Category Archives: winter

A quiet light to himself.

Donald Sheehan

Some years ago Donald Sheehan’s widow Xenia shared on social media an excerpt from his book The Grace of Incorruption, a passage in which he links Robert Frost with St. Dionysius. She published it on the saint’s feast day in October, along with his icon below, but for re-posting Sheehan’s thoughts I have chosen today’s date, on which Robert Frost breathed his last, an appropriately wintry day in 1963. Xenia Sheehan: 

This day the Orthodox Church celebrates St. Dionysius the Areopagite, 1st (or possibly 5th)-century poet of “Mystical Theology,” whom Donald Sheehan uniquely compares to American poet Robert Frost in his “deliberate turning out of all the lights of false knowing . . . in order to behold — in Dionysius’ astonishing words — ‘that darkness concealed from all the light among beings.'”

Don writes in The Grace of Incorruption that,

“…in order to know the personhood of another, we must unknow both the persona and the personality: we must let these lights go out. Again and again, in his finest poems, Robert Frost accomplishes precisely this unknowing, the deliberate extinguishing of all the false light, and a welcoming-in of the darkness in which true personhood can shine forth. And true personhood is, always, genuinely beautiful.

“I think what moves us so deeply about the poem ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ is Frost’s evocation of genuine personhood in the old man. The old man in Frost’s poem is not a persona nor a personality; he is, genuinely, a person. And as the lights go out in the poem, the more beautifully and movingly his personhood emerges. One vivid detail: when the log in the stove shifts with a jolt, we, too, are jolted into a deeper intimacy with the old man, an intimacy that gains in power because of the darkness.”

-Donald Sheehan

Text and icon from Donald’s widow Xenia Sheehan in 2018

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

-Robert Frost

Robert Frost

We prune and purge.

I had a wonderful day, though it was very odd at the beginning. Instead of my usual slow and contemplative morning pace, I had to go downstairs early to phone my auto insurance company as soon as their business hours began, in hopes of asking a simple question of A Real Person, as we say. I had begun to wonder, over the previous several days, if there were any of those on duty. It worked, and I made progress; but I’ll have to do the same thing on Monday.

The contemplative part of the day got postponed and shortened a bit, but it was rich and thought-provoking, as usual. I can’t go into detail about all of that, because most of the day was given to housework, of the purging/organizing sort that I’m making a priority this year. To top it off, the gardener came late in the afternoon, and pruned more trees and bushes. When he is here I usually also work in the garden or tidy up the garage.

It was lovely to be in the garden and not get wet. Eleven days of the last two weeks were rainy; I was reminded today that January in my area is the month with the most rainfall, and that was a blessing in several ways. When it rains, we are rarely forbidden to burn wood, so my house has been cozy from all the fires I’ve been able to keep going, and the wood stove often keeps putting out heat until the afternoon of the next day. That means that when I wake up I am not so cold I threaten to go into dormancy, and I can put my mind to ideas and projects other than going back to bed or making multiple mugs of hot cocoa.

First Alejandro leveled the fountain. I don’t know why it gets wonky so easily, causing all the water to fall off one side of the upper tier. I am not very skillful at evening it out by myself.

The lemon tree, strawberry tree, and at least one pomegranate bush got trimmed and shaped, and much more order was restored to the garage and garden. Recently I mentioned about how the lemon tree was gangly and out of control, and my helper did have confidence about what to do now, and what we’ll do a little later. It looks much better after we removed several branches. I am always surprised at how good my lemon tree smells. I brought in a few of the trimmings and put them in a vase so that every time I come into the room I will get a whiff of that delicious scent.

The Plain Sense of Things

THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

-Wallace Stevens

By Oksana Berda

What happened in the garden.

When I returned to California from the Rocky Mountains at the end of the year, I was surprised at the changes in the garden. Shrubs that had barely begun to take on fall colors before Christmas, suddenly were bare and brown. Though we’d had plenty of frosts in the fall, the zinnas under a covered walkway continued to hang on — until the solstice, apparently…. They heard it was officially winter, and they knew in their deepest parts that winter is not for them. They lost their will to live.

The lemons are all bigger and brighter. This tree is so leggy, it needs a good pruning, but I don’t know quite how to proceed at this point… and I especially am puzzled about when to do the job, because it seems always to be bearing. Maybe Alejandro will know what to do.

My spider plant, though it was healthy and green through last winter and this frosty fall, seems to be dead. But cyclamen are popping up, no doubt loving the heavy rains that have thoroughly soaked the ground. Yesterday I found several containers in the yard that had collected a foot of water in the last ten days.

The fountain that I’d turned off before leaving is filled to the brim from that rain, and while I was gone Alejandro pruned the plum and fig trees, and the wisteria. The pomegranates left on those dwarf bushes turned pale from cold and old age. I’ll pluck them soon and put them out of their misery, and prune those bushes, which have grown slightly out of bounds.

With so much of the landscape at its most drab, I was surprised to see bright calendula faces. Dear, hardy little garden friends! God bless you, and all your companions as well, the many who are having a brief rest while you keep watch, and shine brighter than the January sun.