In January, there are days when I wonder if I have ever learned anything at all from my life. To some extent this is a meteorological matter: At no other time of the year does the world seem so gray. I see blue sky only rarely, and the clouds are not dark enough to compensate with any kind of interesting wildness. The snow is a dull white. The bark of trees is no longer a luminous black or raw umber. Even the usually black asphalt of the street seems pale.
In such weather I am tempted to pass over the winter months for the easy images of spring. Yet the effort seems tawdry, making me feel foolish. I sense that I am trying to avoid the long pause of winter for a reason that I do not want to admit to myself. I am almost afraid to stop and think - afraid to admit that the gray will not sustain me, that for a few months I must turn away from the world to find my sustenance. I am in a hurry to get on with the new leaves, the first tulips, and the general sense of rejuvenation that the spring provides. Through most of the year, in fact, I wait too eagerly for the world outside me to give me the cue for life - until January, when I realize once again that I have tricked myself, and that I am on my own. As the year turns I wonder if I will ever learn.
But, being hopeful, I look for progress. Hope may be the first sign of introspection: One has to find something to hope for, and this requires taking stock of whatever is on one's mind. As the season for reading par excellence, winter is a time when lots of things are on my mind, in a rather tempestuous way: They blow in and out of thought with relatively little effort on my part. I may be cooking, or taking a walk, or shopping, when the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Wallace Stevens or Blaise Pascal come to mind; they stay for awhile, and go, and that is that. But part of this tempestuous quality derives from the way I tend to look at the whole world this time of year: I read for distraction, and my thought soon becomes as gray as the world around me.
From here it is a simple step to impatience and haste. I want the spring to come, I want to accomplish something, I want to defy the grayness. I rush and rush - read more, walk more, cook more - until I am exhausted, and have accomplished nothing of real substance.
Then, finally, I sit back and think about what I have been thinking - or not thinking. I have allowed my mind to turn into a storm, and its scattered and unsifted thoughts have settled like a heavy snow all over my spirit.
Time for a little sun, I think: I go back to some of those unsifted thoughts and begin to sift them, to see if there is something bright and solid hidden beneath the distracting surfaces.
What first comes to mind this time is Wallace Stevens's ''The World as Meditation.'' Some days ago I read through the poem, noting briefly part of its French epigraph from Georges Enesco: ''I have spent too much time performing on my violin, and traveling. But the essential exercise of the composer - meditation - nothing has ever interrupted that for me.'' Nothing has ever interrupted that for me - an affirmation of priorities that I skipped over too easily. I come back to the idea now: What interrupts my creative meditations? I know the answer too well - my own desire to distract myself, to equate distraction with vivacity and variety, to avoid hard and vivid thinking. I am not entirely to blame, I know; for the world caters to my wish for problems and amusement as much as I cater to its ability to provide them. Yet I am astounded at the words of a man such as Enesco, who refuses on principle to succumb to the surface glitter of events. I give my life the taste of his sunlight, and discover that the poem itself is about the sun.
Stevens is writing about Penelope, awaiting for 20 years the return of Ulysses from Troy. In Stevens's poem, Penelope is imagining the return of Ulysses at dawn:
Is it Ulysses that approaches from the east,The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.That winter is washed away. Someone is movingOn the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
Throughout the poem, Stevens makes it unclear whether Ulysses is actually returning, or whether Penelope is imagining his return, using the rising sun as her metaphor. Stevens even states the question directly:
But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sunOn her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.The two kept beating together. It was only day.
In this mere day, this ordinary time, it is Penelope's act of meditation - her ability to conceive of his warmth, his love, his actual presence in her life despite his physical absence - that gives her comfort, and quiets her. Stevens concludes:
She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,Repeating his name with its patient syllables,Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.
I pull away from the text of this poem for a little while and think about its quietness and comfort. As I have read through it, rather than rushing through it , it has given me its sense of ease, and something more - the beginnings of a coherent way of looking at the world, of feeling its powers and my powers running together beneath the disparate surfaces of things. I look out the window and, yes, it is still January. The gray days settle in, and I make myself at home.