The Wide World edges ever closer to this River Bank of a world where I live.
The snow arrived—sticking snow—while I was working at the construction job. I was out back of the complex one morning, throwing bags of garbage into the containers, when the snow blew in. I could smell the snow before I saw it. Snow smells a little like rain, except there is more conifer to it, as if snow falls more from the mountains than from the sky. When it arrived, I stayed out back a few minutes and watched it fall. We expected snow that morning. All of us expect snow starting from October. This year it came in November. Now we are not likely to see uncovered ground again until spring, and before that, we’ll watch the sun return. But first snow, and snow marks a time to settle, a time when we must sit within winter.
Presently I am writing notes inside a coffee shop decked out with Christmas filigree. Bright stars and white lights cover the ceiling. An enormous wreath hangs in the front widow. Nat King Cole croons through the sound system, though he isn’t singing “The Christmas Song,” as one might expect, but “Smile.” It’s 20º F outside. It’s lovely. Yet the Wide World, to reference The Wind in the Willows, leans towards what some of our prognosticators like to call collapse or threats to our democracies. Maybe they are correct. Though, I must say, they don’t seem overly concerned. It is getting tougher to leave the world. The fact is democracies do end. Civilizations do collapse. Individuals in every era have heard the bells tolling. But, historically speaking, blood must land closer to the powerful before the true end of something occurs. Typically our ends come slowly, but when blood is shared by the top, we can be certain that something else is upon us. These indefinite terms—something, something else—are intended, given that we cannot predict awfully well what those ends will look like. We can hope for the best. The Romanovs were still hoping for the best when they were led into the basement of Ipatiev House in July 1918. The Bolsheviks were hopeful, as was Lenin. So was the Middle Class, though not so many and not so hopeful by 1918. It is odd to me to hear people arguing for the “right side of history.” I do not doubt there are better and worse ways to choose in historical moments, but I don’t trust radicalism, not in any form. Any means necessary has never been a sensible choice. It’s not much of a leap to go from being the good guy to the bad guy, and if you believe evil exists, as I do, then you will also believe that you are capable of it.
Such are the times. Such are the times, too, that I am drinking what amounts to a $6 latte and scribbling in a notebook. I glance up at the front window of the café. Outside, people are taking pictures of themselves. They stand amazed in the cold and snow. Noticing someone outside of a window or noticing ourselves in front of a window has a timeless quality to it, for better or worse. From the window of a sushi dive to the window in my kitchen, I imagine worlds begging us onward. Thinking about the ingenuity involved in a windowpane or a single sheet of glass can make me goofy.
For a couple of months, I will have a break from the garbage job. I will see how long I can go without calling the temp agency. I have a book for sale, Between Artists, and a documentary film, Without Them I Am Lost, premiering. I think about these things and about where I live and appreciate that my life is basically protected. I write about nature and ordinary encounters in extraordinary places. Sometimes I question whether I should write about threats existing outside this frozen place. I see the news like everyone else. I suspect that most of us are not as informed as we wish to believe. I include myself in this “we,” should anyone be curious. Aristotle told us that man is a political animal, and global politics, whether we engage with them or not, can creep up on us. One of the local art co-ops has been promoting a project called Art for Palestine. My son was downtown during a recent protest when a friend told him that a speaker had called for the “extermination of the Jews.” I asked him twice. “Really? Is that what the speaker said?” My son nodded. “That’s what my friend told me.” Art for Palestine and two blocks closer to city center, purportedly, exterminate the Jews. The ironies have no end. As a point of fact, precisely in city center, there is a bank that once housed the Gestapo. The bank overlooks the church, and on the other side of the church there are at least two stolperstein, marking where Jewish families were removed from their homes and, in the case of these Jewish families, taken to Auschwitz. Who can make sense of these things?
Less than a month ago at the construction job, I had an encounter with a raven. Ravens like to congregate around dumpsters or, as we say in the north, containers. At the time, I was carrying a black bag stuffed with plastics. Incidentally, I was dressed in all black—black hat, black shirt, black pants, black shoes. The raven sat atop the container. As I approached, the bird could not decide what I was. It hopped within short feet of me, stared, twisted its head. Maybe the raven calculated that the biggest raven in the fjord had arrived to compete with him. We regarded each other, and I recalled reading this past summer the Konrad Lorenz’s book, King Solomon’s Ring. I remembered, vaguely, that in one of his encounters with crows, Lorenz wore a black scarf, and the birds shunned him for it. Lorenz interpreted their behavior as their believing that he had killed one of their own. He wore a black scarf. I was dressed in all black. Perhaps that made me the angel of raven death. Soon the raven recognized me for what I am and flew away. There was no snow on the ground then. We were between seasons.
The Wide World edges ever closer to this River Bank of a world where I live. I should explain. As I have expressed many times, The Wind in the Willows is my favorite book. I have read the book every autumn since my childhood. The book is filled with civility, goodness, giving attention, choosing adventure, encountering and sometimes enjoying mischief, and much more. In the very first chapter there is a moment when the Water Rat teaches Mole about the River Bank and the nearby Wild Woods. Mole, ever curious and new to this world, begs of the Water Rat:
“And beyond the Wild Wood again?” he asked: “Where it’s all blue and dim, and one sees what may be hills or perhaps they mayn’t, and something like the smoke of towns, or is it only cloud-drift?”
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.”
“Something like the smoke of towns,” we should notice, is not exactly the smoke of towns. We should notice, too, “what may be hills or perhaps mayn’t.” The emphasis is mine but recognize the ambiguity about the condition of Wide World. Ratty insists to Mole, “Don’t ever refer to it again, please.” If nothing else, the Wide World is a place where things are not what they appear to be. For River Bankers, the Wide World should be avoided, should not even be mentioned, as far as Rat is concerned. The Wide World is a threat to the River Bank and to what those who live there—Mole, Water Rat, Toad, Otter, Mr. Badger, and others—hold dear. For as charming as The Wind in the Willows is indeed, and for as seductive as my encounter with the raven may seem, the garbage must be dealt with.
Back in October, for ten days, I returned to what feels like my other life. I was in northern New York. I was there to work with Megan MacDonald, who is a director and the owner of Dawning Film Productions. She is also my friend. We were shooting the second installment of our Gently Trilogy, a piece called “In Place of a Time Before.” And to reach northern New York, where Megan lives, meant that I needed to travel—yet again—through Newark, New Jersey. This time with an 8-hour layover. I ate pasta. I drank a gin and tonic. I read. I scribbled. I watched people. Someone set off a fire alarm and everyone was told to leave the terminal. After the coast was clear, I read more. I fell asleep. On and on, for 8-hours, I was habituated into the culture of Newark Liberty International Airport. But before all of that, before the alarms, the gin and tonic, the reading, the pasta, the scribbles, and sleep, I was on the plane to Newark. I was on the lookout for who among my fellow travelers might be the crazies—the old abusive woman, the man who cannot sit still, the man who might start a fight, the woman unhappy with everything. To self-rescue, I began to imagine what it would be like to see Megan again.
“How was the flight?”
“It was good.”
“How was Newark!”
“I got to see a lot of the airport.”
“It’s your favorite airport, I know.”
“My very favorite. It was my favorite for 8 hours.”
“Yeah, well, sorry about that Big D, but we’re on a budget here.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“You might be complaining.”
“No, no. I’m not.”
“We’re going to make a film!”
“Yes, we are.”
“Are you excited?”
“I’m excited. Are you excited?”
“I’m excited! I’m tired, but I’m excited.”
“Can we get a spicy chicken sandwich?”
“Are you joking?
“We don’t have spicy chicken sandwiches in the North Pole. Doesn’t a spicy chicken sandwich sound good to you?”
“All this good service, and you need me to find you a sandwich.”
“Damn it, D.”
“Not just a sandwich, a spicy chicken sandwich.”
“Well. Shit. Gotta keep the talent happy. Let’s find the boy a sandwich.”
The conversation went just like that. And the sandwich was perfect.
We filmed for 10 days. Shots were established. Intentions were planned. Actions and emotions were clarified. We ate. We stayed up late. We started early every morning. We adapted. Megan was fearless as the director, while I spent most of my time hanging out with the cameraman, Ted King. I like hanging out with camera people. They always have good stories. And Ted is solid. He tells good stories. He laughs easily. He is thoughtful about his work. Like most of us involved in the arts, camera people have to scramble for work, but because they possess an actual marketable skill, they find other work pretty quickly. The catch is, other work is not always in the wheel of dreams. They may find themselves filming a corporate guy who talks ad absurdum about the enviable cojones necessary for winning. They may shoot music videos. They may shoot product ads. Or they may take studio portraits of rectums belonging to various members, both men and women, of a wealthy, somewhat deviant subculture within a major American city.
Before we knew it, 10 days were gone, and we wrapped production. Snap. Zip. Hugs. Then people traveled back to wherever they came from. Everyone disappeared except for Megan, Ted, and me. We spent one last day together filming on a river. I think about it now, and I am reminded how hours on a river feeds some part of the soul. A good day spent on a river is like taking a good long walk. Something of your better self returns. The water ran cold and shallow over stones that were half covered with leaves. The riverbank was lined with deciduous trees decked with autumnal colors. The sun drifted between clouds, and we kept repositioning the camera to catch the light. We wanted to film the honey glaze of sunlight washed over the colors of the trees. There was peace, you see, and we were suspended in that world beside the river, with clouds and trees dashed with sunlight. None of us were in any hurry to leave. Yet we did leave. We lost the light. Megan bought Ted and me a wonderful dinner that night. We ate slowly and well. And the next day we said goodbye. I flew back to Newark. Mind you, this was on October 12th. The airport was crowded with Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. They were catching flights to Israel. Others among them were flying to Europe. Groups of men stood together, each man wearing his tallit, holding the book open and close to their bodies. They faced the direction of Jerusalem, praying, as they must, with their entire bodies. Behind these men and nearby were armed guards, equipped with helmets, body armor, and unslung weapons in a ready position.
I checked my bags and stood in line for security. I took the TSA guards seriously. We all did. Afterwards, I made my way to the international concourse. Most of the flights were headed to European capitals, to Krakow, Copenhagen, Berlin, Oslo. Here, too, the Jews were praying. I cannot say if people were on alert. Some were certainly anxious. Groups of obvious friends and families gathered and chatted amongst themselves. There was one individual, an American, sitting in a long row of Norwegians. He was talking on his phone. He was angry with whomever he spoke. “1,200 hundred people were killed. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT? 1,200 people were murdered viciously. Beheaded. Burned alive. Hand grenades tossed at them, tossed at children. Women raped to death—RAPED TO DEATH! People had their heads cut off and a professor from Cornel is ‘elated!’ by these events. Fuck THAT! You tell me what a proportionate response is.” He had lost control of himself. I could see that no one could approach him. He had made their deaths his own. A few people got up to find seats farther away from him. When he finished, he put away his phone. He rubbed his eyes. He picked up his carry-on and walked away. He did not look at anyone.
I flew to Oslo that evening, a Saturday. Monday I was back at the garbage job.
Since mid-August I have been watching the hills and valley across from the job site change with the seasons. I watched the holy mountain at the head of the valley turn pink, as the sun drifted closer to mørketid and the 8-week period when it will not rise above the horizon. I watched the birch trees go from late summer greens to bare branches. We were still in October when ice formed on the quay and in the puddles where rain had fallen. More tourists arrived. People come here this time of year to see the northern lights, to witness the whale migrations, to marvel at the ice and snow. Throughout my workday, I watched people, mostly tourists, walking the bridge from the mainland to the island, stopping as they went to photograph the mountains, the city, the last moments of sunlight on the water. I saw tourists taking pictures of the frost and ice and then of the snow after it came. I saw people test the cold by exhaling their breath into wide blooms of condensation. I want to believe they were seeking wonder.
Now Christmas lights gem the city. The café where I have made these notes and sipped coffee is typical of city establishments this time of year. Wreaths and stars. White lights and greenery.
In winter we must shape our days more carefully. The days are short and cold, and we will not see the sun for a while. So, we will spend our pale hours knowing they are not as endless as they seem to be in summer. We live close in winter. We seek warmth. There is warmth in the woodstove, warmth in the kitchen when bread is baking, warmth in the bathroom and up the stairs after someone takes a shower, warmth in the moon rising over fields of snow. There is warmth and there is beauty, but beauty must be earned. Winter is not easy, though some of us find ourselves entirely alive in the near impossibility of the world we inhabit. Think about how you feel after the first snowfall. Another beauty, you are sure of it, has entered the world—the pure, full cleanness of a first snowfall and the new shape of old hills. A brightness returns.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I needed to drive into town to pick up my son. He got off work late and needed a ride back to the districts where we live. At 3 AM, I was standing behind our car, shoveling two feet of snow. The fresh snow was powdery. I heaved it away with the large snow shovel. I could have swept it away with a broom. As I shoveled, I noticed the sky. In the far north, the sky at night is extravagant with stars and sometimes with nordlys, though extravagant may be too noisy of a word, given the stillness, the perfect quiet of a northern sky in winter. The stars overhead were enough to illuminate the snow, and I worked without a flashlight. But I had to stop. I had to notice where I was and let the silence pour over me. The stars were close enough that it felt like I could have stretched out my hand and scooped some of them from the void. This, too, is winter. I felt grateful to be living here, living in this deep cold with the Wide World on the outside of it.
Enough. I packed up my belongings, my notebook and pens, the couple of books I am currently reading, and returned them into my shoulder bag. The music had changed. I was ready to go. Enough of cafes and coffees. I wanted to walk in the cold. I wanted to absorb the blå tid before the stars returned for the afternoon. I wanted to walk in the blue hour with my hands in my pockets and alone with what is here, with what is close.
Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.
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