In a humdrum


Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.

Hibiscus

The other night J and I watched a home-shopping show selling enormous and eye-poppingly colorful hibiscuses, begonias, and day lilies. Neither one of us is a gardener: the only flowers in our yard are the ones planted by previous inhabitants that have survived an annual onslaught of hungry rabbits. But J and I happily watched a half-hour pitch for plants we’ll never buy because it’s February in New England, and we’ve lived here long enough to know that in February, you call upon your strongest coping strategies to get you through another long winter.

Hibiscus

This winter has been milder than most–before this week, we’d gotten more rain than snow–but that doesn’t matter. It’s still February–the year’s longest month–and this morning I called upon Winter Coping Strategy #2, which is to listen to uptempo dance music (preferably from somewhere warm) while doing morning chores. (This morning, it was salsa music; later in the month, when salsa grows stale and I need to call in the big guns, I’ll listen to bellydance.)

Hibiscus bud

In February, the days have begun to lengthen, but the ground is either covered in snow or salt-blanched and barren. In December and January , we were starved for light; in February, we’re starved for color. Long gone is the yellow light of summer: in February, even sunlight is gray and glaring. Soon enough, I’ll be browsing cute sandals online (Coping Strategy #3), planning a trip to the aquarium (Coping Strategy #4), or visiting a greenhouse and taking macro shots of flowers (Coping Strategy #5).

Purple

There are many ways to cope with long, cold winters. While other regions pin their seasonal hopes on prognosticating rodents, sports fans in New England look forward to Truck Day, when our thoughts and a truckload of baseball equipment head to Florida. While we wait for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report to spring training tomorrow, I find myself once again lingering a bit too long by the supermarket florist, basking in the scent of cut flowers (Coping Strategy #6). If past years are indicative, it will be only a week or so until I’m snapping surreptitious photos in the produce aisle (Coping Strategy #7), craving a quick fix of color imported from Somewhere South, a place otherwise known as anywhere but here.

Today’s photos come from an October trip to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which I’ve previously blogged. Winter Coping Strategy #1 is to take plenty of pictures during the golden days of summer and fall so you can look back upon (and blog) them when the days turn gray and grim.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Modern

I keep two collections of random thoughts. First, I have my handwritten journal pages: on mornings when I’m not teaching, I try to write four longhand pages in a Moleskine notebook over my morning cup of tea, and on teaching days, I try to use time between classes to write four pages in one of the slim, softback notebooks I keep in my teaching bag.

Terry Winters

In addition, I have an assortment of typewritten documents I write and store on my Google Drive: each of them dated, and some of them titled. The entries with titles usually end up on my blog, but the entries without titles usually get abandoned or forgotten: pages where I’m basically talking to myself, rehearsing the usual complaints and quibbles.

On an excellent day, I’ll write in both places: I’ll spend a half hour or so on my handwritten pages, then I’ll spend another half hour transcribing any ideas or insights that emerged there. On a good day, I have time to write only in my journal, and on bad days, I don’t write anywhere at all. But even though I don’t manage to write every single day, I still produce a lot of odds and ends. I post some of this random writing on my blog, but much of it lives a quiet, forgotten existence in closed notebooks and forgotten Google Drive folders.

Terry Winters

Sometimes when I have time to write but little to say, I’ll open a random notebook or Google Doc, just to see what was on my mind weeks, months, or even years ago. It’s as if my life were a book, and I open to a random page.

Recently, for example, I re-read a Google Doc titled “No timeline” that I wrote in September, 2015:

Last week, I was at Angell for Groucho’s oncology check-up, a ritual we’ve reenacted every month since he was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma over two years ago. As I was leaving our appointment and walking toward the reception desk to check out, I heard a sound from the dog waiting area that stopped me cold: a high pitched squealing whine that sounded so much like Reggie, I had to stop and collect myself.

It’s been over three years since Reggie died, but that doesn’t matter: when I heard a dog that whined like him, the intervening years evaporated and I had to stop myself from rushing into the dog waiting are just to make sure Reggie hadn’t come back to find me. This is, of course, a crazy thought, but a grieving heart knows no logic.

Terry Winters

Groucho died in November, 2015, so the monthly oncology appointment I describe in these paragraphs would have been one of his last. But I had no way of knowing that at the time, of course. In September, 2015, Groucho was alive but reaching the end of even the most positive prognosis: chemotherapy for cats with lymphoma works really well until it doesn’t.

In September, 2015, Groucho was alive and it was Reggie I was mourning, even though he’d been dead more than three years. Rereading that entry brings it all back: the still-raw sting of lingering loss, and the too-familiar ache of anticipatory grieving.

Terry Winters

Last year, Bunny the cat died; this year, we’re worried about Rocco. This week, J took Rocco for his first oncology appointment after his recent diagnosis with the same kind of cancer that claimed Groucho: deja vu all over again.

There is no timeline for grief: that’s what I never got around to saying back in 2015. They say time heals all wounds, but that assumes time moves in a straight line rather than circling like a dog before sleep. Just when you think you’ve grown past expecting your dead dog to be underfoot at every step–a phenomenon J calls “phantom dog”–you hear a stranger’s pet at the vet who sounds so eerily familiar, you wonder if grief is the only thing on earth that doesn’t die. Just when you’ve almost forgotten one cat dead to cancer, another gets diagnosed with the same disease, history echoing and repeating, this year not much different from then.

Memorial labyrinth

Today I’m supposed to get together with A (not her real initial), walking the labyrinth at Boston College then having potato pancakes at the diner in Newton Centre.

Memorial labyrinth

Tomorrow J and I are going to Angell to adopt two cats–George and Gracie–that were surrendered by a breeder/hoarder in New Hampshire, a woman with 40 cats. They are shy and not well socialized–our job will be to get them acclimated into the house and also to get them comfortable around people. We’d intended to adopt just one cat to fill the spot left by Bunny when she died, but since George and Gracie find comfort in cuddling together, we didn’t want to split them.

Nina and Gumbo continue to cuddle me whenever I sit on the loveseat in the master bedroom–Nina on my lap and Gumbo sprawled across my chest. Nina was incredibly shy when we first adopted her–she spent her first few weeks under the bed–but now she runs up and falls at my feet when I walk into the room, begging for a belly rub.

Memorial labyrinth

And so we slowly socialize each of the cats we adopt. Frankie and Bobbi will never be lap cats–they’re too feisty and independent for that–but they each tolerate petting as long as it’s brief.

The world is filled with suffering: so many bad, sad situations I am powerless to fix. But I know how to comfort cats and tend to dogs, and so I do that as a small act of devotion I offer to a suffering world.

This is an entry I wrote in my journal on January 30, 2016, along with photos I took and promptly forgot about. I don’t remember what bad, sad situations I’m referring to in the final paragraph, but what was true then is just as true now.

Nina and Gumbo continue to climb all over me, looking for cuddles, whenever I walk into their room, and Frankie and Bobbi are still as feisty as ever. And one year after we adopted them, George and Gracie now let me pet their heads but are otherwise shy.

Belated birthday card

Now that both the holidays and my birthday are over, I’ve settled deep into ordinary time. On teaching days, I’m up before daylight and stay on campus until after dark, the precious sunlight of January something I see from the inside looking out. On weekends and at-home grading days, I do my morning kitchen chores upon awaking, then brew a cup of tea and sit at my desk to read, meditate, and write.

Cassie in sunlight

I’m a creature of habit, and so is the dog, who is content to lie on her bed and chew her bone while I sit at my desk, scribbling or tapping out words. She doesn’t care what I’m working on or how it’s going, only that I stop what I’m doing and scratch behind her ears when she sidles up to my chair and rests her head in my lap.

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