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A Love Letter to Winter: Adam Gopnik’s Ardent Case for the Cold Season’s Splendor and Significance

“If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely… half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

A Love Letter to Winter: Adam Gopnik’s Ardent Case for the Cold Season’s Splendor and Significance

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote in what remains one of the most beautiful and enlivening thoughts ever committed to words. But it’s also a thought emblematic of the cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors, in which winter is invariably a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness, a psychoemotional tundra of chilling discomfort and anguishing longing for warmth.

In 2011, beloved essayist and longtime New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the singular splendors and satisfactions of winter in his lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s reliably rewarding Massey Lecture Series, published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season (public library). Part lyrical love letter to winter, part rigorous cultural history of the season’s image in the popular imagination, Gopnik’s inquiry ranges from the works of Schubert, Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, and Goethe to the role of engineers, architects, and polar explorers in shaping our sensibility of the season.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

Gopnik writes:

Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as a time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss.

Reflecting on the “rare feeling of perfect equanimity” that winter has awakened in him since a young age, he offers a delightfully defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythology of the white season:

My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.

But such a disposition, he argues, is a luxury unique to our time:

A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas — a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene — is part of the modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man,” called this new feeling “a mind of winter,” and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn’t have God. A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else — the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime — is a modern taste.

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A master of intensely gratifying asides, Gopnik substantiates this with the finest, richest, most beautifully worded definition of modernity I’ve ever encountered:

By modern I mean in the sense that the loftier kinds of historians of ideas like to use the term, to mean not just right here and now but also the longer historical period that begins sometime around the end of the eighteenth century, breathes fire from the twin dragons of the French and Industrial Revolutions, and then still blows cinder-breath into at least the end of the twentieth century, drawing deep with the twin lungs of applied science and mass culture. An age of growth and an age of doubt, the age in which, for the first time in both Europe and America, more people were warmer than they had been before, and in which fewer people had faith in God — a period when, at last, the nays had it.

Much as the most spirited defense of darkness was penned only after the proliferation of artificial light, Gopnik reminds us that the allure of winter was made possible by the conquest of artificial warmth:

The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.

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In a sentiment that calls to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s exquisite meditation on how naming confers dignity upon life and gives meaning to existence, Gopnik writes:

There is a humane purpose to watching winter that is found simply in the acts of naming and describing… The first thing that the earliest polar explorers did was to name the ice shelves and coasts — naming them after their patrons and their patrons’ moms — and then the very next thing the very next group of explorers did was to change the names, naming those same things after kaisers and their daughters. Names are the footholds, the spikes the imagination hammers in to get a hold on an ice wall of mere existence.

[The act of naming] is the thing that makes the world humane. It gives structure and meaning to natural events that in themselves contain none… In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of. It’s through the slow crawl of distinctions, differentiations, and explanations that the world becomes … well, never manageable, but recognizable, this place we know. The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiation of the world’s boundaries, the way we draw lines between what nature is and what we feel about it.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915, found in The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning

Nearly a century after Rilke’s magnificent letter on what winter teaches us about the richness of life and the tenacity of the human spirit, Gopnik writes:

Ice wine, as every drinker knows, is sweetness made from stress. That’s not news, or not exactly. All good wine takes its essential sugar from the stress of its circumstances: pinot noir, the grape of the cold country of Champagne, gets flabby and soupy as the climate warms. But ice wine is extreme sweetness made from extraordinary stress. Every winter the grapes on the Niagara Peninsula are left not merely to chill but to actually freeze — the worst thing that normally can happen to fruit — and then the brutal cold forces all the natural sugar into the core of the grape, where it waits to be pressed out.

And in that simple paradox — the hardest weather makes the nicest wine — lies a secret that gives shape to the winter season, and to our feelings about it. Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.

Complement Gopnik’s altogether bewitching Winter with Annie Dillard on winter and the wonder of life and Tove Jansson’s marvelous wintry allegory of the paradox of control and surrender, then revisit Gopnik on Darwin’s clever strategy for preempting criticism.

For more of Gopnik’s enchanting genius, treat yourself to his wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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Bruce Lee on Self-Actualization and the Crucial Difference Between Pride and Self-Esteem

“The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection.”

“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you,” Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her invaluable advice to young artists. But how does one master the intricacies of that integration?

That’s what legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) explores in one of the pieces collected in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — the invaluable compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, essays, and poems that also gave us the origin of his famous metaphor for resilience.

In an essay titled “The Passionate State of Mind,” Lee writes:

We can see through others only when we see through ourselves.

Lack of self-awareness renders us transparent; a soul that knows itself is opaque.

[…]

To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are… Yet it is remarkable that the very people who are most self-dissatisfied and crave most for a new identity have the least self-awareness. They have turned away from an unwanted self and hence never had a good look at it. The result is that those most dissatisfied can neither dissimulate nor attain a real change of heart. They are transparent, and their unwanted qualities persist through all attempts at self-dramatization and self-transformation.

Our lack of self-awareness, Lee argues, makes us look to others to tell us who we are. (Learning not to do that is one of life’s hardest, most important lessons.) He considers the perilous yet profoundly human impulse for conformity:

We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate. We cannot derive a sense of absolute certitude from anything that has its roots in us. The most poignant sense of insecurity comes from standing alone; we are not alone when we imitate. It is thus with most of us! We are what other people say we are. We know ourselves chiefly by hearsay.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s memorable meditation on character and personal responsibility, Lee points out that this tendency is what dogma preys on:

There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts that are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses. Both the strong and the weak grasp at the alibi. The latter hide their malevolence under the virtue of obedience; they acted dishonorably because they had to obey orders. The strong, too, claim absolution by proclaiming themselves the chosen instrument of a higher power — God, history, fate, nation, or humanity.

Art by Olivier Tallec from the wonderful illustrated parable Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from the wonderful illustrated parable Louis I, King of the Sheep

At the root at our misguided grasping at self-worth, Lee asserts, is a confusion between pride and self-esteem. He examines the crucial difference between the two:

Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not part of us, while self-esteem derives from the potentialities and achievements of self. We are proud when we identify ourselves with an imaginary self, a leader, a holy cause, a collective body of possessions. There is fear and intolerance in pride; it is insensitive and uncompromising. The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection.

We acquire a true sense of self-worth, Lee notes, by examining ourselves in order to identify our talents — Epictetus’s notion of self-scrutiny applied with kindness comes to mind — and then working hard to realize them. This purposeful drive for self-actualization, nowhere more beautifully articulated than in Thomas Wolfe’s letters to his mother, is the true wellspring of self-esteem. Lee writes:

Action is a high road to self-confidence and [self-]esteem. Where it is open, all energies flow toward it. It comes readily to most people and its rewards are tangible.

And yet self-esteem isn’t a static object to be attained but a dynamic sense to be continually cultivated:

The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task that taxes all of the individual’s power and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day.

Illustration from The Mighty Lalouche by Sophie Blackall

In a sentiment all the more poignant amid our age of rampant shootings and mass malevolence, Lee considers how seductive the illusory substitutes for self-esteem become in its absence:

When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride — the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in a crisis of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavors in which the masses most readily unite [are] basically a search for pride.

Complement the altogether fantastic Bruce Lee: Artist of Life with Lee on how to find power in repose and strength in yielding, then revisit Anne Lamott on how to stop keeping ourselves small by people-pleasing and Nietzsche on the journey of becoming oneself.

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A Year Without Mom: A Gorgeous Graphic Novel About Separation and Reunion, the End of Childhood, and the Tradeoffs of Happiness

From the universals of first love to the complexities of geopolitical history, a tender tale of becoming.

A Year Without Mom: A Gorgeous Graphic Novel About Separation and Reunion, the End of Childhood, and the Tradeoffs of Happiness

My parents, both Bulgarian, met while studying abroad in Russia. Shortly after I was born, they returned to St. Petersburg to finish their respective degrees, leaving me with my grandparents, with whom they lived. Although I was too young to have a conscious memory of the separation, it was a formative experience and one not uncommon in Eastern Europe of the 1970s and 1980s — a culture where people wed in their late teens and early twenties, had babies, and raised children with ample hands-on help from their own barely-middle-aged parents, all crammed into one multigenerational household.

In the gorgeous autobiographical graphic novel A Year Without Mom (public library), Russian-born Brooklyn-based illustrator Dasha Tolstikova — half of the duo behind the lovely picture-book The Jacket — tells a similar story, but one that impacted her all the more deeply under the circumstances of her age, her culture, and the particular moment in history.

We meet twelve-year-old Dasha, who lives with her mother and grandparents in downtown Moscow. It’s a quiet and comfortable middle-class life — as much as a middle class even existed under communism — until, one unexpected day, she overhears her grandmother and her mother in the kitchen.

It turns out that her mother has been admitted into a Master’s program in America and has decided to take the opportunity, which would mean leaving Dasha with grandma and grandpa for a whole year.

Coursing through the moving personal story of how Dasha fills her mother’s absence with a year of life are universal themes of loneliness, separation, communion, first love, and the disorienting desire to pin down one’s sense of self in a world of flux, instability, and incomprehensible change.

Undergirding the story is a lyrical farewell to the final frontier of childhood, past which one must learn to negotiate and reconcile the multitude of conflicting emotions paving that bumpy road to adulthood, adolescence — stubbornness and sensitivity, courage and anxiety, joy and despair, terror and tenderness.

We’re also reminded, as young Dasha watches the fall of the Soviet Union from the terrifying inside, that geopolitical history is always more complex, dimensional, and irrepressibly human than the victors’ textbooks tend to tell.

Tolstikova’s choice of color scheme — grayscale, with touches of red and navy — is both evocative of the Russian national flag and befitting the story’s mood: the all-consuming gloom of sadness and separation, sprinkled with the rosy hopefulness for reunion and the warm redemption of love.

At the end of the story, Dasha is given the coveted opportunity to join her mother in America — but even this previously longed-for reunion, like all major life-choices, proves itself to be a source of further conflictedness.

What emerges is a gentle reminder that road to happiness is strewn with tradeoffs, making peace with which is the only real way there.

A Year Without Mom comes from Canadian independent publisher Groundwood Books, makers of some of the most wonderful picture-books of our time, including Sidewalk Flowers, The Menino and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Complement it with a parallel yet thoroughly different illustrated parable of separation and reunion, Marianne Dubuc’s wonderful The Lion and the Bird.

Illustrations © Dasha Tolstikova courtesy of Groundwood Books

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