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?