Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

Yellowing - April 6 / Day 96

Already, less than a full week into it, this April has been odd. It’s unseasonably cold: although the snowdrops, crocuses, and glory-of-the-snow have already appeared, the trees haven’t begun to leaf, and I haven’t dared open the windows much less venture outside in shorts or sandals. The past few nights have been below freezing, we still have piles of snow lingering in shady spots, and the lawn looks like it’s forgotten what it means to be green.

New growth

Yesterday, the temperature soared into the 50s—not warm by usual April standards, but warmer than it has been—and at least one pair of intrepid young entrepreneurs set up the first lemonade stand of the season even though a hot chocolate stand would have been more appropriate. Spring might be a long time coming this year, but kids nevertheless will go about the business of being kids, weather anomalies notwithstanding.

Daffodil bud - April 1 / Day 91

Although the temperatures this week have said “March,” the angle and intensity of the sun nevertheless says “April.” In February I lamented the glaringly harsh sunlight of late winter, when white-bright light falls on nothing but gray. Now in April, the sunlight has warmed, mellowed, and yellowed, as if it were intended to fall on tender, spring-green leaf buds and blooming daffodils. In the absence of these, the golden light of an April afternoon falls instead on gilded willow twigs and the almost-blooming buds of forsythia. “Almost, almost, almost” this golden light seems to intimate; “not yet, not yet, not yet” these swelling buds respond.

New shoots - April 5 / Day 95

This year, we’ve not been starved for light, but I do find myself craving color: anything, please, besides this dead, dull gray! “April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot claimed, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Right now in this early, odd April, I don’t dare dream of lilacs, only leaves: before we can handle pale purple blooms, let us cut our tender teeth on spring green. Right now in this early, reluctant spring, anything other than gray would be a welcome novelty.

Japanese maple in morning light

In about a month, the trees in our neighborhood will glow as if turned on with a switch. In the meantime, otherwise ordinary Japanese maples look lovely when illuminated with morning light.

House sparrow in morning light

Everything looks heavenly when illuminated. This morning, the house sparrows glowed while the sun glinted off ripening berries and leaves that are just starting to turn. Who needs enlightenment when just plain light will do?

Today J and I walked to Boston College for an afternoon football game, and the weather was picture-perfect: brisk enough for a sweatshirt, with blue skies and plenty of sunshine. All along the way, we saw walkers, dog-walkers, parents with strollers, and clusters of lean, Lycra-clad cyclists enjoying the comfortable temperature and low humidity. It was a day that almost begged to be enjoyed: a happy medium between the sticky days of summer and the bone-aching cold of winter. It was, in other words, a perfectly golden, glowing day.

This is my belated contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Glowing.


Yesterday morning, instead of writing in my journal, I did a quick scribble-sketch of my neighbor’s raggedy forsythia shrub, which I see from my kitchen table every morning I’m in Keene. It’s a scene I’ve sketched before, something I contemplate as part of my morning routine. Last week, I watched and sketched juncos flitting in this same forsythia, black and white birds illuminated by the harsh light of a monochromatic winter afternoon. Yesterday, though, was different: the morning light glimmered with a golden sheen, the forsythia looked like a clumpy cloud clotted with last weekend’s snow, and the heaps of snow clogging my yard glittered, crystalline. The scene was the same, but the light was different. Last week, the light was white, and yesterday, it gleamed golden, a subtle shift marking the earth’s gradual turn into spring.

Cedar waxwings

Yesterday afternoon was clear, with temperatures in the mid-thirties, so I took both of my first-year writing classes outside to walk and sketch along the Ashuelot River, as I have in the past. One of the benefits of requiring my writing students to keep nature journals is the excuse it gives us to walk outside on nice days, and yesterday was as good a day as any for walking: sunny and cold, but with the hope of spring.

On our way back to our classroom, my 2:00 class and I watched a single cedar waxwing, separated from his flock, foraging in a crabapple tree next to a dumpster behind the Student Center. I was the first to spot the bird, which was unusually low, close, and blithely oblivious to our presence, concentrating on the withered fruit he was gleaning. “Why are you guys looking at a dumpster,” a dawdling student asked as he caught up to the group, and then he saw what we were looking at. “Hey, he has yellow on his tail, and red on his wings!” Yes. My students didn’t know the name “cedar waxwing,” but they could recognize the details that make this bird different from the usual sparrows and crows they see around campus, a bird whose belly gleamed golden in a season of grit and gray.

I later heard the flock that lone waxwing had wandered from, just a few trees away: close enough for even a dawdling bird to catch up with his group. Today, I spotted a small flock of waxwings–the same group of nomads, or their neighbors–in a tree along Marlboro Street: the source of that second photo.

In case of fire

Yesterday and today have been bright and sunny here in Keene. Yesterday I taught all day; today I’m stuck at my computer commenting on online drafts. On days like today when I’d rather be outside walking, I grow oddly aware of my own mortality, the opening lines of Milton’s Sonnet XIX ringing in my head:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

In Milton’s case, he laments the gradual onset of blindness: how can he effectively use his God-given gift of poetic vision while that same God deprives him of physical sight? Would God be so cruel, Milton wonders, as to judge the productivity of a “day-labourer” crippled by an affliction beyond his control?

Window sill

Although I’m not plagued with gradual blindness, I’ve always resonated with Milton’s Sonnet XIX. It seems to me to describe the human condition: blessed with so much promise, our time and light are nevertheless limited. We want to serve God, perhaps–we look for ways to express our humble talents–but we feel incapable or misguided, not knowing what to do or where to start. And in the meantime, time passes without ceasing, the seconds on our mortal shot-clock ticking down, down, down while we consider whether to shoot or to pass.

Yesterday afternoon while walking the dog, I took the usual assortment of random photos: a fire-alarm, a dusty windowsill framed with red brick, the angular lines of dingy and decrepit siding on an old factory. Why take photos of ordinary, unlovely things? Well, to me they are strangely lovely: there’s something about the shine of light on brick, wood, and even old alumnimun that is precious and even heart-stopping. Someday when I’m old with failing sight, will I remember these random sights and wish I could see them one last time? Do the makers of these aging, overlooked objects, themselves long dead, long for the days when they and their handiwork were young and new?

No smoking

My favorite scene in the film American Beauty shows a bit of footage shot by Ricky Fitts, the protagonist’s drug-dealing, video-obsessed teenage neighbor. The tape shows what Ricky describes as being the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen: a plastic grocery bag blowing in the wind. “Video’s a poor excuse,” Ricky explains, “But it helps me remember…Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” That sentiment is precisely why I take random photos of brick walls and windowsills: our mortal lives feel very much like random trash tossed by an unseen hand, but there’s a sense of beauty in the breeze if we surrender ourselves to it. “And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things,” Ricky said of the day he watched that random bag dance, “this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.”

Time is fleeting; our days are short and our light even shorter. Bandied about like a bag in the wind, it’s difficult to find our way, and easy to think that we should have one. But we aren’t the masters of our destiny: we install fire alarms and paint windowsills and put up sensible siding, but ultimately we don’t control our fates. An invisible wind, an unseen light, transmutes the fabric of our days, filling them to overflowing with beauty but not with time. Considering how my light is spent, I dare not waste it, for once it’s gone, our mortal dance will be relegated to the dustheap of Time.