From “Getting Through” to “Grabbing On”

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Midwestern winters have been feeling more and more difficult to me as I get older. The first cold snap or heavy snow of the year always elicits an internal, “Ugh! I can’t go through this again!” The grayness of winter seems to lower the ceiling of the sky. Combine that with the dingy snow, the low temps, the limited light, and I feel like I’m living in a shabby basement for three or four months. This is the time of year when I am most vulnerable to approaching any given morning with the thought, “just get through this day, just get through this day.”

But – if I am going to live deliberately, then I need to move from “getting through” to “grabbing on.” And of course, this is the advice that poets have been offering for centuries. It was 23 BC when Horace published his Odes, exhorting his audience to carpe diem. I don’t think winters in ancient Rome were quite as cold and snowy as Illinois winters, but it’s interesting that this is the season he references in the first Ode:

“Don’t ask what end the gods have given me or you . . . . How much better it is to endure whatever will be! Whether Jupiter has allotted you many more winters or this one is the final one, be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have already fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day.” (Horace, Odes 1.11)

It is tempting to view winter as a burden I need to endure, temporarily, while waiting for spring and summer. In order to really live the winter, rather than endure it, I must find ways to appreciate it for what it is. I have to resist the tendency to accept winter as a sort of house-arrest, limiting my experience to only indoor air and quick walks from cars to buildings. So, the next step in my “Year of Living Deliberately” is to make sure I just bite the bullet and get out there and confront this season I’ve grown to resent—look for the best in it, the way I do with a challenging student or some other difficult person in my life. To that end, I have been bundling up and getting out for walks on the nearby nature trail, even on some of the recent days with single-digit temperatures.

If I wear multiple layers, topped off by my sleeping-bag-like parka, I can stay pretty warm, and I get to see that nature is still out there, still being beautiful. I do love seeing the intricacies of the trees that are only revealed in winter, the way the trees on either side of the Gilman Trail reach toward each other, the exposed hiding places of the birds’ nests. I enjoy the contrast between the dark bark of the trees and the stark white snow. I keep thinking, on these walks, of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple colour, as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled, (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Hopkins looks out at the world and is just thrilled that variation exists. (Look! Everything is not the same!) He celebrates the very things that some people might view as imperfections or mundane necessities—spots, freckles, the utilitarian tools of any given job. The contrasts, the impermanence, make these things beautiful to him. He wouldn’t simply put up with a slow, dim winter because it is necessary in order to get to the dazzling summer; he loves the dim. I’m not sure if I am all the way to the point of loving this basement of a season but I can learn to appreciate it, with the help of my poet companions. And it helps that Horace’s first three bits of advice about how to approach this winter as though it may be my last are “be wise, be truthful, strain the wine.” Truthfully, wine gives me heartburn, but I bet Horace would approve of an evening beer in a cozy living room.

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