Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.

The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

View From a Tower

Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak Lookout with Mt. Hozomeen in the background. (Wikimedia)

When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.

I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington.    (The tower no longer exists.)  It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.

I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service.  I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again.  You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.

Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”

Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.

Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.

Accord to John Suiter’s  book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation.  He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”

He wasn’t as successful in his practice as Snyder, but he did learn something about himself. Kerouac spent 63 days that summer there and wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and in a collection of haiku, Desolation Pops.

Gary gone from the shack
     like smoke
– My lonely shoes

Gary Snyder
     is a haiku
far away

Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”

A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.

I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year.  No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?

Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.

The Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key

Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.

When Will You Feel Safe?

Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

The country appears to be slowly reopening. Here in New Jersey, I feel like we are being lulled into normalcy. Things seem more normal – but they’re not normal.

All of us have been doing risk management and risk analysis every normal day of our lives. You drive your car or walk across a street or swim in the ocean or hike in the woods and you are making countless decisions about how to proceed without risk. We don’t think about it most of the time. The traffic light is green and we assume it is red for the crossing traffic and that drivers will stop and that the one car you see considering a legal turn-on-red sees you coming and will wait. Most of the time you are correct.

Going to the supermarket or most stores never seemed very risky. Now, it does. In my local supermarket, there are one-way aisles and almost everyone wears a mask, some have gloves (which seems reasonable considering all the things you touch there). Some stores limit who is going in and offer appointment shopping.  In B.C. (before COVID), people went to stores and the mall just to walk and browse without much concern for real shopping or making purchases. Is that still true now? Will it ever be true again?

Restaurants are still closed here but for takeout and curbside pickup. If the governor said that they could reopen next week with some distancing and changes, I still wouldn’t go in.

What will it take for me and others to feel safe going to a Broadway show where seats are even closer than on an airplane? We had tickets for Broadway, an Elton John concert and trips to France and the Virgin Islands booked. All canceled, of course, but what will it take to make me feel safe to rebook? We certainly have written off 2020.

There are lots of people unemployed. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is 13-14% and those people won’t be doing as much shopping or going to restaurants, theaters and sporting events because of money in addition to any fears.

So, what will make you feel safe? The list of things is growing from what I read. A trusted and easily accessible vaccine seems to be number one. That is unlikely to appear before the end of the year no matter what you hear.

Ubiquitous testing still isn’t unavailable and testing isn’t any guarantee. It seems that having the antibodies doesn’t guarantee immunity. If I test negative for the virus today, it doesn’t mean that I’m negative tomorrow if I have been out in the public overnight.

Distancing and smaller groups seem to help. But can restaurants make a go of it if they can only have 50% capacity?

Masks are effective but I see fewer people wearing them and as the summer heats up I suspect I’ll see even fewer.

Gloves help (though masks seem to be more important) and so does handwashing and disinfecting surfaces. That was always true even for colds and the flu but it wasn’t being done broadly and consistently and I don’t know if that will improve now.

Having spent my life working in education (first in K-12 and then in higher education), I’m following what happens there more closely. Schools all seem to be planning for three possible scenarios. The most unlikely is that things return to normal for the fall new year. At the other extreme is the real possibility that offices will still be closed and classes will still be online. The most likely scenario seems to be somewhere in the middle. Schools will open but with limited numbers of students (split sessions, block schedule, alternating days, hybrid courses that are half online).

And then the question still remains that no matter what the “new normal” (a term I hate) turns out to be in the next six months, how long will that last? Throughout 2021? Forever? No one knows. If a time traveler came back from 2022 and told me things were back to normal or that everything is radically different, I would belive either future.


Building in My Dreams

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan has two subtitle versions: “The Education of an Amateur Builder,” and the one I used for a previous post in 2010, “The Architecture of Daydreams.”  That this book has sat on my bedside book stack for all these years is not an indication of the quality of the book or my enjoyment of it. I bought it 7 years ago, started it, put it aside, and then started back into it again last spring and have dipped into it on and off and between other readings. I finally finished it on New Year’s Eve because I didn’t want it to remain unfinished into the new year. A small, doable, New Year’s resolution. It works reading it in parts as a story and as instruction. Think of the chapter as courses in a very long meal, or as occasional visits to Michael’s little place for another lesson. His place wasn’t built quickly, so why read it all in a weekend.

I was attracted to it because, like Pollan, I have long wanted of a room of my own. Okay, not a “room” but a separate building, albeit a small one. For me, it has been a small log cabin that has been in my head and sketched on many sheets of paper ever since I read Walden and a host of other books where people escaped and wrote in some cabin isolation. You should not need a cabin to be a writer, but it still seems Romantic (capital R) to me.

In the snow…

He wanted a “shelter for daydreams” and I identify not only with that, but also with his lack of skills needed to build such a place. Pollan writes that “Apart from eating, gardening, short-haul driving, and sex, I generally prefer to delegate my commerce with the physical world to specialists.”

So,  I read the book for both of its subtitles, as instruction manual about how to actually build such a structure, and as an armchair-dreaming builder. As instruction manual, it had its limitations. I’m not in a place where I can hire a real architect and custom builders to make my cabin. Plus, my plan has always been to do it myself. I also don’t have the land to build on, so it is astill “armchair building” for now.

But as an armchair building adventure tale, the book is kind of a Moby-Dick reading experience to me. I learned about building a little place and how to place it on a piece of land, and also about the history and meaning of all human building. It is about finding your place in your environment in the same way that you need to place your cabin to take advantage of views, sunlight, and to deal with drainage and winds and weather. In Melville’s book, you learn about whaling, whale and the sea, and about your own place in and away from this world.

In the spring

Will I start building this spring? Well, I still don’t have that piece of land or all the skills to build a place on my own or a set of blueprints that I would use yet. But over the years, I have learned some of the building skills by repairing my home, building a rock wall and a garden shed. I have collected plans for cabins and one-room sanctuaries, though none feel like “the one” that is floating somewhere in my brain.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year the daydream gets built.

Solitude Not Loneliness

Solitude might be defined as a state of seclusion or isolation. No matter where you find solitude, it always means a lack of contact with people.

I know it can be associated with bad situations – relationship issues, loss of loved ones, disease.  But in the short-term, solitude can be seen as a good and valuable thing. It can be a  time when you can work or think or rest without being disturbed. It can be privacy in a world where privacy is eroding.

Most people who give this topic any serious thought see a distinction between solitude and loneliness. For me, solitude is a good thing, while loneliness is the pain of being alone.

I heard a piece on the radio about three novels about solitude and writers and that got me thinking about the subject. As I sit here at my desk typing this, I am alone in a room. My wife is upstairs in her workspace. I don’t feel alone and I certainly don’t feel lonely. But I do want some solitude to write.

Writers tend to cherish their inner space. These are generalities (not stereotypes) but I find most writers to be outgoing and nice to be with in social situations. The solitude they crave comes at other times, and when they need it, don’t impose on that space.

We like voluntary isolation.

In those novels (I am reading one of them now), you have writers writing about writers who are dealing with solitude in some way. In The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am,  the writer has “lived so quietly that the most she thinks of human connection is that ‘someone might notice me on the way to the store’.” It is in the reading of some obituaries where she finds the stories of some people younger than she is, that she decides to get back into the world  and contact with people again. This is a Norwegian novel and in my mind people in places like Norway deal more with solitude.

Amy, the writer protagonist of Amy Falls Down, seems to have accidentally fallen into staying away from people. An accident brings her back into the public eye and she begins again some social interactions. The book’s curious description says that “While she still has writer’s block, she doesn’t suffer from it. She’s still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.”

It is not so accidental for Celia, the protagonist of The Affairs of Others, who retreated from the world after her husband’s death. Her isolation feels to me more of a loneliness, even if self-imposed. She owns a small apartment building and chooses tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Here is someone who likes boundaries, solitude and being at a remove from a new tenant named (ironically or hopefully) Hope. Things get noisy. I haven’t finished the book, so no spoilers, but I hope for solitude and pleasure to triumph.

These writers have space that is sometimes public and sometimes private, which may not seem to be the case for many of us. But we do have public lives at work or school, even if there is no “fame” associated with it. We know that we can’t quite live without one another.

We don’t really want to be the castaway on the desert island, even if that sounds rather appealing at times. We would want to be rescued or even have the boat that can get us back to the mainland when we need that.

In my college days, I read a lot about solitude in religious contexts. The saints and the monks wanted  silence and found a kind of pleasure in it. Buddha attained enlightenment through meditation and deprived himself of sensory input, bodily necessities, and external desires, including social interaction.

It seemed to me that solitude was pretty much required to find yourself or your place in this world or the next one.

That pleasure from solitude seemed to be from within. This led me to many weekends of self-imposed solitude spent smoking, drinking and writing. This Romantic (but only in the English class sense) attitude eventually started to feel lonely. The idea that I needed the solitude to recharge my energy or creativity stopped working for me.

‘Solitude’ by Frederic Leighton

I know now that this path affects your physical and mental health, both positively and negatively.

Symptoms from complete isolation, called sensory deprivation, often include anxiety, sensory illusions, or even distortions of time and perception.

Now, that is an extreme case from no sensory stimulation at all and wouldn’t occur to those levels by just avoiding contact with people. However, any long-term solitude is often seen as undesirable. The solitude becomes loneliness. It gets harder to have relationships.

I found that depression led me to isolate myself, and isolating myself led to depression. A very nasty kind of Catch 22.

That doesn’t mean that solitude is depressing.  But it is a place right next door to depression and loneliness.

We know that sensory deprivation and solitary confinement are used with prisoners and are a way to torture and break them. So why would anyone impose it, even for a short time, on themselves?

But we do. And it can be a good thing.

I have concluded in my own personal study that the important factor is time. Sometimes I need a few hours. It can be in the late night and early morning hours when the house is quiet and my wife and the world are asleep and I turn off the TV and Internet. It can be an afternoon spent walking in the woods alone and avoiding the occasional other walker.

My wife has been away for a few days and I find the empty house a very good place. Of course, I know she intends to come back. I know my solitude has an expiration date and so I place great value in the solitude. In those times, I find that even when I go out to the park or a store or even some place for a drink or food, I tend to isolate myself.

You can feel lonely in a crowd. Not a good thing. You can also find solitude in a place full of people, but it takes some effort.

In solitude I find freedom. I find spirituality. I rediscover my creativity. I do feel a recharging of energies.

My solitude is voluntary.  When that isolation is involuntary or undesired at that time, I don’t see it as solitude. This is not just the semantics of the word.

I don’t think that this involuntary isolation will lead to any feeling of freedom or creativity.  While solitude can help in the development of “self,” when it lasts too long or is not by choice, I think it can hurt the self and our own self-concept.

If I know someone who seems to be depressed, my first advice and intervention is to try to get them into the world, even though that feels like the worst possible thing to them in that moment.

Now that I am much older, I am thinking about solitude and age. I don’t think children who experience solitude a lot are really experiencing what I want solitude to mean. Those children are probably not choosing to be alone. Kids need some solitude, but think about how we use “alone time” or isolation (Go to your room!) as punishment – like those prisoners. In children too much alone time probably leads to someone unsure of how to interact socially with others. And that may cause them to prefer to be alone, which leads to a shyness that leads to social rejection. A nasty circular path to walk.

As a teenager, I craved social interaction and friends, and I craved solitude. I isolated myself in my room when relatives came. I buried myself in books. I went out and found places to be alone. I made myself lonely in some distorted attempt to find something else.

It took me a lot of years to find the right balance. Now, I am much better at finding solitude and knowing how much I need before I fall off a cliff into depression.

I find a clear and empty horizon to be a very beautiful place. That is especially true when I know that I can turn around and see the people I love and know that I can get back to them. That is a place that I wish for you too, reader.

We Were An Island

“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote  John Donne.  And yet, Art and Nan Kellam bought an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949 and lived there for more than 35 years. They were quite content with little more than the company of each other. And they thought of themselves as an island.

I have been reading several books that I’ll share here about people who did their own Walden kind of experience and it’s very easy to Romanticize those experiences into some kind of idyllic fantasy.  Though the story of the Kellams is appealing, you have to keep in mind that they had no electricity or running water, and heated the house they built with firewood from their forest. To fetch supplies, they rowed a dory several miles to the mainland and back.

The goal was self-sufficiency, so they were building things rather than buying them and growing whatever foods they could. But that was more to stretch their limited money than it was to serve as models of good living or inspire a book.

Their story is told in We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam by New Jersey native and conservationist Peter Blanchard III. The book is based largely on journals kept by the Kellams.

Their island was Placentia Island, a forested 550-acre island a few miles from Acadia National Park. They moved to the island to lead, like Thoreau, a simple life, free of technology and modern contrivances.

These are not Caribbean desert islands or deserted islands that are along the coast of Maine. More often than not, they are rocks in a cold ocean. They lived there year-round for nearly forty years.

The story is illustrated with historic photographs and recent photographs by David Graham. As much a story of a relationship that grew in isolation, it is also one of those tales of “living “off the grid” that I find appealing.

Don’t confuse them with anyone who has some idealistic, environmental, survivalist, sustainability movement behind their actions.  “They made a conscious decision to inhabit a world that they had total control over,” says Blanchard. And though they were not naturalists or conservationists when they took to the island, it would be hard not to say that their mindfulness and appreciation for not only nature’s beauty, but its power grew each year.

And in the end, they didn’t want to see their land destroyed or built on, so they turned to conservation and donated the island to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy after retaining a “life estate” that allowed them exclusive use of Placentia during their lifetimes.

Blanchard learned of the Kellams when he volunteered for the Nature Conservancy. He himself “owns” two islands near Placentia – Black Island and Sheep Island – that have been permanently preserved, and is part-owner of a third preserved island, Pond Island.

If you visit Placentia Island now (it is a public nature preserve), all you will find of the Kellams are some stone foundations and a square of cement with their footprints.