Monday, April 22, 2013

Spring entitlement

Sometime around last Thanksgiving, human Northern snowbirds headed south to avoid the upcoming winter onslaught of gray days, frigid temperatures, cold rain, and snow.  I count my older sister and brother in that number.  Winters in Ohio and Michigan prompted both to buy second places of residence in Florida years ago to escape the inevitable seasonal ‘slop’ up here. 

For me, though, winter is different.  I must say, I rather like it.  

Maybe that’s because I became a teacher and a good snow storm got me a day off work.  More than that, though, I think it’s the being holed up inside the house for the season that appeals to me as an introvert.  There’s nothing much better in our quiet winter home than to pull up a chair to a wide window as the snow flies, watching birds beyond, while the wood-burning stove warms our space.  

That doesn’t mean winter leaves Cindy Lou and me unscathed.  Months of long gray days get to us after a while.  Two years ago we invested in a timeshare for the expressed purpose of escaping overcast February/March for a week’s respite on warm sand.  As mentioned here before, watching Cindy Lou brown under a late winter sun -- and observing her sense of self ‘flower’ -- is valuable family stuff.  

Overall though, in my humble opinion, it is our personal investment in winter that makes Ohio springs so sweet.  

Come around the middle of March we’ll get a sunny, less-chilled day that informs some ancient sense deep inside our brain that winter’s grip is being loosened.  We remember the warm cycle of the Earth Mother and know the cold will change soon.  On a warm, late winter day one can even visualize tomato plants expanding inside their cages, flowers everywhere, promising sweet, juicy fruit in just a few more months.  Winter does encourage dreaming.  

It is around my birthday, just at the cusp of spring, that I get antsy to reinstall the canopy over the back porch and reset my open air ‘summer room.’  I got that done right on time this year.  And while sitting out one afternoon after a warm rain, I noticed the perennial bleeding hearts pushing out from under wet, matted down leaf duff beginning their spring statement of life.  

And that’s when it hit me -- again -- how important weathering a bleak winter is for a full, spiritual appreciation of the promise of spring and the abundance of life on this lucky planet. 

As green shoots erupt in every flower bed and the grass comes back to life, I feel my spirit lift.  While winter is good for what it offers, harbinger crocus, daffodil, and hyacinth are cause for a celebration that emanates from a well, deep within.   

For those of us who have weathered this past snowy Northern winter, such an appreciation of the colors of Life is an entitlement worthy of our emergence from the gray.  

Today’s elder idea: 

A light exists in spring
Not present on the Year 
At any other period --
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels. 

Emily Dickinson 
excerpt from Johnson #812

image:  Cleveland pear flower detail.  Newly planted at Wild Grace last weekend.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Crossing to safety

Recently I went to my fiction shelf and resurrected my copy of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, a book I remember liking much when I first ran across it c. 1989 when my life was changing.  Today, in the process of writing my own non-fiction book, I was hoping Stegner might provide some kind of energy I could use in my own original work.  I am here to tell you, the reread was quite lovely.  

I assume most gentle readers here are aware that I was married once before.  That 18 year marathon, which brought me both of my beautiful daughters, began to unwind in 1989.  It was a difficult time when much of my life seemed to turn on its head.  About that time, too, I lost life-long friend John Lauer to a mortal brain injury.  Needless to say, it was a time of great turbulence in my own personal ‘force.’  

Perhaps it was Stegner’s title that I hoped I could make my own.  I mean, crossing to safety is really all I hoped for at the time for myself, my girls, my ex-wife, and my new girlfriend, Cindy Lou.  It was a hard time for all of us and I needed some spiritual bolstering to find my way through it all.  

Part of my affection for Crossing to Safety, too, grew out of my university experience at Wright State.  When I enrolled there in fall 1968, the place was brand new, composed of only four classroom buildings, a student union, and a soccer field.  The English department staff was almost all young PhDs who had caught on at this newly independent facility of higher learning.  The protagonist of Stegner’s book, Larry Morgan, was himself fresh out of grad school beginning his own gig as writer and teacher.   It was easy for me to imagine him as one of my own instructors twenty-some years prior.  

I was drawn to read Wallace Stegner in the first place because his name always came up as an important contemporary American Western writer with an affinity for Nature.  As a self proclaimed liberal arts environmentalist, I felt him a kindred spirit.  I so much liked the idea of Wallace Stegner that I put meeting him on my bucket list.  At the time, that list included just two writers, Wendell Berry and Stegner.  Unfortunately, I missed Stegner, who died in 1993, though I did get to shake Berry’s hand once in 1999.

I am drawn to Crossing to Safety mostly because of Stegner’s skillful writing, but also for his believable, grounded characterization of the four major players.  There is no murder, no assault, no robbery; though there was a near drowning of them all.  I am drawn to Larry, Sid, Sally, and Charity because of their simple goodness and the dynamic friendship they developed over years of service to academia and their efforts for family contributions to the written canon of literature and criticism.   

But perhaps even deeper than that, it was Hog Island.  Again.  For them, it was Battell Pond, a modest summer community in Vermont where Charity’s mother, Aunt Emily, shepherded the family through seasons of swimming, reading, picnics, and star gazing.  When Larry and Sally became fast friends, it was inevitable that they would be invited and would come to be part of Aunt Emily’s extended family. 

As Sid and Larry hiked the New England forest, I wondered how David Todd and Walter Bingham saw the island wilderness of Camp Mavooshen a century ago.  Both places had buildings affectionately called The Big House.  I fantasized how Mabel Loomis Todd organized everyone’s day, like Aunt Emily, into play and learning periods while demanding everyone be on time for meals.  Classical music would waft out over the water after dinner.

Everyone at Battell Pond and Camp Mavooshen learned the common names of plants and recognized birds by their songs.  All had tasks to accomplish, some including the writing of books energized by the solitude of northern forests and the stirring of restless waters.  

Next for me is Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a book most critics think is his best.  My hope is he will continue to inform my prose as I try to contribute my own piece to the canon of the Todd Binghams and Emily Dickinson. 

In 1990 I assembled my own Crossing to Safety, an unpublished volume of original verse commemorating that time of deep personal conflict and change.  Here’s the title poem written for my lovely Cindy Lou: 

Crossing To Safety 

Frightening, we have been -- 
even to ourselves -- 
seeking passage across this
uncharted water. 

I thought wisdom was to be 
found differently: 
more comfortable -- more deliberate. 
More glacial-like, perhaps. 

But I suspect it is here -- 
buried within the tumult -- 
among the lessons -- of this attempted
crossing to safety. 

Today’s elder idea:  "My God," Sid said.  "Can there be such a place?"  
from Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety