of change constantly.
***** Shades of A Passage to India, about which I blogged on August 24, 2014.
****** You can see this painting and other paintings by Scott (Ketcham) at <>. 
******* "Buoyancy." The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Brooks. San Francisco: Harper, 1995. 104. Print.

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