Well Intended / Learning to summon springtime
Published 3:35 pm, Thursday, March 10, 2011
By mid-March we've already longed for the thaw for a month. On the drive home from my elementary school drop-off this morning, there were ducks swimming in a roadside puddle. The boots by my front door are caked with mud, and I've swept significantly less sand into the dustpan this week. Beneath the sodden mulch, the spears of daffodils emerge and there are snowdrop points and crocus just breaking through the muck of mud season.
My birthday is in early March. I'm sore over this not only because I seem to be aging more quickly every year but because as a girl in California, I could buy strawberries at roadside stands by March 5th and change out my clothing for the flirty skirts and light tops I loved. But a New England March, as you already know, comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. And even as the lamb departs you'll not find a leaf or blossom.
In one of the first fiction writing classes I ever took, I sat across the table from a woman for whom I developed an intense and unbecoming jealousy. (Why do we always sit in the same places in rooms we regularly frequent? I can see her even now, a mirror of everything I was not that winter.) This woman, Catherine, was engaged or recently married. Her birthday was a day or two ahead of mine. On the day I turned 25 or 26, I don't recall which, I carried a warm cup of Earl Gray to school, to warm my hands. I often lose a glove by March. It was my second New England Winter and a glassy layer encased the last heaps of soiled snow. I broke it with the sole of my boot, as I love to do.
It was the sort of fiction-writing class where we each had to share a story with the entire workshop each week. We distributed these short, often-failed narratives one week and read and discussed them the following. The teacher spared neither our feelings nor illusions.
There isn't a lot of room for ego in these sorts of workshops, and though I shed a few tears replaying her harsh comments on doubtful nights, I learned to delete and that there are always more words and stories and ideas and that to manipulate them and refine them is the true art of writing. Neither in fiction writing nor in life is fragility an asset. We hone skills and learn from error. We grow through experience. No one really improves without failure after failure. And so each week our work was picked apart until what remained was perhaps as meager as. "I liked your font."
Catherine's story was about her birthday that week. And it was clearly based on truth as most fiction is. And week after week, how were we really supposed to call upon fantasy when all we could do was show up and subject ourselves again to the certainty of specific and accurate criticism? (That's when it really hurts, doesn't it? When the insults are true.) Perhaps my resistance was down and my nerves were raw from the intensity of the teacher's disappointment with the stories I thought were lovely.
Perhaps, I was deprived of sun too long and was weary of the grays of nature and blacks of my winter wardrobe. Or perhaps Catherine had what I really wanted. That year for her birthday, her boyfriend or fiancé or husband gave her spring. He filled the house with blossoming tulips and daffodils. Narcissus bloomed from plastic nursery pots. There was a ring of blooming jasmine and branches of flowering dogwood, she said. She wrote about a picnic they had together among the imported foliage. And while I am sure that there must have been a story in there too somewhere, and if there was (or especially if there wasn't) it was destroyed by the teacher's zest for toughening our already wind-chapped skin, I don't recall the story. I just remember that spring came to Catherine first.
The following year, I learned to nudge flowers out of dormant branches and forced my own early narcissus. And I lost track of Catherine, as I am sure her thoughtful spouse (they must have been married by then) would have caused me any number of concerns in the holidays and anniversaries that would follow.
We crave spring. The winter holidays are festive and those first snows that frost and sparkle are delightful. The break from weeding is welcome as are the cozy Sundays by the fire. But then, after the novelty and has vanished and the snow has soiled with road grime we forget that the soil was ever alive with sprouting seeds and stretching roots. When nature is dormant too long it's good to bring spring inside.
Branches of forsythia can be cut and the ends of stems pounded with a hammer, placed in water and they will come to life in a few short days. Their garish yellow blossoms will delight. The same is true of dogwood and cherry. You can find complicated instructions, but I've never had it not work to look for a branch with swollen and simply smash the end and place it in a vase. Nature wants to live; it must flower.
If you haven't forced bulbs yet, they're available already started at markets and garden centers. That will be my strategy this year. I love the scent of hyacinth. You can plant the spent bulbs outdoors once the ground thaws and it's quite likely they'll bloom again next year. I love to take a shallow dish and fill it with grass seed and soil. A little lawn appears in the center of my kitchen table in a few days. It's curiously fun to trim it with a pair of scissors.
Catherine had spring early that year. But I learned to summon it myself in the years that followed. And I fully believe that by admiring each early branch and fragrant bulb, I have a greater appreciation for the magnificent sweep of spring that will soon awaken the dormant and icy stillness of winter's end.