When my two kids were young enough so that I could carry both of them in my arms, I sometimes found occasions to pick them up, sing a random ditty that I’d make up on the spot, and dance in a circle. On rarer occasions, when one of them was crying, I’d hold him or her to my chest and sing the song of the pro-football player, Rosey Grier: “It’s alright to cry – crying gets the sad out of you.”
I thought of such moments when I was trying to persuade my wife – though, she didn’t need much persuading – that we should find a time early in the New Year to head up from our mostly snowless life in the Boston area to our old farmhouse in southwestern Maine, where, reliably, the ground would be covered with many feet of snow at this time of year. There, I knew, I would sing to myself: “It’s alright to know the snow.”
This is the backstory of that thought. I grew up near Buffalo, New York, enough said. When my brother and I were boys, we used to find every occasion we could to play in the typically deep winter snow, finding a way, for example, to climb up on to our flat garage roof and then to jump off into the deep banks below. That experience was a kind of bonding for us. Too often, I now think in retrospect, he and I squabbled when we were growing up, perchance in the spirit of Cain. But that deep snow experience was a kind of elixir of fraternity for both of us.
Also the deep snow in western New York sometimes offered me times for what I now think of as Divine solitude. In my teens, early in the evening, after a large snowfall, I would sometimes gear up in my snow clothes, go outside, trudge through the deep drifts, all alone, to a spruce grove, which my father had planted many years before. There I would find an untouched place where I could softly lay down on my back. On some charged nights, when the snow had stopped falling and when, it so happened, a full moon was caressing everything with its translucent light, I would lie there for countless moments and contemplate the glistening of the snow, on both the surfaces around me and the bending spruce branches, weighed down, over my head. In those days, I thought of that as a kind a magical experience; today I would use the word mystical. Today I would also say that that experience was of a strange oneness with the Divine Presence.
When was it that I began to feel, on occasion, guilty about such experiences!? It could have been during my late adolescence, when I found it easy to jump to conclusions about many things. I once gave a series of lectures, years later, where I described the varying spiritualities that we might associate with the stages of human growth: childlike trust, adolescent judgment, and adult wisdom. As an adolescent – a stage that I have never fully left behind – I reveled in judgment. As a young theological student, in that spirit, I used to think of this kind of thing, perhaps too innocently, as prophetic insight.
From this perspective, what “good” is lying on your back on the snow under a full moon? Isn’t that experience, as a matter of fact, a kind of anti-social act, even an opiate, like Karl Marx’s sense of religion? As of this day, I can easily think things very much like that, now and again: here I am celebrating the spirituality of the snow, while the world is going to hell; think of the war in Ukraine or rampant racism in the U.S. or global climate change.
Thanks to some moments of adult wisdom, however, not of my own making, I’m sure, I have learned to think more generously than that. To wit, sometimes lying on your back on a fresh snowbank at night, surrounded by spruce trees, under a full moon, is just that. It’s not a moment of escape. The wisdom of old age has taught me at least one thing: it’s alright to know the snow.
All of this began to come to mind when I was reading an email that a dear and longstanding friend of mine had just sent me. How to describe David Gagne? A nationally engaged human rights activist for many years, who loves to write poetry? A loved one at home who finds it easy to love the homeless? An ex-Catholic who exemplifies the kind of life and vision championed by Pope Francis? A just-a-guy type, even childlike, who loves to play with his grandkids and to walk his dog and to practice his accordion? An aficionado of Twin Cities pro-sports, who believes in nonviolence? Notwithstanding all this, David sometimes feels guilty about enjoying all the variegated gifts of God’s good earth.
This was the occasion, as a matter of fact, for these reflections here: the arrival of that email from David brought with it a copy of a poem that he had recently written – about snow! And, by way of introducing that poem to me, David expressed some guilt about being too interested in such things, in our world of war and injustice and human cruelty.
So I want to say to him: Dear David, you don’t have to do that. Listen to this expert in the ways of guilt. Forget about it! It’s alright to know the snow. It’s all the more alright to write poetry about the snow, like these your well-shoveled words, which you have so kindly shared with me and which, with your gracious permission, I am eager to share with others:
In the city beneath the LED street lamps
Snow spreads over us, around us.
Sharp edges disappear
While corners are rounded off
By the veil of falling white.
The city is hushed, sounds
Of traffic and the nearby highway
Muffled by this new blanket
Laying heavier and heavier
on the surrounding neighborhood.
Bare limbed trees, boneyard
Of the winter, bend under
The weight of new snow
While inside our homes
We wait quietly for this
To end, freeing us to shovel
Narrow paths through brilliant
White mounds of perfect snow.