Remember how T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland” famously called April “the cruelest month”? Indeed, he did, complaining about lilacs “breeding out of the dead land” and proclaiming that “winter kept us warm, covering/earth in forgetful snow” which just goes to show how much that Missourian transplanted to Great Britain knew about winter in upstate New York.
So round about mid-January, when we’re all supposed to crow about each day being a minute longer than the last and feign interest in a rodent’s shadow, I take issue with T.S. Eliot. For one thing, he was your basic snoot, tossing Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French and Sanskrit words into his poems like a bag of store-bought croutons onto an otherwise decent Caesar salad. For another, he’s buried in Gulf-Stream-bathed Somerset, England, so what does he know of winter’s cold, even in death? So by mid-January I want to thrust out my chin at him and say “Mr. Eliot, get thee up from the warm soil of merry England and try out January in upstate New York.”
Ha! He’d never last long enough to write a poem as long as “The Wasteland.”
I suppose I write with a particular animus this January because I have been living for three months in the first house I have ever bought by myself,--one that is notably onerous, cold and inhospitable.
I do not have a bathtub to bath in.
I have no electricity in either first or second floor hallways. Or multiple room outlets.
Life is dim.
I have had two months of a broken refrigerator, two sewer backups, two bedrooms with no heat in them and a study too cold to work in for the past month. (Hence, I write this at my kitchen table, hard by the space heater, scarfing up the last of the Chex Mix, like a hack novelist in a Bayswater bedsit.)
So the question is this: how to exorcise this predictable and desultory Seasonal Affective Disorder upstate New Yorkers know so well when it is still not even midway into this disordered season?
Well, I have no answers, of course. I’m just sitting here by the space heater eating Chex Mix.
But I am also listening to Jean Sibelius.
Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer. He knew something about the bleakness and blueness of winter. And so I find myself just that much less lonely when I crank up Sibelius on my Classical Music Archives app. Try the 5th symphony. Or the 6th or the 4th. Or go down the list, 1-7.
And I am wrapped in cashmere and shod in shearling mocs. Because a good wool sweater is like an existential arm embracing your body and soul. And shearling mocs remind your feet that summer will come and your piggies will one day be sweaty sand-magnets again.
A hot cup of tea reminds me that one day I will want it iced and in a glass. And an icy glass of chardonnay reminds me that my deck will one day not be. The electric candles in my window signal the hope of late dusks returning and lazy sunsets still ahead.
It’s not much for January, these small and signal hints of a time when the climate, my house and the political landscape will be less brittle and cruel. But these will have to do for now as we soldier on through bleak midwinter and a world heavy with ominous portent. Literary claims to the contrary, April is not the cruelest month. January just may be. So perhaps we need to codify and ritualize those small markers that give us hope of a sweeter season, a softer time, a breeze less knife-y, a snowfall christened into spring rain.
And dear Mr. Eliot, I’ll take those lilacs breeding out of the dead land over this icy dysthymia any day of the week.