The Wordliness of Winter

I’m teaching a Creative Writing class this semester (yay!), and I’ll sometimes write the assignments along with the students. Today’s piece is a short work of Creative Nonfiction. I’d love to know what you think of it!

IMG_3391The Wordliness of Winter

The mineral surface lay three feet thick over everything, splashed four or five feet high against houses and barns, lapping in dimples around tree trunks and stalks. The snow was a second landscape, overlaid above the first, obscuring and transforming its contours, glittering and gorgeous. All was turned to a single substance. But this was not my neighborhood’s real topography, and it would not last.

In fact, I was already hard at work defiling it. Cutting paths in it, trampling it into mush, flinging it high into rubbishy heaps: I undid the beauty the storm had carefully crafted. And while I did, a guy dropped by to talk. I stopped shoveling. He stood there, ruddy-faced in the nippy air, chatting about this and that. I don’t know him well, though he has lived next door for six years. Indeed, I didn’t even recognize him, and I wasn’t sure who he was until he talked about his kids. His kids, the weather, work, their dog that died, the weather, sports, health, and the weather again. All this time, I wasn’t digging.

No, I didn’t dig. I let the conversation ripple along the surface of the snow, leaving no tracks. But all the time, there was so much underneath. Rocks and roots. Soil and stains. Bones. My muscles itched to move, but how could I stick my rude spade into the bright patina of his simple talk? How could I go deep, when he skimmed along the top? And isn’t this how we always talk?

Suddenly, I was at every cocktail party and casual reception and “let’s just hang out” I’ve ever attended, and my abs clenched. The pain of the pretty tablecloths covering scarred planks. The suffering of stiffened make-up masking lonely bruises. The agony of expensive fabrics covering wounded skin. Hovering in a corner, gripping a drink, clenching fingers around a fragile glass stem, hoping against hope that someone would ask a real question.

Why can’t you ask me about things that matter? I thought. About teaching, about writing, about editing. Why don’t you ask me how my latest book is going? Oh, wait: you don’t even know that I write. How can I shove an unruly novel under your frost-reddened nose unbidden? I cannot let out my clamoring narrative dilemmas, my wayward characters, and my stilted dialogue into the winter air. Let them lie with the tulip bulbs until spring.

But there’s more, beneath that, I think, as he pauses and we stand there in that awkward silence when neither has anything to say. Poetry defies the laws of physics, packing two things into one space at one time, or three, or more, in a single line, an image, a word. Frost, for instance—the poet, or the chilly lace patterned on window panes?—in “Fire and Ice.” Flames and freezing. Desire and hate. The end of the world.

Why can’t you ask me about things that matter? I thought again, as a snow plow trundled by and spattered my neighbor’s legs with slush. About love, about death, about grief. About God. About doubt. About fear. All that is here, under the three feet of diamond-dust snow, waiting for sunlight, waiting to grow.

I pick up my shovel, and off he goes.

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