Tag Archives: New England

February’s Foot

Ground Hog’s Day seems a good time to make this announcement.  My book, My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of  a Lover (Michigan State University Press) has been published and should arrive in bookstores any day now.  There is more information on my new website.

Ground Hog’s Day or February 2nd is also Imbolc, sacred to Brigid with her great belly-shaped cauldron.  It is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, when the Blessed Mother leaves her postpartum seclusion and goes to the temple, where she is bathed and prepared to re-enter society.  Forty days after his birth, her baby has grown safely past that delicate, infection-prone stage of early life, and she may present him to the world without fear that he’ll catch his death of cold.

The day marks the faint stirring of new life.  It shows here in this mild, rainy humid place.  The Japanese magnolia in my yard is sprouting all over with small green leaves.  There is a lot of dead brown junk, but I see the beginnings stirring underneath.  This weather would be considered spring by most other standards.  Emily looks onto a New England winter that is nothing like mine.

#1133, ca. 1868

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

The only thing Emily and I have in common right now is February’s Foot. We’re both under it. The difference between this condition in Amherst, Massachusetts and New Orleans is that here February’s Foot wears a jeweled strappy sandal with a soft sole and a kitten heel. In Emily’s case, the foot on her neck wears an ice-crusted boot, thick, solid, unforgiving.

The winter freeze in her poem has a cleansing quality, setting out a pure white space. The cold kills off everything but loneliness. The color of white is really the absence of color. We can even call white the color of death exactly—it does not point to loss or decay, but removal.  A vacancy, where life and color used to be.

This a an abrupt contrast to my February where winter is a riot of color. Purple, gold and green! Carnival is about to explode into our daily lives. We grow fat on cake and misbehavior. One of the first changes I noticed in myself when I made New Orleans my home was that my customary seasonal affective disorder disappeared. All my life I had experienced a deep depression in winter. My emotional state went into steep decline in January and a didn’t come up to a level approaching normal until April, after the ice had thawed. Once I’d had a few winters in New Orleans, I noticed this depression never had a chance to take hold of me again. Just as winter sadness began to creep into me, Carnival would snap its fingers, and I had to get busy, making my costume. It’s impossible to be depressed under the gauzy banner of Mardi Gras. Plus the weather doesn’t lock you indoors where depression incubates. Who knew?! All those years I didn’t need anti-depressants, just the Pagan Rites of Carnival.

This is genius, whoever thought of it. What a smart antidote to the inevitable emotional flattening that our environment slams us with each season. Of course, New Orleans is not the only place to celebrate Carnival. The practice exists in France, Germany, Italy, South America . . . wherever you find deep and old enclaves of Roman Catholics, you find this wise, psycho-cultural anti-depressant. Just not in New England. Those Protestants wear their depression with pride. Important to note this is not the grand, sparkling, spiking pain of Roman Catholic suffering—also called “passion”—how operatic. No, the Protestants have cornered the market on that low-grade, chronic, dulling down, long drawn-out suffering—the pain of endurance.

I’m over-simplifying, but I’ve got my reasons.

Emily strives to make the point, “pang is good.” She insists we need these blanketing snow-bound February storms where all the eye can see disappears as if into the great void for a time, which on the poet’s clock is forever. Emily claims that without the contrast, we do not gain the emotional value of the return to life. While under the frost of February’s foot, the depressed person cannot remember anything else but nothingness and loneliness. It stretches infinitely in all directions at once. The depressed mind knows no limits, sees no shape or cycle to her emotional life. Each minute of winter is eternal.

Emily wants us to consider the value first of being muffled into vacancy and then given a reprieve. The shift from nothing to something, the first green shoot that sends life and juice into all our cells, and we return to ourselves. Em says we can’t fill ourselves up without first becoming empty.

I’m not sure . . . after enduring plenty of those vacant winters myself, I want to invite Emily to live in south Louisiana for a few seasons and then ask if she is still so attached to that seasonal affective disorder. I’m glad she has made poems about it. What else is there to do in western Massachusetts in February? Still I’d like to see what Emily would do with Carnival. Wouldn’t you?


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Tropical Depression

We are still drenched in the feeder bands (like that weather report lingo? yep, we’re fluent in New Orleans) from this almost-hurricane Alex. They promise it won’t disturb the oil spill. Thank goodness. I’d hate to have anything mess that up—it’s been going so well. Speaking of lingo and fluency, I remember years ago, way before Katrina, someone told me, “There’s a depression out in the Gulf.” I puzzled over this for some time, wondering why she was telling me about a person suffering from chronic emotional distress out in the water. Should we get that person some help? A therapist? I was confused. Not any more. Now I know the short-hand terms better than I ever wanted to know. Although, it’s no accident that “tropical depressions” are called that. No mere weather pattern, these low-pressure systems infect our emotional core with an inexplicable heaviness. Anxiety, sure—that’s a conditioned response, rising from our collective memory of five years ago. But the hard-to-pinpoint sadness, the low-grade, enveloping grief that makes us move and think with a strange slowness—these seep into us from the air all around. An invisible density bores down on our brains from the Gulf and the past at once.

Makes me want to move to Canada for lots of reasons, not just the good gun control laws. Sheesh, don’t get me started.

Emily refused comment on the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned the ban on hand-guns. She’s only mildly interested in the weather. This was all she had to say:

#359, c. 1862

I gained it so —
By Climbing slow —
By Catching at the Twigs that grow
Between the Bliss — and me —
It hung so high
As well the Sky
Attempt by strategy —

I said I gained it —
This — was all —
Look, how I clutch it —
Lest it fall —
And I a Pauper go —
Unfitted by an instant’s Grace
For the Contented — Beggar’s face
I wore — an hour ago —

It’s true. Nothing like a moment’s happiness to make a person all that more aware of her misery. “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length,” said another dour New Englander.

Emily goes further. She says that her moment of happiness made it impossible for her to be content with mere existence. She might have been satisfied with trundling along, not expecting too much, but then she couldn’t resist reaching for that treasure up high, that bliss. Now, she’s had it once, she is ruined, spoiled for regular life, which is never characterized by sustained Bliss.

So she asks us to ask ourselves: Is it worth it? Clearly she believes it so. But she can’t help falling into the shadow surrounding Bliss. It’s the memory of Bliss in the shadow that spoils her. When she removes herself from experience and dwells in the memory of experience, then she finds the source of her melancholy, or rather her sense of herself as a Pauper. She sees Bliss as something that belonged to her, an object she clutches with desperation. When it slips away, she feels depleted, as though someone drained her bank account. Interesting that she doesn’t know how to be happy as a dog. She had plenty of good teachers for that. Sorry to roll out the clichés, but that’s what they mean when they say, “Ignorance is Bliss.” That and a failure of memory too.

My grandmother was the happiest she has ever been during the last few years of her life when her memory left. It was replaced with doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and round-the-clock cable TV. There was a program that showed a continuous loop of random amateur wedding videos. My grandmother watched these and imagined she was actually in attendance at the wedding, that these strangers on TV were her nieces and nephews getting married, and she was witnessing a real and true blessed event. It made her happy because she loved weddings, especially the cake at the end.

So my grandmother spent her final days as a perpetual wedding guest, smiling with powdered sugar dusting her chin and blouse. That was her bliss. Hard to argue with that. More of this tomorrow.

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Dark Sunshine

Today Emily writes to her brother, Austin. #2, c. 1851

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields —
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

She invites her brother into her garden where all is ever green. Nothing fades or dies.

Emily tells us what a spectacular world exists inside her head.  She’d like to share it with someone she loves, her brother, someone who not only appreciates it, but needs a glimpse of this garden.

I get the sense that Em is comforting her brother with this poem.  Also giving herself something.  The pleasure for Emily is to share the wonders of her imagination.

Yeah yeah, the deal with her is that she wrote in solitude.  But not really.  She wanted someone to read what she wrote.  She wanted someone to know the glories that she could “see” with her mind’s eye.  Otherwise why commit any of it paper at all?  And why send that batch of poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking for his opinion on whether her poems “breathed”?

Why?  Because Emily Dickinson, infamous recluse and dog lover (these often go together), skinny, flat-chested, dour, long-nose Yankee bluestocking yadda, yadda, yadda—you’ve heard all the usual de-sexualizing stuff about our sweet Em—asked to be seen and heard through her words.  She was an artist and yearned to be felt in the world.  To have an impact.  To exist.  To move people with her words, make them think and react.  She wanted to make something happen.

Now, I am savoring the paradox of “another sunshine/Though it be darkness there.”  I want to hold that sunlight in the darkness behind my eyes.  I am sitting on my porch.  That damn bird has stopped singing finally.  Lance has propped his chin on the lower porch rail.  He’s keeping an eye on the squirrel in the crape myrtle because you never know what a squirrel might do.  Now there is someone, Lance, who is happy not to be famous.  If we ignore Lance forever, he won’t care.  As long as someone puts food in his bowl at the right time, he’s content.

Another bird joins the song.  More modulated.  she moves up and down the scale with more grace and style than her predecessor.  The more complex answer to his blunt announcement.

The darkness behind my eyes is illuminated by a light invisible to anyone else.  This morning, I woke from a dream, brightly lit, even though it moved from day to night.  The strongest image I took from the dream is a cluster of giant, ancient pine trees in a park at night.  The wind moves their branches as I walk up the hill toward them.  Although it is summer, the air is cool.  The trees are lovely and mysterious.  They stand near each other, as if in close counsel, holding their wisdom.  They present themselves and defy understanding.  They are alive with their own nature but give nothing away.

I recognize these trees.  They grow in rocky soil in New England.  They are strong, impervious to winter.  Emily could have walked beneath these trees.

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