It’s thirteen minutes past eleven p.m., and I could sleep, but I’m too stubborn. Because there’s still a capacity for wakefulness in this winter-weary body.* Winter-weary–yeah, right, says the New Englander or the Michigander. How is a Tennessean winter-weary? Because for three nights out of the past five, I have slept in a hotel in my own town, away from my wife, away from my kids, all because there’s a possibility that sideroads may be treacherous and impassable. This is life when it snows or, more accurately, ice-storms in Nashville. Trucks brine the interstate; people with buckets scatter blue salt over concrete stairs and isolated parking lots; and the administration at the laboratory where I process cancerous tissue five days a week takes the initiative to ensure its workforce’s safety and its capacity to perform its important job by generously providing hotel rooms for those of us able to stay. Every specimen is a patient. I never forget the human at the other end of the tissue that I’m processing, because I know that we are all grasping for our lives and for the lives of those we love. We cling to this vapor of earthly existence, no matter what we believe about the hereafter. If we humans unite behind anything, it is this: we’re all trying to stay alive. This is our impulse. Perhaps it’s the purest instinct. And we don’t let go of it until there are no other options; until it’s wrested from our slack hands.
How does one not think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in a post like this? So I cling to consciousness, because it’s my impulse, even though I should be sleeping. I didn’t inherit that napping gene that brings so much joy to others (neither did my oldest son). I stay awake until I no longer can. It will take its toll later in the week, when I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30 on Friday night. But for now I soldier on, writing this blog post, thinking about how rarely we have a good snow in middle Tennessee, about how people lose their minds when the temperature drops below freezing, and about how we’re all together (even though we don’t always like each other) in this endeavor of life.
*Winter-weariness is not altogether bad. I’ve written elsewhere that I often feel more alive in winter. Weariness can coexist with contentment, it seems.
On a cloudy day in late December, I find the whitened blue-gray of winter distances soothing. The tree-covered hills of Middle Tennessee, bowed like the backs of ancient wanderers huddling on the edge of town, work a strange, restful magic on the eyes. And then the early dusk: how the blue-gray deepens; how the ends of bare limbs silhouette into thousands of gnarled and knobby fingers, heaving here-and-there in the brashness of bitter breezes–the kinds of breezes we’re never dressed for, so we hurry from the car to the great indoors, where our bones ache a few minutes more.
All these things conspire to the mystery of winter. I know no dread of a long night, only the embrace of a cavernous, comfortable dark, one that welcomes introverted sojourning, where I cocoon myself in flannel and plaid and lamplight. Winter makes many think of death, but doesn’t it also somehow make you feel more alive? Is it because I was born in January, that I have this drive?
Our Tennessee cold spells never last long; perhaps if I had a Michigan address, winter would be more of an inconvenience. But for now, living as I do in the humid South, I get excited when I hear the temperature is dropping. Will anyone else claim this?
The present ache is not physical, but metaphysical perhaps, meaning that the symptoms are likelier to be furrowed brows and drawn-out silences than anything requiring Ibuprofen. It seems to come, this ache, from an overabundance of existence. Do you know what it means for existence to feel like a burden? Not in a depressive way (though it can go there), but in an overwhelming way—a feeling that’s not really an emotion, yet is still big to the point of restlessness, when all you can do is stare into nondescript places and try not to embarrass yourself by spazzing out in public.
So I drive and stare straight ahead as if wearing blinders, aware of the gray-brown treescape falling away on both sides, but not needing to look at it. All is a soothing, comforting gray. Even the noises are gray. More and more, these days, I want to leave the radio off. Coasting down I-65, I feel, oftener with age, a compulsion to quietness—a need to listen to the road sounds: tires at high speed; the double-knock of wheels over changing pavements; the motor’s quiet roar and the thin, dry clicking of my vents on low. Rounding a curve or banging through a pothole, a loose thing in the back loses footing and topples against the inside of the car, sounding like an animal trapped and pawing for escape.
When I listen like this, I think I’m getting closer to the texture of existence—the part we lose from being on auto-pilot; the part we drown in music or conversation. Listening when there’s not much to listen to: this is a valid way to center oneself. And I’m the type that needs frequent centering.