Warmed by Winter

DURING the first week in January my wife always reads six novels. She goes upstairs, sits on the bed, and meditates on the mysterious ways of others, as the winds howl without effect around her room. This has nothing to do with New Year's resolves, but with some spirit of recollection and inward provisioning. It has to do with the inside excellence of winter. After a while pages lie around her like soft snow from the centuries. Even my son of 15 comes to a pause in winter. Late fall is an uncertain time for him; he doesn't know whether the wood stove will be going or not. The whole house seems tentative. He and his little dog have no good place to lie down and keep warm. But January is different. The plows go by, the snow comes down, the fire burns. Ashes from the stove begin to pile up in pails on the hearth. No one wants to go out and dump them under the lilacs.

Surrounded like this, I think how warm winter can be. Wherever I look, houses unfold themselves. The screen of summer leaves hiding windows and doors is gone and lights come through the trees. Everywhere there is the glow of survivors - across the fields a gold-budded willow waiting for spring, near a snowy brush pile the delicate paw prints of a fox, and owls along the valley making deliberate hoots against the early nightfall.

I never really sympathized with Robert Frost's feelings about winter. There is a sensibility of winter fields that has nothing to do with ``desert places.'' Those fields are more likely to lead to sloping playgrounds or to border hearths of boisterous flames. When snow falls through January mornings, there is giddy exultation in the air. Children wake up thinking of sleds and cinnamon. The road to school is impassable. Their fingers and toes tingle with holiday.

No, in the delicate air of this dwindled summer resort the snow is welcome. It does not flock down granite wind tunnels to harden in gutters. It does not make anybody wish for spring. It slants or drifts, sashays or plummets in a dance I wouldn't mind learning. I barely know until flecked with snow how blithe that wind can be. As I shovel the steps, I am drawn to ponder the oddity of my own existence, the unpredictable drift of it. I am not crystal, like the snow, but nevertheless a light, windblown thing, set free for a moment on the earth.

In the snow this January, I think of the inside excellence of winter, and how warm, how centered, a person can somehow be. Even the cold landscapes of Frost's poems admit to the possibility. He spoke of us, in the midst of storms, as having an ``inner weather.''

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