In Praise of Winter

Everything goes away.

I’m never ready for this. It comes unwanted, sometimes expected, sometimes unexpected. I have embraced the beauty of autumn leaves: that which goes is beautiful in its going. But I have not embraced the beauty of their absence.

This has been a long year, a mad scramble to reconstitute my life in different spaces with different people, at home, at work, in my personal life, and now school, again, at long last. My personal upheaval was in large part a secondary effect of everyone else’s. Roommates getting jobs in New Hampshire, supervising attorneys leaving the firm and being replaced by unfamiliar people, close friends and family moving for school or for work or just because it was time. Each one feels like another pillar of my small, but happy life plucked away.

But I have survived, and so have those relationships. The going away is not always a death: or if it is, it’s merely the death of how things were, which opens up new possibilities. I now have an excuse to spend all of my vacation days in the Pacific Northwest (sisters, can we please plan a backpacking trip?), I’m getting to know Baltimore, I was “forced” to travel to Dublin where I met some lovely new people. I’m still in touch with the roommate, who keeps me apprised of all of her goings on, even though I forget her birthday every year. I’ve endured the separation of distance before, and yes, it may weaken some connections. But not always.

And into the vacuum created by all that has been removed, I discover something like perspective. Beneath the elegant draperies of autumn, the verdant glories of spring and summer, I hid the branches that, bound together, make up the bare facts of myself. To be fair to the flowers and leaves: we are social beings and those are no less a part of us, but they are the part that exists in dynamism. Beneath them, there is slower growing wood, which does not flaunt its transformation but shifts slowly, in secret, unrecognized until the abrupt removal of its cover reveals all that has taken place in the intervening seasons.

The birds will return in their time - indeed, not all have flown away, or if they have, they’ve been replaced by winter migrants: dark-eyed juncos, standing out against the snow. For now, I will look to the inner parts with the gardener’s eye for the shaping, the shifting, the pruning. I will love this tree that is my own, and tell it all about spring, but also tell it not to waste the winter, to let the cold sweeten its sap as it sends its roots down deep into the earth, and there perhaps find that there is still warmth in this world of white.


Second Lesson

This is the season of the autumn leaves. Clearly this is no literal accounting of time, when the snow outside my window, resting heavy on the porch roof, belies my words. But the leaves fall from the mallorn trees in Laurelindorinen, and Arwen lies down beneath them, and an age passes with her passing. The saddest scene in all the books was relegated to a paragraph in the appendices. The end after the ending. For first there were many goodbyes, and we, good readers, know of course that life goes on - happily ever after, we hope, but usually with more bumps, we suspect - and on until its ending. That many friends passing will eventually leave only one, the last one, with none to mourn, or at least - none who will understand the meaning of it all.

There is a being alone that brings life and light and gives the spur to creativity. Then there is a being alone that is a being left, alone, behind, the very last one. What to do when the leaves are falling, save to bundle up for the winter and say your prayers?


The First Lesson

An arcade nickel on a string, dropped into the slot and cunningly pulled back out again: this is the nature of my ungenerous generosity. I discover, suddenly, that which I have somehow known all along. That when I give, I do not give up, but have sought instead to keep it all by keeping you in my debt. I tie you to me, demand something in return, which is to say everything. It is hard to submit oneself to the vulnerability of giving without strings. But also, it is hard to be confident when your confidence rests on building heavier armor and hard to love those whom you also fear. Does the rose refuse to bloom because the sun it seeks will one day wither it? If it stays a tightly furled bud on the branch, it will never know light or warmth or beauty. It will still die, and worse still, die without releasing its delight into the world. The end is the same: how we get there is what matters.


Books of 2018

A New Year's tradition, faithfully observed: this past year's list of completed books. The selections were influenced by reading groups, the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, a sharper turn toward nature writing, and, of course, last year's commitment to read more of the books that I already own. Of which there were evidently far too many to finish in a year, and I freely admit that I cheated by reading new books that I had just purchased. However, I'm certain that some day I will actually read all of Mimesis as Make-Believe and the Wartime Writings of Antoine Saint-Exupery. Just not in 2018, apparently.

In order of completion and not of importance (though the books marked with an asterisk are ones that particularly stand out to me in looking back over the year):

Hope in the Dark - Rebecca Solnit
*Stamped from the Beginning - Ibram X. Kendi
The Odyssey - part Lattimore's translation, part Emily Wilson's
*From That Time and Place: A Memoir, 1938-1947 - Lucy Dawidowicz
Baader-Meinhof - Stefan Aust
A Field Guide to Getting Lost - Rebecca Solnit
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - Chris Hedges
Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner
The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu
A Place in the Country - W.G. Sebald
The War Complex - Marianna Torgovnick
*The Complete Cosmicomics - Italo Calvino
Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
Understanding W.G. Sebald - Mark R. McCulloh
Berlin Alexanderplatz - Alfred Doeblin
*The Pine Barrens - John McPhee
The Blue Flower - Penelope Fitzgerald
Men Explain Things to Me - Rebecca Solnit
A Natural History of the Hedgerow - John Wright
Homo Deus - Yuval Noah Harari
Pudd'nhead Wilson - Mark Twain
Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond
Jakob von Gunten - Robert Walser
The Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald
Ragtime - E.L. Doctorow
The Need for Roots - Simone Weil
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
An Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House - Doug Brinkley
The Lime Twig - John Hawkes
*A Stricken Field - Martha Gellhorn
*The Moth Snowstorm - Michael McCarthy
A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James
The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin
The Blue Castle - L.M. Montgomery
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Living Is Easy - Dorothy West
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro
Going Postal - Terry Pratchett
*Evicted - Matthew Desmond
Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett
Incognegro - Mat Johnson
Plum Bun - Jessie Redmon Fausset
Passing - Nella Larsen
Hopscotch - Julio Cortazar
The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
One Person, No Vote - Carol Anderson
*The Sea Around Us - Rachel Carson
*The Power - Naomi Alderman
The Curse of Bigness - Timothy Wu
Memento Mori - Muriel Spark
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

As for what's to come this year, I've taken a slightly different tack. I have a list of books that I have chosen, half of which are still pulled from my own bookshelves (the project having not been abandoned). I also asked a small handful of rather different people for a single recommendation. Some of them cheated quite egregiously on the task by recommending significantly more than one, which takes away half the fun, but anyway, I got an interesting selection out of that.

So 2019 looks to involve more on the nature subject, a return to Flannery O'Connor and a fleshing out of my Southern gothic reading, a handful of memoirs, political and Eastern philosophy, and, at long last, some Toni Morrison. Plus, I was given Sebald's Campo Santo and Wendell Berry's latest though not particularly new book The Art of Loading Brush for Christmas, and both are likely early contenders for the year. Though first I have to finish the remainder of this year's books, so before all of that, it will be reading the last 100 pages of Theory of Justice, several more essays in Postliberation Eritrea, and the rest of this delightful book about the life and legacy of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature. 

Since I've probably bitten off more than I can chew, we'll just have to wait for next New Year's Day to see whether I manage to pull any of this off. Fortunately, this adventure is all about the journey and never really the destination.