Farming, Friendship, Literature, Music

Ave Atque Vale, Thou Bleak Midwinter of My Discontent!

As most of you know, I’m British. And as such, I generally try to keep a pretty stiff upper lip about things. Not to whine unduly. And when I do whine, I try to whine at the person or people who are at the root of my dissatisfaction or unhappiness, or in the case of “things” that unsettle me, at the person or people who can actually do something about them. Thus my recent encounter with Highmark Insurance, who abruptly cancelled Mr. Right’s Medicare Advantage plan because of “your failure to pay your bill for several months.” Big mistake. By the time I’d finished “whining” at them, I’d gotten matters corrected, his coverage reinstated and backdated, and an abject and fulsome apology from the Assistant to the CEO. The next day, I cancelled Mr. Right’s Highmark Insurance, and signed him up with UPMC. A petty revenge, perhaps, but sweet nonetheless.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I’m not very good at passive-aggression, as (for better or worse) my behavior generally tends towards the denominator, rather than the numerator, of the fractional representation of the whole number that is my life. Passive-aggression, has just never been my style. Usually, if you’ve ticked me off, or (in my estimation) treated me poorly, you’ll hear about it from me directly. Doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to, though. If there’s a real point of contention at the center of our disagreement, hopefully we can sort it out between ourselves, without outside meddling. Hopefully. Because I was brought up to believe that’s how it’s done.

Today, though, I’m going to dispense with that habit of a lifetime. I’m going to engage in a bit of pointless whining, and expatiate on something that neither you, nor I, nor even that saucy little minx Greta Thunberg, can do anything about in real terms. I know that nothing will come of it. I know it will appear on this web page, and then just drift off into the ether like the unparliamentary expostulations of that great boiler-stoker, Ralphie’s dad. I know I won’t get an acknowledgement, let alone an apology from the Great Perpetrator of my misery. And I don’t care. I just want to get this off my chest, once and for all.

Naturally (I think I did mention that I’m British), this means that I am going to talk about the weather.

This is the start of a miserable time of year, weather-wise, in Southwest Pennsylvania. It’s alternately temperate and frigid, and no matter the reading on the thermometer, it’s wet and slippery (either due to ice or mud), and just generally revolting outside. The Brits may have written the book on foggy, damp, nasty, windy, biting, foul weather at any time of year, but late November through April in my neck of the woods will give them (us?) a run for the money, any day of the week. So, I call upon one of my favorite childhood musical revue acts to explain how I feel about it (the summer months in this area are somewhat more pleasant than those described in the song, but the rest of it is pretty much spot on):

Of course, this is a parody of a sweet little nursery rhyme that many moms use, when they’re trying to teach their progeny the months of the year, in the correct order, and with some context.

Flanders and Swann take it to a new level, though. And anyone can tell you that the situation around here at this time of year does seem to lend itself to some swearing. On this side of the pond, the bit of cultural debris that best expresses my opinion of this time of year was penned by Ezra Pound (1885-1972, and someone I don’t generally cotton to), and is his riposte to that charming medieval (14th Century) musical round, Sumer is Icumen In, which begins:

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!

(Summer is coming, loudly sing cuckoo! The seed grows and the fields bloom, and the woods spring new, sing cuckoo!)

Pound’s brilliant parody begins:

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm!

No translation needed. And I won’t go further, because he does rather overdo the exclamatory portion, but his references to “raineth drop and staineth slop,” “how the wind doth ramm,” and “an ague hath my ham [leg]” certainly do ring very true to me.

(Actually, it’s difficult to discuss either of these poems without getting into some touchy subjects, as even the first lovely little pastoral contains the phrase “Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,” translated as “the bull stirs, the buck (male deer, or male goat) farts,” and is generally recorded as the first use of the verb “to fart” in the English language. Some find that a distasteful topic, and bowdlerize it, or pretend that the line says something other than what it does. Such is life.)

Still. Ugh. It’s just horrible outside today. As it was yesterday. As it will be tomorrow. Ugh. Dear Lord, please. No more of this. (ICYMI, this is the pointless whining part I described earlier. Wah. Wah. Waaaaaaaaaah.) He’s not listening. No-one is listening. No-one is going to fix it for me. Look in the <Ezra Pound’s favorite expletive> mirror, She. Gosh, it’s dreary.

And I feel, in myself, like nothing so much as “greasy She” on the farm (but without the extensive staff delineated by the Bard):

WHEN icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all around the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl—
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.–William Shakespeare

My nose is red, raw and dripping at the moment. I’ve just chucked some hay into the feeders for the sheep. And broken the ice on their water trough because the electric heating element seems to have failed (again). I can’t feel my fingers, and in spite of my best efforts with scarves and hoods, wet sleet has somehow got inside my jacket, and run down the back of my neck. My galoshes have developed their usual “year two” leak, and my feet are numb. The birds aren’t “brooding” at all, they’re screeching because the feeders are empty, so I need to do something about that. I do love the owls though (I listen for them every night), and the idea of “roasted crabs hiss[ing] in the bowl” is appealing. All I’ve got in the pot I’m keeling is boring chicken noodle soup. I wish it was colder, and perhaps snowing; then at least it would be pretty outside instead of dank and dreary:

St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.–John Keats

But. No-one is listening. No-one is helping. No-one cares.

And yet. And yet . . .

Just now, one of my favorite carols, from my still-active Christmas playlist, has rung sweetly through the house. And, perhaps, I am healed, or at least put, temporarily, into a better and more productive frame of mind:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

. . .

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

It’s a musical arrangement of a poem by a favorite author of my childhood, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), and it is better known in the more lush orchestral arrangement by Gustav Holst, although I prefer the one above, by Harold Darke, which took Holst’s melody in an instrumentally sparser, and vocally more complex direction.

The original poem and the musical arrangement of it are a reminder for me that, no matter how trying external circumstances, no matter the bitter north wind that rushes in, together with a complement of dead and wet leaves, and an occasional shivering and dripping black cat, whenever I dare open the back door, no matter how cold and miserable, and sad and awful, things sometimes seem, it doesn’t have to be perpetual winter inside me. I can escape it any time I decide to!

And so I start by thinking about that “bleak midwinter . . . long, long ago.” And, of course, I disappear down a couple of rabbit holes that involve why some countries measure seasons using the equinoxes and solstices as midpoints and some don’t; thus does the birth of the Christ Child occur in the “bleak midwinter” in the song, and yet only four days after the “start” of winter where I live. Fascinating. But a deflection, rather than the point. So, regroup and try again.

And I come to the last stanza, and the last line, and I realize something I’ve always known, but which, in occasional bouts of self-absorption and misery, even just about things like the weather, I frequently forget: that the only thing that matters is what’s in my heart. That no matter how much or how little, in real terms I have or don’t, or how cold, or how miserable I feel, I am in charge of a heart. My heart. That I am free to give it, or withhold it, at will. And that if I fall on the side of “give,” if there is warmth and love and kindness there, it doesn’t really matter what the little weather station on top of my bookcase reports about the dire and ugly situation outside. Nor does my success or failure rate in living up to, or living down, the expectations of others matter all that much, either. Inside my heart, there is love, there is gratitude, there is warmth, there is kindness, and there is truth. And through them, with them, and in them, I find I can vanquish the “bleak midwinter,” after all.

Because in my heart, it’s always summer.

Thank you, Lord.

Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.–J.R.R. Tolkien

Photo credit: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Hausdülmen, Sonnenaufgang — 2015 — 4952” / CC BY-SA 4.0.

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