Nina MacLaughlin’s column, Winter Solstice, will have its final installment next Monday, December 21, on the solstice.
The sledding hill in the town I grew up in was on the grounds of an institution for the criminally insane. Hospital Hill, we called it. Or Mental Mountain. It was a great place to sled.
A huge hill, a real wallomping mound of earth, a sledder’s heaven, there at the southern edge of the asylum, steep, long, with a stretch of flat at the bottom long enough that your ride could run its course without crashing into the barrier of brush and trees, or out into traffic on Route 27 beyond. At the top, asylum to our backs, we took our running starts then flung ourselves, belly flopping onto our inflated snow tubes, and whished down the hill. Or sometimes sitting upright on the tube, someone behind you, parent or pal, put their hands at your shoulder blades, started running, pushing, building speed, until gravity took over and the hill pulled faster than the push, and hands disappeared from your back, and you were released, hovering over the snow, cold air in your ears, tang of blood on the tongue from a chapped lip, mittens gripping the handles, the high-pitched purr of rubber on snow, snow that had been packed by ride after ride, it was you and the movement, and it never felt crazy to cry out, there by yourself, going faster and faster, in your own private moment of fear and glee. Is that what made the lunatics yell inside their white-walled cells? Some same combination of soaring down a mountainside unstoppable, I’m happy, I’m afraid, I feel too much, I have to let it out? So we surrender. “This is the Hour of Lead—” writes Emily Dickinson:
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
The walk back up the hill took a while, we’d be panting, ready to shed a layer, and the brick buildings of the hospital loomed into view near the top, bars on all the windows. The hospital was closed in 2003, all the windows boarded up with wood painted red. I can feel right now the hands disappearing from my shoulder blades. And I can hear the sound of the alarm when someone escaped from the hospital. Not the blaring tin of a car alarm or wheeeuuuu whirl of an ambulance or clattering clang of grade school fire drill. More foghorn, deep, soul-stilling moan, as though the bulkhead door to the basement of Hell was being pried open again and again.
One of the snowiest albums I know bows to Dickinson and her letting-go lines. The energy of The Letting Go, the 2006 record by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is the energy of being in the woods as light fades, some hut somewhere in the distance with a glowing hearth to find—but will you find it, or lose your way in the swirl of snow? On that wintery album, the song “Then the Letting Go” is the wintriest of all, a duet dialogue between Will Oldham and the snow-wraith-voiced Dawn McCarthy. It begins in innocence:
There was someone a long time age
(Come follow me here and then we’ll go)
Who played with me whenever it snowed
A snow-based companionship brings to mind what poet Mary Ruefle wrote: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex … I would like to stop whatever manifestation of life I am engaged in and have sex, with the same person, who also sees the snow and heeds it.” Snow as ultimatum, as signal, you and I, our time. Ruefle’s poem closes with union: “when it snows like this I feel the whole world has joined me in isolation and silence.” A different sort of joining happens at the end of Oldham’s song. His companion returns after a long absence, lays her wet head on his feet, says nothing, and falls asleep. The song ends:
In the quiet of day, well, I laid her low
(You a fire, me aglow)
And used her skin as my skin to go out in the snow
In winter, we get inside each other. The erotics of the dark, cold season differ from that of summer—not the flirty, sundressed frolic, not sultry August sweat above the lip, not tan lines or sand in shoes or voluptuous tulips. It’s a different sort of smolder now. Quilted, clutching, we wolve for one another, ice on the puddles and orange glow from windows against deepest evening blue. In summer: lust and laze, days are loose and lasting. In winter: time tightens, night’s wide open, the hunger says right now. In winter: the flash of wet light reflected in another’s eye, close to yours, half closed in the dim. That eye shining in the dark, that blurred wet glaze and shine, everything else in shadow, form and heat, that light for a flash as lid closes or head shifts, that is a mysterious and singular light. That is the burning animal inside trying to run through the walls of its pen. I see in that flash the burning animal inside you. I feel my own there, too. This winter feels not like the rest. It’s not ease that drives us in these dark days, but fear. The dark and the cold settle at the back of your skull and tell you secrets of the longer, longest, endless dark and cold to come. Grip tight, press hard. Such is winter love.
We’re one week away from the solstice and until then, darkness will inhale a little more light each day. But its lungs are filling. It’ll take twenty-six seconds of light today, twenty-two tomorrow, shallower pulls until it can take in less than one second on the solstice itself. Remember: winter hasn’t even started yet. Has it snowed where you are? Did you sled as a child? Do you remember the last time you sled? Winter invites a turning in, a quieting, an upped interiority, but this time around we’re coming on months of it already—will we be able to find our way back out? Time will tell. For now, here we are. An assertion—a reminder—of aliveness. Or as Issa puts it:
the snow falling.
The snow falling. Here, falling, crystal quiet. It’s a quiet that’s captured in the documentary Into Great Silence, about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. The film is close to three hours long; there are almost no words. The camera focuses on a large farmhouse sink. The light that washes in through the window is snow light. A large metal mixing bowl tilts to dry. The camera closes in. A droplet collects on the lip of the bowl. It swells. It rides the ridge down and hangs off the edge of the bowl. It is white and blue and gray, a translucence, a fluidity. The tension begins to build. You come to know, with a startling amount of pain, at some point this drop will fall. It will drop to the basin and splash into hundreds of tinier drops. When will it fall? The suspense becomes awful. You want it to fall, to relieve you, to let you feel like you can take a full breath again. But also, look at how beautiful it is, the pearl bottom, its perfect, uncorrupted smoothness. A shape that takes on the feel of time. With its beauty comes the agitation, the confusion, the uncomfortable suspense of its end. And you want it to end, drop, please. And you want it to last forever, to swell and swell so it spills through the screen, absorbs you into it, swallows the whole world, warm and full, with space enough for everything and light like no other light. The drop hangs between its two intervals, its accumulation and its end.
It falls. Something inside collapses. On the lip of the large metal bowl, another drop takes form. Tiny drops collect to make a larger drop, together in isolation and silence. Like the monks of this monastery who devote their time on this earth to prayer.
“The primary application of vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell,” states Carthusian Statute 4.1. Not every moment though. The film shows one wrenching, beautiful scene: a group of the monks on the mountain, eight of them, white-robed figures ascending a steep and snowy hillside, stony crags above them, camera at a distance, we see human forms but not faces. A meditative stroll, maybe. Get the blood moving in the winter months. But look, two monks sit down and slide down the sweep of mountain! And then more, some sitting, some skidding down on their feet, two almost crash into each other, they tumble, roll down the hill in the snow in their white robes. Down they go! And all you hear is their laughter and their whoops. Crying out as they pick up speed, the child in all of us, hands letting go.
Today, in the city where I live, there are nine hours, six minutes, and seven seconds of daylight. Sunset lasts all day. Pressing old December dark sweeps its way across the city. It sweeps its way across the river, the forests, the towns with their driveways and church parking lots, the silent ponds, the mountains, the wide flat fields, the hills, the hospitals. Cry out. Cry out! We’re hurtling down the hill, and there isn’t any stopping. Cry out, it is not lunatic, not right now. In wild joy, in thrashing pleasure, in heaving grief, in fear, in all of it at once. Small drops, all of us, slipping down the lip of a bowl.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice.