Yesterday was a quintessentially gray, February day. This year we’ve had a good share of sharply sunny days alternating with heavy leaden ones: days when the sun barely has energy to haul herself over the horizon. Yesterday was a motley mix of dark and light—neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring—with the faded gray sky seeming incongruously bright: all the glare of a sunny day without any of the warmth.
Some winters I feel in my ankles, the cumulative ache from months of clomping in heavy boots, but this year, I feel the winter in my eyes, which ache under the onslaught of so much light streaming through bare, twiggy trees. There are fewer hours of light in the winter, and many people feel that paucity in their soul, but the light we see in winter is more intense, slashing the ground with long, low-angled shadows. Winter light is as harsh and unremitting as winter’s cold, a force that buffets you with white-harsh brightness. I’m not sure I could stand many more hours of it.
Yesterday I walked before writing: an attempt to shake some of the February gray from my bones. This winter has been strangely mild, with very little snow, but I still feel the heavy impress of the season. February is a cruel month: the days have begun to lengthen, but human patience grows shorter. Most years, February is an unremitting assault of one snow storm after another, the sheer volume of snow, ice, and wintry mix giving us something tangible to fight against: Sisyphus against the snow piles. At the moment, though, there are no snow piles, just a sheltered dusting of white in shady areas. Without much snow to struggle against, complaining about the season seems senseless: what is there to complain about? The sensation of these gray days is diffuse: the experience of feeling vaguely discontent without quite knowing why.
I walked yesterday mainly in search of the day’s picture: as good a motivation as any. Aesthetically, a relatively snow-free winter seems strange. How can my eyes make sense of a season with the harsh, low-angling light of winter but the dirty brown palette of late autumn: stick season, the awkward time of year after the leaves have fallen, but before the first snows? In summer, sunlight filters through leaves and looks golden, complementing the green grass; in winter, unadulterated sunlight streams bright and white. What aesthetic sense does one make of sharp white light falling on a frozen earth, leaf-denuded trees, and salt-bleached streets and sidewalks, a world where everything is cut into unnaturally sharp contrast?
Last night after a full day of teaching, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to lead Tuesday night’s long-sitting. I was tired when I left campus and struggled to stay awake while I crawled in stop-and-go traffic on my way from Framingham; surely meditating when you’re tired and uninspired is futile, I thought to myself. But once I settled on my cushion, I felt alert and energized, as if I’d plugged into an unseen outlet or received an invisible transfusion. Meditation for me is like coming home, a chance to gather and re-focus my energies. For me, meditation is like attaching a nozzle at the end of a garden hose: suddenly a dribbling trickle gets focused into a targeted jet.
Most of my days are random and scattershot, with a far-flung constellation of demands; the descent of February gray only exacerbates the futility I feel after a day spent working on a handful of projects without finishing one. Last night at the Zen Center, it was a welcome relief to do just one thing as I sat in the shadow of the Dharma room Buddha, a light that gleamed warmly golden, just like summer. While I was at the Zen Center, a dusting of snow fell, covering the cars, street, and sidewalks with a thin inch of dry, fluffy flakes. It felt a bit magical to emerge from the Zen Center to the quiet, snowy street, the lamplights shining through a veil of flakes. There’s nothing like a sudden snowfall—or the simple act of stopping—to make everything look like new again.