Saturday, 22 November 2014

Winter as Wonder: Reflections on November

'The color of springtime is in the flowers; the color of winter is in the imagination.'
~ Terri Guillemets

'How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!' ~Thomas Wentworth Higginson 

'Winter is, once again, the white page on which we write our hearts.'  
~ Adam Gopnik
How are you enjoying November so far? It's such a maligned month isn't it? The month which opens the jaws of winter: sharp cold dark days and long nights. I'd imagine it's not many people's favourite month. Even its very sound 'No-vem-ber' is like a booming negative enforcer of some malevolent kind.

In researching my selections of poems for my poem-a-day blog this month I have to say I've found a lot of negative responses to the month. Maybe none more so than 'November' by Thomas Hood which plays on the 'No' of November to a staggering degree. Here is a taster:

November - Thomas Hood 

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon!
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day -
No sky - no earthly view -
No distance looking blue ...
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -

And another along the same lines, from John Clare:

"So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world."
- November

November can be a dread for a lot of people. I used to be one of them. Hated to see winter coming, being a Spring girl at heart! I just couldn't accept this opposite season. But I have learned to like its precursor autumn, to appreciate it as a season not of endings, but of new beginnings in recent years. And with winter, I am beginning to see it not as barren and bleak, but peaceful, wise, maybe even magical, with wonder hidden beneath the plain exterior. As John Updike says in his poem 'A Child's Calendar' under November: 'and yet the world/in its distress/displays a certain/loveliness. It does.

First, it is essential to acknowledge that November's (and winter's) accompanying sorrow or sadness or melancholy is not necessarily a bad thing. It is natural to change with the seasons and sync to them. Spring invites new enthusiasm and hope; summer luxuriating, basking in being; autumn reaping and reflection; and winter, contemplation, learning and wisdom. In the poem My November Guest by Robert Frost, he acknowledges that sorrow follows him in this month, but he has learned to accept her presence, and see the beauty she relinquishes: 'she loves the bare, the withered tree... she's glad her simple worsted gray is silver now with clinging mist.'  Sorrow, really a kind of hyper-sensitivity, teaches us how to look more deeply at the world and revel in any mere hints of beauty we see there. Sorrow revels in winter, not just as a fitting mournful landscape, but as one that offers sure signs of resilient beauty. The poet in this poem looks on his sorrow as a way of learning to be in the season, not berate it. So much so that he is able to find beauty and even balm in November too.  *(You can read the poem by clicking on its title).

One good point going for November is its position in the calender year as a prelude to December, namely, to Christmas. I distinctly remember one November a few years ago,  sitting by a cafe window, looking at lovely snow photos in a magazine, the evening lit blue by early Christmas lights outside. It was nowhere near Christmas, but there was a feeling of something in the air, a frosty undercurrent of enchanting expectation that conjured up snow and all its sparkly connotations, an eager belief in all kinds of happenings, shimmering on the horizon like the Northern Lights. It was quite magical. And now, November is imprinted for me with this bright blue memory.


When you think about it, November is where our Christmas dreams and wishes take root; where thoughts of the festivities to come slip into our consciousness and germinate seasonal magic. For it does not come from nowhere, but only by expectation, preparation, and much awaiting. And November days sparkle with this electric expectation (always more heady itself than the actual happening.) Just as the trees have begun to twinkle with lights, early strung with high hopes, so do our winter selves begin to look forward instead of back. The light ahead is warm and beckoning, the darkness merely a backdrop for it. And instead of dreading the winter to come, we adapt to it and begin to appreciate it. The days have changed, things begin to look different, no longer in a bad summer-is-gone way, but in a new enlightened winter wonderful way. Now suddenly there are things to like about the dark days, things that lighten them.  

December's magic is dependent on the festivities; it is an expected and assumed magic, and when you're expected and assumed to feel things, often, they fall flat. But November's magic is not dependent on such things, more so on the changes in season, as the first inklings of winter are not all bad. There are dull days yes, but accompanying them gorgeous sundowns and dusks. Look up at dusk and see the sky change an exquisite palette of colours like never before, the frosty temperatures cutting the pigments brighter. The other day I was awestruck by the most gorgeous display of colours at our local seaside, a palette of cool arctic blues: cerulean, navy and turquoise skies, lit by golden sun hues as the evening dipped and fanned, and the water shining silver in response. Another day it was contrasted with primary colours of warm red and amber and yellow in the sunset. And another, I was stunned by a hazy watercolour landscape of dusky peachy pinks offset by cool soft blues. Beautiful. And proof that November, and winter, is not as bleak as it looks. Beneath the surface, it shimmers, it glows.  Here are some of the shots I took: 

'The sunbeams are welcome now. They seem like pure electricity—like friendly and recuperating lightning.' ~ John Burroughs

'Of winter's lifeless world each tree
Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer's secret
Deep down within its heart.'

~ Charles G. Slater

'The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine they tell of.' ~ Thoreau  
'Than these November skies
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep;
Into their grey the subtle spies
Of colour creep,
                                   Changing that high austerity to delight'  ~
John Freeman*(poem below)
These sunset skies are truly something wonderful to behold. Just when you think the light has drained from the days, it comes back in a spectacular show. But it's not just sunsets. Night skies also come alive this season. Stars can be seen more clearly on frosty nights, like diamonds sparkling on a midnight blue backdrop.  November's moon, the frosty moon, is one of the most beautiful of the year, brighter and whiter than in other months, a veritable spotlight hanging in the sky. This year's was particularly brilliant: the nights were back-lit for a week or more, a grand stadium of the wee hours. And of course, there's the fantastic multi-coloured Northern Lights, putting in an appearance this time of year, fixing all eyes skyward. Seems the darker it is, the more colours come out. Or maybe winter is the time our senses are pricked into appreciation and so we see more clearly, more acutely the things we have taken for granted all year, specifically: light, sun and colour. 

'Stars fall and shoot in keen November' ~ Christina Rosetti

'In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.' ~ John Burroughs 

November weather however miserable, always harbours the possibility of snow. And that is something to wish upon, a gorgeous snow-show to  magic up the days. The icing on the cake of winter, so to speak, for what could be more beautiful than snow? More transforming? More magical? (All in a limited picturesque not potentially dangerous quantity I might add!) We wish for snow as we wish for something to interrupt our daily quotidian lives and startle us into revelations of beauty, of magic, of wonder. Snow stops routine, invites hunkering down, playfulness, a suspension of the ordinary, an awed reaction to the elements. There's nothing like snow to stop us in our tracks, both literally and figuratively. It white-washes our familiar surrounds new again. It is winter's blank slate in literal terms.  It is the 'sublime' winter the Romantics spoke of and wrote about, a catalyst of interior contemplation - remember Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight', the winter night creating a 'solitude, which suits Abstruser musings'? EE Cummings in his poem 'Enter No Silence' expresses his wish for snow, for 'very whiteness: absolute peace, never imaginable mystery.' Exactly. Well if there is no snow, we at least have November 'white' weather with misty moments, starry frosts and icy tendrils. November weather is atmospheric weather. Who doesn't love walking along exhaling frosty breaths? Or wrapping up snug to face the elements? Winter weather may be challenging, but it is also enchanting. Beneath its heavy machinations, there is a haven of beauty.


'It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.' ~ John Burroughs

'And when comes the winter snow monotonous,
I shut all the doors and shutters
To build in the night my fairy palace.'
~ Charles Baudelaire 

Winter is the season when the home becomes the hearth. It is a time of retreat into the interior places (and spaces), the 'fairy palaces' of our lives. I personally like to use this season for reading, writing, (and dreaming).  A time to cosy by the fire yes, but also to contemplate, to burrow deep, to reflect on the year past and formulate hopes for the year to come. There's a great Rumi quote about winter that goes: "And don't think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It's quiet, but the roots down there are riotous." I love this idea. Now's the time when our cores are nourished and our 'roots' are riotous planning growth, developing their sloping strands, eager to grow into the year ahead. On the surface, winter is till, but look deep and there is frantic movement. In the hush of snow and silence of the dark, things breathe into being. Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver have poems that echo this sentiment using trees as subject matter (*see below).  But it is a line from an Alice Oswald poem 'Owl Town,' that has completely enchanted me and changed my view of the season entirely: 'a wood of wishbone trees'. But of course! Look at how winter trees are exposed to the sky, their branches stretched and straining upwards, curved in delight, in valiant u's of hope. What a magical transformative way of looking at what seems bare and barren. And the season. See, everything about it seems to point to: wishing. 

'Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.' ~ Billy Collins, 'Winter Syntax'

'Every object pleases.... the straight light-gray trunks of the trees... how curious they look, and as if surprised in undress.' ~ John Burroughs

Adam Gopnik echoes this view in his book on the season 'Winter' (my staple read of the season.) It is a collection of essays 'five windows into the season' in which Gopnik puts forward different concepts of winter: romantic winter, radical winter, recreational winter, recuperative winter, remembering winter. In romantic winter, he argues that winter has been romanticised by artists and writers and dreamers alike, for this reason it is he says the season of the imagination:  'Winter is the climate of the imagination. Winter displaces us from the normal cycles of nature - nothing's growing - and with our dysfunction from nature comes our escape into the mind, which can make of nature what it will.' He sees the season as a 'positive, and even purifying, presence of something else - the beautiful and the peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime.' The season he states, has been defined by 'absences (of warmth, leaf blossom) but can be imagined as stranger presences (of secrets, roots, hearths).  It is truly a season of what we make it, think it, dream it. It is a time of epiphanies, of hopes, of dreams, of making blueprints for the year to come. For as Gopnik says, 'Winter is, once again, the white page on which we write our hearts.'  It is. A beautiful blank slate. Not the blankness of an end, but the brightness that precedes a new beginning. The 'oblivion', according to Mary Oliver that 'is full of second chances'.


I've been enjoying November so far. In fact, it seems to be speeding by and I find myself willing it to stay. The days aren't just longer, but seem deeper too, thinking terrain. There are treasures to be found in them. I can only hope that the rest of winter will be the same.

Andrew Wyeth says of his seasonal preference: 'I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.' Something waits beneath it. I think it's this 'something' that provides the magic of the season. Nature's lessons of growth. The light's refusal to go away. The beauty that is present in apparent bleakness. The warmth the cold can generate. The infallible hope. All of these potent patents of the season have almost won me over I must admit. Winter may be a season that is hard to love, but it does offer wonder. I am still looking forward to spring, but now I'm letting the cold of winter sharpen my senses to the world around me, bring my attention to the seasonal show now playing, the perks to be found in its performance. Spring may be a giddiness of growth, a proof of hope, a green fire fueling enthusiasm, but Winter is a wise and wistful teacher, it has lessons of grace and patience to offer, and I am listening, finally. Spring begets new growth, but winter paves the way. Spring is all shoots and buds, but winter's work lies deep in the roots; it is a season of interior growth.

Below are some poems I've mentioned above. And after those, a beautiful song which I think sums up the feeling of winter wonder exactly: tentative, fragile, subtle, sparkling, whimsical, wonder-ful, magical, warm.

For now, 

wading in wonder,

~ Siobhán 

November Skies - John Freeman

Than these November skies
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep;
Into their grey the subtle spies
Of colour creep,
Changing that high austerity to delight,
Till ev'n the leaden interfolds are bright.
And, where the cloud breaks, faint far azure peers
Ere a thin flushing cloud again
Shuts up that loveliness, or shares.
The huge great clouds move slowly, gently, as
Reluctant the quick sun should shine in vain,
Holding in bright caprice their rain.
And when of colours none,
Not rose, nor amber, nor the scarce late green,
Is truly seen, --
In all the myriad grey,
In silver height and dusky deep, remain
The loveliest,
Faint purple flushes of the unvanquished sun.  


Walking Beside a Creek - Ted Kooser

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.  


Last Days - Mary Oliver

Things are
    changing; things are starting to
        spin, snap, fly off into
            the blue sleeve of the long
               afternoon. Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
     of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
      into substance and hue. As everything,
          forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
              I too love oblivion why not it is full
                   of second chances. Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves, Now!
    booms the muscle of the wind.

 'Northern Sky' ~ Nick Drake:

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