“Either everything will fall apart, or poetry will make everything alive again. It’s not going to stay like this.”
-Matthew Stein, Words from a Dream
January thaw in Houghton is a bit like a teaser trailer for the next highly anticipated movie – it may be weeks, months, years before the main feature is released, but it’s all you can think about until the moment the first screenings open.
Unfortunately, the season of spring can’t be leaked online, it cannot be interviewed, and there’s never an exact release date, especially in western New York. Spring may come as early as March or as late as June. All the snow may disappear overnight, or there may be a period of uncomfortable indecision where snow boots and a t-shirt may be a compromise.
The thaw is cruel as well as kind in its winter reprieve – it will haunt you until the first daffodil breaks through the crust of slush on the grass and the temperature stays above fifty for more than two consecutive weeks. It also allows you to carry on through winter with some optimism. You will dream of fresh air, the cloudless sky, of sitting in the grass with bare feet while listening to peepers sing to their mates. Spring is a siren; a trap; the very best strain of seasonal disease. She infects and she lingers and she overwhelms you with a sense of security and warmth. She leaves no lasting damage, only seamless transition. You don’t think of winter, you only think of tomorrow and the breaking of a new day, just like this.
The thaw is just a sampling of the real thing, but in the State of Perpetual Winter, you cling to what you can get without complaint.
The afternoon air is registering at 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Proper steps must be taken:
- Exchange a sweater for a long-sleeved t-shirt.
- Slide open the storm windows to let in an ozone and grass-laced breeze.
- Slip off ski socks and slide into flip flops.
- Ignore remaining snow drifts and icicles hanging from gutters.
- Listen to the animals waking and scratching, to the birds twittering unseen in the trees.
- Feel the warmth of the noon sun on face.
Close eyes, breathe deep. Exhale, repeat.
I am no fool – I will not miss an opportunity to bask in the gloriously soothing glow of mid-winter sunlight. There may be snow on the ground, but if it smells like spring and you can comfortably walk about with only a light jacket, there’s a sign of hope. There is an end in sight; there is affirmation that winter is neither the conclusion nor the stopping point… that there’s something more than this, something yet to come.
Reminders of this truth are everywhere. One that sticks prominently in my mind is the Disney animation for the 1919 version of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The underlying message is that destruction is a natural part of the flow of life. Despite what may happen or what forces may lash out and seem to tear the world apart, there will be renewal. There will be dawn and life and growth and light.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain took me a longer time to figure out, but it’s along the same lines. We have death and decay, and in a sense without it the world could not progress. If you only have growth and expansion, you face overwhelming surplus. Living forever on earth can only be accomplished by being a part of other living things; by feeding the earth in death. There is death, but it leads to new life and afterlife and ultimately a better existence. Death is not a means to an end but a means to a new beginning. Time is a cycle, time offers repetition.
I’m at a time in my life when this idea is showing up more frequently and an in more obscure ways. Celebrating my twenty-first birthday this summer, I found myself facing the death of my childhood, but through it finding the excitement of finally growing into adulthood. I had to say farewell to the benefits and joys of adolescence, but was then able to step forward into a brand new light of legality.
Graduation is the expiry of my formal education, of my time in this place with these aims, but without the end there would never be a new beginning elsewhere, utilizing the knowledge I have garnered here. (You can read more about my feelings on senior year here).
In just over seven months, I will be getting married. There has already been an ending to our “dating” relationship when we felt we had reached the preparedness and commitment to quest on to marriage through engagement. Soon, we shall face the termination of our lives as solitary individuals, but without this surrender we can never be together, bound in matrimony, united until physical death do us part. Some people try to accomplish this without sacrifice, but it’s not the way the cycle is supposed to function. An end brings a new and more wonderful beginning.
The end of a day brings the promise of a rising sun, and the falling snow brings hope hinted at by a welcome thaw. It’s an offering of grace.
Without winter, we would never know spring.
A typical last-semester of senior year: Friends sitting around a table in the cafeteria, laughing over an issue of the Drawing Board, talking about the session of senior seminar they just vacated, poking at the limp, flavorless vegetables on their plates and gnawing at leathery Sodexo pot roast. Pointing out the perspective students standing awkwardly at the cafeteria stairs, trying to look belonging but given away by the familiar purple folder clutched underneath their too-hot plate. Snow turns to rain out the large windows overlooking the quad, and the lunch rush leaves for their afternoon classes. The friends, blessed with relaxed schedules, recline and continue to share stories and memories, going around the table for another few minutes.
“Well, next fall SPOT, we’ll….”
“Just another Christmas Break, you know?”
“It’s been forever since we did coffee. Soon?”
“Sure, but it’s not like we’ll never see each other again….”
The table grows quiet as everyone, regardless of the separate conversations they were carrying on, lets the weight of the words settle over the group in a heavy layer of realization.
This is the last. There won’t be any more after.
When senior year of high school flew by, I wasn’t surprised. I had grown up with the people who sat at the desks next to me, many of whom I loved and many of whom I would not miss. I was ready to leave my birthplace, my origins, and prepared to blaze new trails and see new things and continue to learn and grow and open my eyes and take my first real steps into the world. It was a feeling of branching out, not parting ways. There wasn’t a pain in leaving as I knew at some point that we’d all be back. We all had common origins. We would have to return. And if we didn’t, it was for good reason.
The beauty and frustration of Houghton College is that it is a place that filled me with unrealistic expectations and a set idealism. I will always have hot meals available and a local coffee shop where the barista knows me and my order before I even step up to the counter. I will always have my friends within a ten-mile radius, and they will be available to talk and spend time at any hour day or night. I will get to be taught by experts in every field of my interests and spend time at length in their tutelage and friendship. There are enough jobs for everyone to earn some money, even at minimum wage. There is no need for police and there’s a preconceived notion that doors need not be locked and no one will ever steal from your bag. We are not spoiled by perfect weather, but there are warm beds to sleep in winter and when spring eventually wakes, she is the very essence of joy. There is no sound of the freeway, and skyscrapers and office buildings are replaced by pine boughs stretching towards an open sky. My commute to class is through the woods, crossing a weaving, burbling creek and smelling the moist dirt beneath the trees and feeling whispers of hushed wind through spreading branches.
We may feel a million miles from elsewhere, but this is home. No one really needs Wal-Mart when you have thirteen-hundred acres of woods, rivers and fields.
Only four brief months, and I’ll be like Truman, crashing my boat into the edge of my man-made sphere and climbing the skyward stairs towards the exit. When I finally get brave enough to sail to new horizons, harsh reality will tear through my sails and deconstruct the dream I created. It’s just plaster and paint. That’s not the sky.
I’ve spent four unbelievable years feeling like Houghton and Ohio were the only worlds that existed. I’ve known better all along, but it didn’t hit me until the other day that this is my community. This is the first place I’ve made a home all on my own. I bustle through to the post office; grab my mail and then a cup of coffee, running off to my next meeting and waving hi to the familiars on the sidewalk. I met my first boyfriend and found my last “forever” love. I won and lost and got published and was rejected and learned to build a thicker skin. I slept and I woke and I lived.
My belongings fill my apartment, my art on the walls, my baking in the oven and my favorite foods in the fridge. My blankets on my bed and clothes in my drawers. My lights that glow on the deck and my card telling everyone Cleveland, I love you peeking out from the door into the night.
My footprints are locked in the ice on the stairs.
My car leaves a dry spot on the driveway.
I tell them to come in, and I close the door behind them as they leave.
My key fits into the door.
My hand turns off the lights.
So short a time, and another’s belongings will fill this home. The smell of someone else’s cooking and the hanging of someone else’s art. Someone else’s mail will fill my box and someone else’s body will inhabit my usual seat in Java. They will find rest in my bed and a seat at my table. They will look out my windows and watch my birds and feel my floors beneath their feet. They will watch movies on the squeaky futon and have friends over and make a place and fill the empty space I will be forced to leave behind.
As much as I never thought I’d admit it, it will inevitably be a space that is cut from my heart.
In less than a year, I’ll find a new space and start a new life with a husband, my best friend, and we’ll make a new place ours, together. There’s already so much of him in this house.
While Ohio is a first and foremost,
this has become a home.
In a few months, we’ll throw our caps and be spread like scattershot into the many corners of the world – yes, truly the world. Houghton becomes a place of origin, like a womb from a second birth, the birth of adulthood. We’ll all have this place in common, but it will be home no longer once we have left. There’s a good chance we will not see each other again – not all of us. And as much as it hurts to think about the distance, it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We can’t live in isolation forever,
but we can live well here while we still have the chance.
You beautiful creature.
Houghton, I love you