“I like to come in from chores and find the early dark in the rooms, when the only gleam is a single lamp over an amaryllis bulb on which my wife is practicing some sort of deception.”
- “A Report in January” by E. B. White (January 30, 1958)
January, especially in New England, has the capacity to be defined by just one word: bleak. It is usually quite cold, and the colors outside fall solely within a tight spectrum of greys, with tired looking cedar fences, twitchy squirrel tails, bare maple branches, and salted asphalt providing the limited range. January arrives on the heels of endless weeks of what feels like (to me) a Bacchanalian festival and orgy of overconsumption. It renders one tired and ready for some serious hunkering down—or is it hiding? It’s probably why I feel so blasé about my birthday each year, and often just wave it off with a “yeah, yeah, thanks” of the hand.
In January, I read more than perhaps any other time of year. I can’t garden and it’s too early to start seeds indoors. I can’t lay down in the grass under my maple tree and pass the time measuring the breezes across my brow. This year, snow shoveling has been at an all time minimum so reasons to be outdoors are few. Even the ice cream shop is closed for the season, cutting my usual destination distractions down by a solid half. So I read. Correction: I hoard books, and I read.
I’ve got a bit of a thing for essays lately. Right now, I’m really, really enjoying Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering. But I mix and mingle others too—that’s the beauty of essays and short stories. You can lean in whole hog, or just dabble from day to day. This morning I opened up The Essays of E. B. White, which I had picked up last week at one of my favorite bookstores. Admission: I’ve never read the full length versions of Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. I will, someday. Yet I was intrigued by his having an essay collection so I snagged it. Simmering on my shelf for more than a week now, I was dying to dig in, just a little. I chose “A Report in January,” skipping ahead to it simply because the title seemed apt given where we are on the calendar.
At first pass, it doesn’t seem like much of a deep rumination of thoughts. Over nine pages, he eloquently (yet matter of factly) covers seemingly mundane topics: the backyard fox that eludes him, deer hunting in his state of Maine, the ills of development in Florida, dredging up his farm pond, the wet winter, the state of work/jobs in the region, school lunch programs, chopping wood, a neighbor’s new house and White’s distaste for the amount of artificial light it will have (remember: this was written some 57 years ago), and chickens and eggs. That’s it.
But here’s the beauty of essays and essayists—the good ones, at least. They create a thesis, or at least explore the outer edges of one, and often subtly so. It can be hard to appreciate why someone bothered to take the time to put all of those disjointed thoughts onto paper—wood chopping, buying chicks, and school lunch programs? Who really cares? But then you go back to the beginning of this essay, and remember what he’s trying to illuminate:
Margaret Mitchell once made a remark I have treasured. Someone asked her what she was “doing,” and she replied, “Doing? It’s a full-time job to be the author of Gone With the Wind.” I remembered this cheerful statement this morning as I lay in bed, before daylight, marshaling in my head the problems and projects and arrangements of the day and wondering when I would again get a chance to “do” something—like sit at a typewriter. I felt a kinship with Miss Mitchell and comforted myself with the pleasing thought that just to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to “do” anything. The idle pursuit of making a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.
I especially love that last line. I think it’s tough to remember sometimes, but I strive to.
The hallmark of a good essay is that moment when you realize that you do care, even if briefly, about what that writer set down into words. You care because you empathize with and understand what he is trying to convey.
Perhaps it is a bit premature to file my own January report. But in a sense, that’s what this blog and the other writing I do is. I’ll add to that the photos I take too because I think they often better capture the moment and emotions I am trying to remember. Maybe my words won’t end up in a book, waiting for some stranger in a college town to pluck it off the shelf, but they are somewhere and not much different than what Mr. White was trying to do. If you write, you’re simply trying to tease out the essence and connectedness of what’s noteworthy among our days, even the shortest and bleakest ones in January.
What’s in your January report so far?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz