For an icy rain that clings sluggish to twigs, railings, fences, windshields, the undersides of cheap patio furniture. Chilled to dribbling stalactites, unwilling to commit to a freeze but unable to run away. Winter, who not so long ago was fierce, full of energy, even playful — was it only last month? — has become a petulant child up past bedtime and too tired to sleep, throwing one after another diminishing tantrum. Flinging sleet into resentful faces. Mashing shoots of grass into resentful puddles. Frosting over flower petals like candy on a cake, then wandering off as they melt, and wilt. Spattering crystals that glimmer in the gray light, crying out from the mud, demanding attention. The pines refuse this time to participate: keep their needles uniced, and politely turn away. His parents watch embarrassed from the window, themselves too weary for discipline and knowing it to be futile.
Go to sleep, kid! But there is no helping it. He will just have to wear himself out.
Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed: Continue reading “Candlemas”
Here in the upper South we don’t have winter so much as three months of T. S. Eliot’s April, vaccilating between cold and cold comfort. Deep self-confident winter permits acclimation, the body and soul to put on layers of fat and wool against the cruelty without, but the occasional dip from jacket weather into parka cold promotes only whining. An inch of snow and traffic tangles like unused Christmas lights; six and we huddle in our dens as if beset by flaming hailstones. The forecast of a subfreezing afternoon comes with instructions on how to dress.
Survive thirty inches of snow or thirty degrees below zero and one has at least stories to tell one’s children, photographs for the album, video worthy of YouTube. Bitter cold and blizzard might stoke the fires of hardy stoicism or join neighbors in forced cheerfulness, but here even commiseration is half-hearted; the shared experience of not bothering to own a snow shovel is as comforting as unheated soup. Our winter’s banality is its most painful aspect: We don’t, after all, have all that much to complain about, and less to teach us not to. And so we shiver and wipe our soggy feet and wait for the spring we believe to be our birthright, when we can forget this whole sorry business ever happened.
Saturday we had significant snowfall for the first time in four years: only an inch and a half, but enough that I no longer need fear that the Monkey will begin to think the stuff a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and supply-side economics. In a normal winter we get a little snow — seven-plus inches is the annual mean — but it hasn’t snowed as much as an inch since 2004. Having grown up with doorknob-high drifts and blanket forts on snow days and twice-layered jeans that soaked through sledding and left crimson cold burns on my thighs, I’ve had to lower my standards for “significant snowfall” these latter barren years. Now I get excited by flakes no bigger than my dog’s dandruff, and my daughter, having no standards at all, makes do with whatever she finds: the five inch-high snowperson adorning our porch rail attests to the determination of a child who can read chapter books about polar bears but has never set foot in snow deeper than the tread on her boots:
Sad, but one has to make do with what one has. I filled the bird feeders, gave the ducks fresh straw, checked to make sure I still owned a snow shovel, and settled in to enjoy the show. Even the basset hounds, who had never seen snow either, loved it — a clean slate for scents, I suppose — although if we get a real snow one day, I am going to have to knit poor Everett a jock strap.
On a trip to Pennsylvania in late June I bought the finishing touch for our duck pen: a hex sign. It bears an eight-point star and rosette, for fertility, surrounded by raindrops. The fertility wishes, needless to say, are for the ducks. The rain is for all of us, and dear lord do we need it.
Almost as I crossed the state line into North Carolina with my new totem, a light drizzle began to fall. Bythe time I reached home it was raining, the first real rain in more than a month. Rain fell on six of the next seven days.
Coincidence? Well, yes, probably. But I have taken no less delight in trumpeting my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and the value of a few good superstitions. Continue reading “Prayers for rain”