Seamus Heaney mugged my Christmas and pinned me down through New Year’s. I was ambushed one evening on Youtube safari, a weak moment. With a holiday blizzard bleeding red pixels across the weather map, I went to work anyway, to do the stuff I’d been putting off. To clear my conscience. A poem rolling around untethered in my head didn’t help.
It’s always amazing how quickly campus empties itself during the last days. The academy retains ancient traditions as hoary theater but answering the solstice/Advent retreat is so ancient that it must, by now, be as deeply embedded a seasonal rhythm in temperate-zone humanity as anything, the packed-earth foundation of Advent.
Something nameless and primal calls us to wait out the darkness, tend the fires, and sing our stories.
Procrastinator that I am, I lingered last among my colleagues, still in the office as the advancing polar system spilled over the weakened jet stream into the interior. Puttering some time to make time to walk in it. Something so soothingly claustrophobic emerges in wind-driven snow when the wind and the light are working off each other, and the monochromatic material grays and blues wrap around you on the north wind. The world is suddenly small, and the horizon disappears, not in extravagant distance, but in wind-driven crystalline cold and occluded half-light.
The paradox of our big urban campus is four miles of shoreline on lake Mendota. I walk her flaggy shore in all seasons because the gravity of watery horizons demands it. An early winter blizzard and the sudden cold pushes new ice and churns it into patterns, small pancake ice floes, leads of gray dark water, and shards stacked up inland among stones. Rime burdening the lakeside trees that fall slowly and I am alone with it all.
I kick through the pathway drifts, happy for my wool hat and down hood, and the pleasant sting of the wind on my forehead. And there are voices on the burdened waves, faintly in the swish of my hood and the wind, registering more in my imagination than in my ears and my imagination wonders what kind of nutcase is out there.
Swans. There in the wind and ice. Roughed and ruffling, white on white as Seamus Haney described them half a world away. Earthed lightning. Great grand white birds with no silly need for retreat and artificial warmth. Tundra swans migrate through in early-winter, stopping when open water allows. In 2016, I watched a New Year’s Eve sunset from the end of a pier on the north end, surrounded by hundreds of them.
I tried for a photo, but the gloveless wind hurt, and the distance was deceptive, and the blowing snow, and they flew away into the wind.
The next day was a quiet Christmas eve. I sang the carols and lit the candles. I ushered for church’s early service and cheerily welcomed them all – and it was … alright enough. Afterward, just three of us though, Indian take-out for dinner. We deferred our big family gathering for a week to accommodate a family wedding. Maybe transcendence will find me yet.
That wedding day, another New Year’s Eve, was warm, melting away the aftermath of the blizzard. Rivulets on the sidewalks and heavy atmosphere. The process whereby snow melts and evaporates directly into vapor is called “ablation,” the same word for when the surgeon scars your heart.
We spent the morning getting ready in a small hillside chapel overlooking the Grand River. Bustle and joy, making things just right. I wore a tie and dressy shoes from the back of my closet. I stepped out to breathe and for a look and watery gravity caught me again. The bare and dark floodplain trees, the squirrel dreys in silhouette against the gray, reminded me of crunching through the weathered snow and boots slipping in the pungent mud.
This great Grand River. This essential geography, running through the grand valley, downstream from its Grand Rapids. This great muddy permanence, draining the world that I instinctually call home despite having moved away more than thirty years ago. This late December thaw at the end, swelling and spilling its glacial sediment plume into the Big Lake. The silty mud that oozes over your toes and climbs your ankles. Algae and softened old trees. I saw an otter here once and there’s an eagle in the sycamore tree nearby. Walk me in and baptize me again – I am neither here nor there.
I should go back in and make myself useful.
And then she walked by with her groom and the photographer in tow. There in the middle distance. Roughed and ruffling, white on white and against the slate gray surface, great and grand. A moment in her silly uncle’s memory.
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.