The rain started late last week. Finally. The rain is late this year and despite the pleasure of the past few weeks’ unusually beautiful weather, the lack of rain was starting to get worrisome. So I’m glad that it finally started raining. Sort of. Because the rain brought the grey, which is, for me, even more than the short days or the cold, the real mark of winter.
I’ve always thought that up until about Christmas the early dark feels sort of cozy. I like being tucked into my house at the end of the day while the dark starts creeping in earlier and earlier. For the first few weeks or so it seems novel (even though it happens every year). This year was no different. The days started getting shorter and I enjoyed the safe, cocoon-like feeling in my well-lit house. We even had a bonus this year, for while the darkness fell earlier every day, because the rain was so late the fall colors stayed on the trees until about a week ago. And the late afternoon light had that lovely golden warmth of autumn. But with the rain, the light–or lack thereof–that once made me feel cozy now leaves me cold. We have reached that point in winter when even the light from the sun is pale and dissipated. This afternoon I look out of my window and see a grey world with all the color drained away, lit by a watery sunlight.
I am, from time to time, haunted by the first line of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems: “There’s a certain slant of light.” I first read this poem, like so many other poems, in an English class at UCONN. I remember this poem especially clearly because the entire class misunderstood it so profoundly. It was part of an assignment in which we had to present a poem to the class, and the poor girl in charge of this one bore the brunt of the misinterpretation. She (and the rest of us) saw in that “certain slant of light” an invitingly warm golden ray that a cat might lounge in. How we could have been so completely off the mark, I don’t know. Maybe we all failed to do our homework. And our professor–I cringe when I think about it–was appalled. He was either faced with our collective laziness or he was butting up against our youthful inability to understand the reality of death. Or, as my husband loves to say, maybe it was a little from column a and a little from column b. For despite our Generation X pretense to world-weariness, we were so young and naive that we could see in this poem such a comforting image. Re-reading it now I cannot imagine how we ever thought that an inviting slant of light:
There’s a certain slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings are—
None may teach it—Any—
‘Tis the Seal of Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
It’s embarrassing, really, that a group of English majors missed such blatant cues as “oppresses,” “heft,” “hurt,” “scar,” “despair,” “affliction,” and “Death.” It’s even more embarrassing that we read that poem in the dead of a Connecticut winter, probably with an example of that very slant of light right outside the classroom. I don’t pretend to understand the poem completely now, but I get glimpses of possible meanings each time I read it. And it leaves me with a deep melancholy, just like a rainy winter afternoon.
Maybe there is some kind of cosmic irony (to indulge in a little drama) in the fact that I was born during the winter, and while I love my birthday, I really hate winter. I used to hate it because of the cold and the dirty snow or the never-ending rain. Now I think I hate winter because it is a stark reminder of my mortality. At 18 or 19 (or even 35) my mortality would never have occurred to me as a framework for understanding this poem. Mortality was still only an abstraction for me then, lacking any weight–or heft–that would connect it to my understanding of the world. But I’ve just celebrated my 44th birthday, which means that I’m hitting the age where I might have more birthdays behind me than ahead of me. That thought is profoundly sobering. In fact, this is the first birthday during which that thought has occurred to me even though I still feel about 12 years old. I think that contradiction might be something like the scar Dickinson writes about in her second stanza, that “internal difference– / Where the meanings are.”
Thoughts like these will continue to rattle around my mind for the next few weeks as the rain pours down on us. But, luckily for me, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that spring will be here before the rain stops. In just a few weeks daffodils will begin blooming in my neighbor’s yard and the apricot tree in our backyard will be covered in blossoms. The sunlight breaking through the rain clouds will still have that watery quality for several more weeks, but it will be getting stronger and lasting longer every day. The air will smell sweet and color will start to re-enter the world. And my winter melancholy will dissipate, leaving almost no trace.