If it’s true we all face death in the winter, a shortening of days, the long nights, is it also true we strive against it, moving nonstop in some mad attempt to make the most of each day, to feel we have lived it, and if that is too impossible a feat, that at least we have accomplished something? And what if we were to simply give in to the darkness, curl up and sleep until the earth is turned again toward the sun, until the icy grasses and streams thaw?
I feel winter moving into my body, making my heart knock against the stillness like a hermit who talks to himself just to hear someone speak. I have become more porous, my borders weaker. Sleep terrifies me, my insomnia relinquishing its grasp only when I acknowledge my fear, the old prayer if I should die before I wake a kind of balm, my body afraid if it gives in to sleep, in to the unconsciousness of which winter is made, it won’t come back. I am afraid I won’t come back. More people die in winter. Perhaps it’s easier to let go of a dark world than a light one, to trade darkness for darkness, one mystery for a greater one.
But sleep can be lovely in winter, dreams vivid and potent; like a stone dropped in a pond, they can ripple into our waking life. I woke a few days ago with one such remnant, and I’ve been holding the image close since. There’s a shell on the sand of the riverbank. I pick it up, turn it in my fingers. The shell is closed tight, but I pry it open. A tiny fetus of a blue heron is tucked inside. I am sure I’ve killed it, opening the shell too soon. But when I lay the heron fetus on the sand, it moves just a little, enough for me to realize I can close it in the shell again and perhaps it will continue to grow until it is strong enough to live in the wider world.
That tiny heron makes me think of writing, how long a project can take to develop, to become itself, and how sharing it with the world too soon means it won’t survive, or if it does, it won’t grow to its full potential; it won’t become what it might have had you let it incubate a little longer. And this reminds me of my teacher, Larry Levis, who wrote long, gorgeous poems whose dreamlike logic takes you to a place so fully formed and unique, you want to linger there, to visit again and again. He died far too young at the age of fifty, but thankfully he left us his visions. To be with him, I only need to open one of his books—Winter Stars, say—and to read a poem or two. Larry detested that moment when you put your writing in the hands of another. The moment you let someone—anyone—read what you are working on, it isn’t just yours anymore. Don’t you hate that, he’d said to me. At the time, like many young writers, I longed for acknowledgement, and I’m not sure I fully understood what he meant.
The value of incubation is something I’ve come to appreciate the more I write. In this age of social media and the addiction of its constant contact and approval, of bloggers, of fast and easy “self-publishing” and print-on-demand books, slow writing takes on an even greater significance. The sort of writing I love has sentences I reread, paragraphs and stanzas I return to like good friends; the language is crafted until it feels utterly natural, but with a hint of the magical, the transcendent. More often than not this is the result of slow writing, which requires considerable solitude and patience. One must face one’s fears alone, as during the long nights of winter, in that same dark that will one day swallow us all.
The winter solstice approaches. The days will lengthen again. Until then, I will light candles that smell like oranges. I will curl up and dream. And in the morning, perhaps I will wake to see a blue heron flying low over the cold, gray river.