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.
Coming of age in northwest Tennessee means I will always have a root exposed to those mown cornfields along Highway 22, as you approach Reelfoot Lake—a root sensitive to the bite of a January ice storm, and to the yellowed-out severity of a meager existence among the bluffs (an existence I only imagined, yet it seemed ripe material for stories), overrun with the ghosts of Chickasaw Indians; a root sensitive to endless backroad roaming, often under cover of night, when the mystery was thickest—when the taste in our mouths and the fire in our brains urged us into country cemeteries in hopes of communing with the dead (which we almost convinced ourselves happened); a root bare, like the bald knobs of cypresses, where unspeakable ice sculptures materialize from the winds whipping off the lake; a root exposed to the midnight sounds of unseen, distant animals—coyote laughter drifting across bean fields and who-knows-what splashing in black water.
I cannot deny the imprint of those experiences, coming, as they did, when my young adulthood was forming. There’s a voice in the rural solitudes of northwest Tennessee that speaks only to me, and I don’t need to be there to hear it.