Recently one among us told the true story of a five-year-old boy and his father who went into a store bursting with Christmas decorations a week before Thanksgiving. The boy looked at all the holiday glitz in wide-eyed amazement and urgently asked his father: "Daddy, did we miss Thanksgiving?"
Such is the seasonal madness which faces us every December. 'Tis the season to be shopping. Did you read about the latest sales gambit - the children's gift registry at Toys "R" Us? I'm not much of a shopper. I hate to shop except for books and computer "stuff." I think it was Ernst Becker who said that shopping was a form of mental illness - or did he say suicide? I've forgotten.
I'm at the age when I am beginning to consider how to reduce the amount of "stuff" that clutters my life. I can't bear the thought of paring down my library, but I am trying to streamline my wardrobe, and hope for no new shirts or bathrobes or slippers for Christmas - please.
I have been too long concerned with ownership. A child of the Depression, I have something of an anal personality. But then I'm quite oral too. In any event, I don't want to be defined by the "stuff" in my life, but by the "stuff" inside of me. That's why I was taken with Fredrick Zydek's poem, "Praying for stuff."
"Sometimes I forget
to consider the lilies
of the field which neither
toil nor labor for their keep.
Part of me is always searching
for stuff instead of seeking
ways to improve the merchandise
of gratitude and prayer.
Some mornings, rather than fall
to my knees to give praise,
I scan the want ads for stuff.
Cheap stuff. Stuff for nothing.
Stuff enough to crowd out
the emptiness I know it brings.
Why can I never read a book
unless I know I own it?
It's the same with art, furniture,
and the sounds of electric pianos.
I have urges that want to walk
the corridors of divine mysteries
but spend my time gathering glitter.
Once I had a dream. I stepped before
the throne of God. He (sic) asked only
one question: "Did you become
who you were supposed to be?"
"I'm not sure," I told him (sic).
"But when I died, I had so much stuff,
it took three days to find me."
Yet, I like the Christmas season - in fact - I like seasons - the fascinating unpredictability of Western New York weather; we know that such uncertainty prepares us for real life. For, with all the discombobulating dangers of ice and cold and snow we know for sure that there will be random bursts of beauty as Mother Nature shows off in frosty signatures on window panes, glints of diamond sunshine through trees and billowing waves of white expanse across undulating fields.
We who choose to live in this clime talk a great deal about the weather, but we do nothing much about it except complain or hunker down in survival mode. In any case it demonstrates we are made of sterner stuff than our compatriots who think every day should be like Club Med. What a bore!
In literature there is the pathetic fallacy linking human emotions to nature, "the attribution of human feelings and characteristics to inanimate things - for example, the angry sea, a stubborn door."
I'm not sure what one calls the attribution of natural phenomena to human emotions, but I am convinced there is an outer weather and an inner weather in our lives and that their relationships is well worth exploring.
Carl Sandburg does this powerfully in his poem "Wilderness." He likens the many moods that mark our inner weather to animals whose ways are more of less familiar to us. There is a wolf and a fox and a hog in me - as well as a fish and a baboon, an eagle and a mockingbird. And if Sandburg had gone on I'm sure he could have mentioned the curiosity of the cat, the gentleness of the deer, the wisdom of the owl and the song of the sparrow and much, much more.
Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary defines weather as "The climate of an hour. A permanent topic of conversation among persons it does not interest, but who have inherited the tendency to chatter about it from naked arboreal ancestors whom it keenly concerned. The setting up of official bureaus and their maintenance in mendacity prove that even governments are accessible to suasion by the rude forefathers of the jungle."
The inner/outer weather distinction was one of the major poetic themes of Robert Frost. According to one student of the "poet laureate of New Hampshire," he "cultivated a certain air of outward arrogance toward others - a self-protective shell against those who thought him a failure or a lazy good-for-nothing.... He could close the doors and windows against them and against rough outer weather, and retreat into his inner life. But at night all those things would get past his guard and sometimes turn his dreams into nightmares."
In "Tree at My Window" he wrote,
"But, tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost."
In "Lodged" he identified with nature:
"The rain to the wind said
'You push and I'll pelt.'
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay Lodged - though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt."
Frost had a sense that while we could not control the outer weather of our lives - the natural elements, people and events, we could do much more with our inner weather - the way we react to things - how we feel about them.
And so he wrote, "You're always believing ahead of your evidence.... The most creative thing in us is to believe a thing in, in love, in all else. You believe yourself into existence. You believe your marriage into existence, you believe in each other, you believe that it's worth while going on."
And so in spring he could write, in words set to music in our hymnal,
"O give us pleasure in the flowers today,
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest."
And who can forget his little paean of praise for ultimately benign winter weather in "Stopping in Woods in a Snowy Evening."
"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
There is some mystical equation between outer weather - that objective environment in which we find ourselves - and inner weather - that subjective realm where we sense the meaning of our place in the great scheme of things. Weather is an apt metaphor for the working of the human spirit.
I love the northeast because of its weather. And while winter may seem a dead time, nature as we know is far from dead, it is merely sleeping. The "bleak midwinter" is a time, not to fold up our tents in a kind of religious hibernation until warm winds blow away our spiritual sloth.
It is a time of relative stillness, silence, solitude, in which we are admonished to slow down - not to count daisies - but snowflakes. It is a time to reassess priorities, to make plans, to rejuvenate ourselves for the work of the world.
The trees and shrubs, now devoid of their leafy cover, reveal intricate and strong shapes, new visions of beauty, new vistas of natural architecture. The stark shape of the trees reveals an angularity that must be called beautiful. Stripped of their green cover, we sense anew their strength.
The new view of winter with its outer weather is but a metaphor for our inner weather - what might be - what should be - happening within.
Events of our outer weather may fly about us willy-nilly, in random and reckless fashion, but an inner calmness of the spirit, and inward tranquillity of the soul, gives us the power to endure - even to enjoy what fate flings at us in its caprice.
Friday of this week I attended an early morning meeting of a citizens group determined to reduce violence in our community. There was an African-American woman who strikingly illustrated the way our inner weather can see us through very turbulent outer weather. She was raised in a poor city household and seemed destined to go the way of many of her peers, she said - early pregnancy, scattered schooling and a life on welfare. But her mother took her to the Threshold program for youth which helped her find self-esteem and self-confidence.
Now she is a nurse who visits homes much like her own - to help teen-agers survive and flourish in tough times. I was struck by her strong inner calmness and yet fierce determination to make a difference in our sometimes violent urban environment.
And so, with apologies to Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, I leave you with my own poem on inner weather - giving thanks that we are such wondrously complex beings as to have any - and with the fervent hope we explore it as tenaciously as our 11 o'clock weather forecasters explore the outer weather in this turning time of the year.
There is a volcano in me ... explosions that may reach the surface ... or may not, depending on my mood ... explosions of rage at what seems wrong ... unjust ... unfair ... or spilling molten hot lava sometimes at life's frustrations ... exploding just for the hell of it when life is too much with me ... explosions, too, of joy - when life seems so rich and good I want it to last forever ... explosions of the ecstasy of existence ... sheer unadorned, but beautiful existence.
There is a storm in me at times - a wild and uncontrollable wind that takes all in its wake - how good it comes so seldom. I doubt I could live with a storm a day - that would be too much. But a storm can clean out the system - can cleanse and purify much of the heavy, humid air in me - can strip the unessential from my being and remind me I am - after all - alive.
There is a warm front in me too ... when life is tender touching and the hair on my head stands on end and my skin prickles ... that delightful prickling that tells me - as if I didn't know - that I am deeply moved. It is a warm front that dispels those nasty whirlwinds of cold that come from time to time.
There is a blizzard in me - a cold sweep of doubt and despair that obscures everything on my inward landscape. It comes howling down the west wind of winter and out of the depression that sometimes centers itself in me. Digging out is hard work, but the satisfaction lingers.
There is a monsoon in me - rain that covers my inner ground and soaks deep into the roots - if it does not first run off my unsuspecting mind. It is water that I need for there are so many thirsty times - so many thirsty times.
There is spring in me - sprouts of feeling and blossoms of thought seem to be bursting out all over and my slackened pace picks up...
And there is summer in me - long leisurely thoughtful days when life is good and one day follows another in perfect procession....
And there is autumn in me - the brisk air and the spangled leaves showing off the beauty in my life - at the same time reminding me the days are not endless....
And there is winter in me - the cold prompting me to drink in the warmth of community and nestle by the fireside of fancy, myth and legend.... the snow covering my terrain with an even sheen while at once protecting what needs to grow in me.
O, I have weather in me - inner weather - systems so complex there's not a weather man or woman who can finally figure it out - least of all myself. And I have something else - it is a sense that this inner terrain is endlessly fascinating - constantly changing - rich in risk and adventure - cold in danger and foreboding - and this complexity - more complex perhaps than the weather that beats at my window - this complexity is the ultimate mystery.
To probe it and penetrate it is the most inviting work in the world. I am more than an observer of this weather - intriguing as it is to wonder at. I am the manager of this weather system - a manager with limited power - to be sure - but manager nonetheless. I come from the weather. I am the weather.
And the point of it all - Ah, yes - it must all have a point. If this poetic meandering has a point, it is this: in the midst of the outer weather, with its storms and stresses, we live in a different weather system which gives us balance - which is as Robert Frost put it, "our stay against confusion."
And the forecast..... There will be a 100% chance that tomorrow will be different from today - and more than a 50/50 chance that it will be better - if I will and work to make it so.
December 7, 1997