Recent days have been the coldest I can recall. In previous years I’ve seen a few -1° or -3° days, to be sure, but they’re usually the apex of cold, sprinkled among relatively warmer days. This has been quite a stretch. Most notably, last Friday, the day of the season’s biggest snowfall to date, there was a combination of strong, snow-filled wind and a temperature of -9° when I ventured out into the pre-dawn darkness.
I dressed for adventure. I started with two pairs of pants, which was not unusual, as I often wear sweat pants over my jeans when it snows. But this was the first time I ever put on both my lighter weight and heavier winter coats at the same time. Luckily I was still able to lower my arms. It may be the first time I’ve worn not two but three pairs of socks, and it was definitely the first time I wrapped a scarf around my face so that only a slit remained for my eyes. Over the scarf I wore my heavy coat’s hood. Under it, in ascending order, I had a winter hat, a sweatshirt hood, and the hood of my lightweight jacket. I even put on two pairs of gloves, which just barely worked. Amazingly, I didn’t warm up enough to strip any of this before my return.
As usual, Wallingford at 5:00 am was nearly unplowed in the areas I walked. Center street was in passable shape, but maybe the steady traffic simply kept it packed down. You certainly couldn’t see the slightest bit of bare pavement. The side streets seemed pristinely covered with snow. Many were entirely untouched, while others had only a quickly fading trail hinting at the forlorn path of a vehicle. I did see a few cars and trucks out, but I met no one on foot.
From the slit of my scarf I felt almost as if I were inside a shelter, looking out on the storm all about me. My breath wet the exposed area and the moisture froze. The snow that blew in felt sharp in its coldness. The gusts of wind and the impact of snow on the waterproof material of my outer coat filtered through the five layers between my ears and the storm, lending an oddly muffled, yet noisy character to the experience.
Aside from the storm, there’s little to note about my walk last Friday. Yet now that I consider it, it sticks more strongly in my mind than the several days after, and more even than this morning. The others have already merged with the vast, generic progression of winter mornings. But unique glimpses of Friday remain vivid, and probably will for years to come. There is one certain upside to inconvenience: such unusual experiences create strong memories, and provide anchors that can stop days from melding into homogeneous blurs and whirling away, barely considered. A state I’ve found too easy to fall into at times.
The months between September and December are uniquely fortified against this condition. The year’s best holidays are clumped together in what might be called the holiday season, if that term were not already appropriated specifically to Christmas. Fairs, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Years Eve are shared by many; for me personally there are a number of others, including my birthday, an annual fall trip to Cape Cod, and the Wallingford Historical Society dinner. Furthermore, most of these events take place against the backdrop of the most beautiful season of the New England year.
These holidays are powerful generators of lasting memories, not only on their appointed days, but also in the time leading up to them. This special time is marked off in thought and memory from ordinary time. In fact, this assumption of “holiday time” can become so acute that I occasionally find myself surprised by noticing how similar such days feel to their ordinary counterparts.
Thanksgiving has perhaps most powerfully engraved itself into the surrounding timescape for me. A walk in mid to late November needs only the slightest hint of autumnal chill and the merest rustling of dry leaves to transport me into a landscape of sensory memory inaccessible through any other means at any other time of year. Simply thinking of it as I am now is insufficient: I must actually be there, in that time, with those inputs unique to the season, for the effect to be truly profound. Such times, nestled throughout the year but found disproportionately in its final quarter, provide keys to access memories and aspects of consciousness otherwise unattainable.
Following this marathon of special time comes a great chunk of ordinary time. January, February, and March may have the semi-paradoxical distinction of being the “most ordinary” time of all. Set aside New Years, which is mostly celebrated on Dec 31st anyway, and you’d be hard pressed to find a major holiday in this stretch of months. Easter can show up here, but it doesn’t belong. When it does pop up in March, whatever else is happening in your life, the holiday’s early appearance is guaranteed to be a singular point of conversation, and if the weather is bad, consternation.
April and Spring hold true rights to Easter and the celebration of the earth’s rhythmic renewal. Summer brings outdoor celebrations, parades, picnics, fireworks, and family vacations. The potential barrenness of the time ahead is illustrated by an observation I made recently about this period from January-March during the last two years. While I can recall the broad, high level achievements of those month, I can barely remember having lived them. Only a few scattered glimpses are left to me now of days and weeks of work, the struggles of life large and small, nights filled with thought or worry, 180 morning walks, and, though I have no direct proof, probably a good number of great meals. I could probably write at greater length of my recent walk through the snowstorm than I could about either of those three month periods.
Yet though the wintry beginning of the year offers up no holidays commonly celebrated, it does offer opportunity of a different kind: an invitation to fill this blank slate of homogeneous time without guides or precedents. It requires only a slight shift in perspective. After all, a Christmas tree is not the only type of decoration in the world, and it might even be possible to find another occasion for dressing in costume besides Halloween. We may not have them in mind yet, but there is no reason to doubt their existence. We’re often lulled into thinking that, while we can know relatively little of all there is to know in the world, we do have a full conception of what there is to know. How exciting, then, when an entirely fresh idea or realm of knowledge is uncovered. Each time I sit down to write, I have a renewed dread that I have finally exhausted my subjects and already written on all the areas of my interest. But, almost always, I am relieved to find a subject open itself to me, a hook provided to pull a fresh essay into the world and reveal its contours.
For that matter, consider all we have forgotten. Not just those stubbornly elusive facts that we remember we’ve forgotten, but all those experiences, meals, conversations, sights, feelings, and dreams that we have forgotten we’ve forgotten, that are utterly gone into the dimness of the past. Sometimes I test my memory and resolve that now is a moment I will remember forever. I say to myself that I will recall remembering this moment next week, next month, next year. But though I know I have done this, I don’t ever remember the actual moments. Lacking any significance on which to implant themselves, they’ve faded into oblivion, and live on only in the vague aggregate sense.
I often wonder, if we were to be given the opportunity to do some wonderful thing (name it for yourself), on the condition that we’d forget it instantly upon completion, whether it’d be worth doing at all. Would it really have happened in any meaningful sense? Is it not the reflection of an event that gives weight to any experience, for good or ill?
The time up until I was in 6th grade is a vast wilderness of memory and confused chronology. I remember so distinctly certain conversations, certain experiences, things I have probably reflected upon innumerable times since. And yet at the same time I’d be hard pressed to name some of my teachers, people who formed the highest center of authority outside of my family for entire years of my life. If we can consider this a time remembered, as it were, through archaeological artifacts, one fine day in 6th grade we’d burst into full color film, because it is then that I first kept a journal and recorded in some detail what, while the most mundane of facts at the time, are now so remote and exotic that they read to their author as an account from a distant land. Here are few examples, with the amusing spelling and rampant misuse of homophones preserved.
June 4, 2000
I bought this book today at Walmart, and I intend to turn it in to my Journal. As you can see by looking at the calander in the front of this book, it is Sunday, last week was a good one for the most part. Monday was Mumoryle day and there was no school. Some idiet parked a car in front of our gate so we couldn’t get throw without going throw poison plants. After the peraid we had the picnic at my house. Art swept the driveway the entire time. On Tuesday we rehersed are Role of Thunder here my cry scit. On Wensday we did them on stage in front of the hole team of six-one. On Thursday my team went to Lake Conponce. My group leader was Mr. Harkawick. My group members were me, Peter, David, and Kenny. The first ride we went on was the zomerang witch is a huge scary rollercoster that goes upsidedown. When it goes up you fele like your going to fall out because it is very stepe.
June 20, 2000
Today is the last day of school! I went to school with nothing because it was the last day. At school we watched Jurassic Park, then we did a little fun papper and after a lot of free time and then we got our report cards. I did predy good. I am going to be on team 7-2 and Mrs. Cates homeroom — B7. Not many people I know are on it. Then like many others I got people to sign my envelope. I got almost the hole team’s. Then there was my bus. Once home the crossing gard gave me smatys and I went in the pool. I can’t belive it — school is really over! I still can’t belive it it’s over! Over! Over!
June 21, 2000
Today is the first day of summer vacation. I played in the pool. Then I went to bochy with Dad. I read the hole book of “The Tale of Two Citys.” I may stay up a little late but probly not.
I’ve kept scattered journals for stretches here and there since, but these first volumes remain the most treasured for their evocation of the everyday. I was not yet bored by narrative. Writing at length, about anything, was still novel in itself. Within several years my journals took on a different character. The later works contain many long and passionate pieces of thought, debate, and resolution, but few detailed narratives. At times I recorded so few mundane details that the entries are almost useless to memory. Were they not nailed down to chronology by the faithful recording of the date, they could easily float out of particular time and be classed only crudely in one broad stage or another. Doubtless these entries were valuable in helping me shape my consciousness and deal with the problems and opportunities that I have encountered in the last twelve years. But when I sit to write now I do try, whatever else I intend to say, to write a chronology of recent events, to give the details, and to provide my future self with the keys to unlock the landscape of memory so rich around me now, yet so fleeting and ethereal in the face of time.