“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
Yet sunshine brightens after rain,
The darkness comes and goes again,
So solace follows bitter pain,
As seasons wax and wane.
~Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen (1832–1911), “November,” c.1864
“Winter is coming,” is the oft repeated warning in TV’s GAME OF THRONES, an ominous rumble, the suggestion that something terrible is looming just off screen, a nightmare filled with unimaginable disaster and horror.
“Winter came, went away and now has come BACK!” was what I thought last Tuesday, shivering slightly as I looked outside towards the park as snow pelted my window. My heart sagged. For the two weeks before, I’d watched as the trees had begun to thrust forth tightly bound green balls of soon-to-be pink blossoms. Bulbs had pushed up their green offspring a couple of inches out of the ground. The forsythia—always the first harbinger of Spring—was already blooming, its psychedelic yellow in stark contrast to a mousy end-of-winter palette.
“What about all of the tulips in the Botanical Gardens?” I grouse at no one in particular, the sky, maybe. Or God. “What do You have to say about that!? Hundreds of thousands of blooms we’ll miss! How could You??”
I think of the number of springs I’ve missed in my fully self- involved past, wrapped up in a cocoon of “me, me, me,” Springs glory just a hardly noticed set piece for the play entitled, not surprisingly, “ME!”
As I have grown older and time has made some (hopefully) positive inroads on my perspective, I’ve begun to notice not just the moments of the full bloom of spring as I rush by; I also now have begun to notice some of the subtle pre-bloom signs that something momentous is about to happen; the air, though still cold, seems to hold a bit more warmth with each passing day, neighborhood lawns are turning a brighter green, more sunlight triggers more birdsong. The world turns on its axis yet again and what is old is new once more. I have become a happier man because of my expanded outlook. Happy and, sometimes sad, too.
I understand better and better with each passing year that my number of allotted springs is limited. That number was always limited, of course. I’m simply more aware of that fact, gloominess about passing Time an uneasy roommate with a newly aroused spring joy.
Yet, who isn’t somewhat gloomy, these days, be it an unprecedented 78 degree day in early March or a late season blizzard 3 weeks later? Winter IS coming whatever the calendar may tell us. The White Walkers are awakening, The Night’s Watch is our protection and Castle Black our last hope. Politically, socially, morally we are snowed in 10 feet deep, with no sign of warmth on the horizon Daylight Savings time notwithstanding.
“Sure, sure,” I think. All of that may be true…but what about the tulips in Prospect Park!!!
My instructor at the Buddhist zendo I attend asks, “What if this recent snow—which cut short the life of these struggling tendrils just reaching above the ground–what if it’s simply another ‘thing?’ Another moment, come and gone; like a good mood or a bad mood, happy or sad, excited or bored. Just another ‘thing?’ that will have transformed to some other ‘thing’ with our next breath.”
Buddhists really do talk that way. Yet, I can almost make out what it is he is mysteriously trying to say. My expectation of a certain kind of spring—like other expectations I have—rarely is manifested in quite the way I imagine. I look forward to Spring out there in the future, in the dead of winter, and I miss it when it’s something in the past in the hot and humid days of summer. And really, the only time to really embrace a tulip is in the Now. Right now. Now…oops, you missed it! Now.
I expect hot water will come out of the faucet at my command. I expect my salmon from the market will be fresh. I expect that the government is watching out for my freedoms, for our democracy. I expect all of this and so much more, but based on what? Habit? Laziness? Petulance? What I so often forget is that what I expect to be mine by right of being human is, in fact, not de rigeur for most of the rest of the world’s populations. Though, to be perfectly honest, expectation is human and not barred entry from the poorest and most put upon regions of the earth. How do we say ‘yes’ to the winter—the other one we didn’t expect, the one that will still be with us when we finally struggle our way out of the melting snow and ice of last week’s blizzard?
Is it really just another ‘thing.”
The snow piled up along the streets near my apartment transformed quickly from pristine and glittering white to pocked greyish frozen dishwater. By next week, it will mostly be gone, finally washed clean by rain and sun.
Tulips next year? Maybe. A change in the tide in Washington? Most certainly. That I’ll ever commit to reading all of the GAME OF THRONES books? Unlikely.
Still, change is, as someone far wiser than I once said, the only thing we can be sure of. Take heart. The winter that is coming will also, one day, be gone.
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