Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sometimes this endless winter feels as if we're lost in a stained white radiance

Lost in a Stained White Radiance
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity . . .


-- Percy Byshe Shelley

I've always loved this quote, and it came to mind as I sit here after midnight and it still hasn't started, the latest round of snow which the weather peeps said would begin hours ago and which they predicted would break Madison's all-time winter record for total snow accumulation. But you can tell it's coming -- the cat has been restless. (And we still have a couple of our biggest snow months to go -- yikes!)

I was going to post a snow picture to commemorate the event, but there have been so many. So this photograph, taken on a melty day, is more a representation of what a long winter feels like than what it looks like today when the mercury is hovering around zero again and the roads are covered with hard-packed snow that for all practical purposes exhibits the physical qualities of ice.

There's a word for that feeling -- the winter blues. And here in Madison it has been known to be front-page, above-the-fold news in our biggest local daily, The Wisconsin State Journal. The economy is going to hell, the dying may still be going on in Iraq, but the morning paper shows a touching determination to put only the most important news on the breakfast tables of its readers, "news they can use" to heal their battered psyches.

The State Journal article by Pat Simms is OK, but it pretty much says what a thousand other articles have said. It's part of the medicalization of our society. Like so many things, the winter blues becomes a medical problem, and we dress it up with a fancy term, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and start prescribing remedies -- lights, diet, exercise, antidepressants and whatnot. And some people may need them.

But for most of us it's more an existential problem than a medical problem. Winter is a time to be quiet and reflective, to contemplate what it's all about, this life that "stains the white radiance of Eternity." In "Adonais," Shelley suggests a remedy for that stain -- death, which brings back the unsullied white radiance of Eternity. That strikes me as a bit extreme.

I think slowing down a bit would accomplish just as much, and be more reversible. We'd do well to take a tip about what our bodies really crave from our fellow animal beings, most of whom either hibernate outright, or become extremely sluggish. They don't keep up a busy schedule in the winter, and maybe we shouldn't either. Our cat spends most of his time sleeping. I think he's on to something.

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