Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Annie Dillard, Unseasonable Weather, and Letting Go of Ideals

Fall, leaf, branches

We still very much stress the simple fact of four seasons to schoolchildren; even the most modern of modern new teachers, who don't seem to care if their charges read or write or name two products of Peru, will still muster some season chitchat and set the kids to making paper pumpkins, or tulips, for the walls. "The people" wrote Van Gogh in a letter, "are very sensitive to the changing seasons." -Annie Dillard

Before I get around to addressing that quote, let me comment on the source for a minute. I've been reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard for the past six weeks. Usually, it does not take me this long to read a book, especially one I love, but this book is a bit different. There's no plot to keep me grounded and engaged, but also, this is the type of book that I feel is best consumed by sampling and savoring in small doses. I'll sit down and read a section, and then just want to sort of sit and revel in how beautiful the language is, or the profound idea Dillard is exploring. She writes like Thoreau or some of those other Transcendentalists, all about nature and beauty and what we can learn from it. But yeah, it's taking me a while to get through it, and it's coming due this week for the last time, and even if I am able to renew I'm afraid I won't get through it any time soon. I feel like I'm just not at the right season for this book, when every time I sit down to read I find myself interrupted by the constant needs of two little boys. This may be a book to dip in and out of, but it's one that requires some attention and reflection, which a stream of constant interruptions doesn't really facilitate. I have this beautiful vision of me picking this book up again at some point in the future, when my children are old and grown, and I'm on a vacation retreat at some cabin in the mountains during the late fall, and I can sit out on the porch bundled up in thick quilts and look up from this book to contemplate the beauty of the nature Dillard writes about. Ahh, someday.

But, regardless of whether I finish this book soon or not, the passage mentioned above spoke to me when I read it this past week as I've reflected on just why I'm so unhappy about the weather where I live. The temperature and humidity have *finally* started dropping a bit (and by that, I mean there were two whole days this past week when I didn't feel a desperate need to turn on the air conditioning), and everyone around me has been celebrating with trips to the park and lots of out door activity. But instead of enjoying the really rather pleasant weather, I find myself grumbling under by breath about how it's "Still too hot for soup!" grumble grumble "Still can't wear a scarf without sweating!" grumble grumble "Still no pretty leaves falling!" grumble grumble.

What's funny about my disgruntlement is that I didn't even grow up with normal seasons. I grew up in St. George, Utah, which, for those of you unfortunate enough to not know about this beautiful place, is pretty much hot dry desert all year round. I didn't own a winter coat until I moved away to college.

But somehow, I have absorbed and thoroughly embraced the ideal of seasons. Whether it was because of those most modern of school teachers that Annie Dillard described, or simply a sensitivity to changing seasons, as Van Gogh called it, I feel the need to live and experience seasons the way they are "supposed" to happen. I want crisp cool air in fall with stunning gorgeous colors. I want snow in winter. I want tulips and daffodils in spring. And I want warm summers with picnics and pool parties.

But who ever decided this was the normal pattern? When you stop to think about it, how much of the world actually experiences four distinct seasons with these specific attributes? It's really only a small strip of the earth's latitude that has these four seasons, and even then, those seasons don't always work they way they are "supposed" to. As Dillard writes:

But there's always unseasonable weather. What we think of the weather and behavior of life on the planet at any give season is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There is a bit of every season in each season. Green plants--deciduous green leaves--grow everywhere, all winter long, and small shoots come up pale and new in every season. Leaves die on the tree in May, turn brown, and fall into the creek. The calendar, the weather, and the behavior of wild creatures have the slimmest of connections. Everything overlaps smoothly for only a few weeks each season, and then it all tangles up again.

I think the message that hit me so hard, in between these words about the messiness of seasons, is just the idea that the weather, that seasons, that nothing in life will ever be the ideal I have in my head, at least not for more than a few days or weeks at a time. Nothing is ever what it is "supposed" to be like all of the time. If I could just let go of that ideal, of that image of what things are "supposed" to be like, then maybe I could enjoy the fact that fall and winter in Houston generally mean you never need to pack away the shorts and T-shirts, that trips to the park are finally pleasant and don't involve buckets of sweat, and that I don't have to wrangle toddlers into jackets and boots every time we want to leave the house (I do remember that nonsense from our Chicago days, and yeah, that part I don't miss).

This is easier said than done for me. And frankly, I'm finding it slightly easier to embrace the Houston fall and winter this year for the simple fact that we might not be here next year. It's always easier to embrace a non-ideal when you think it's temporary. But we very well could be here next year. There's the possibility we could be here for years and years to come. And in that case, I'm going to have to put some serious work into adjusting my attitude and letting go of this seasonal ideal.

It's time to stop grumbling about what I'm missing out on, and focus on the positive and beautiful aspects of where I live and this life I have. It's time for me to get outside and enjoy these pleasant temperatures!

What ideal is it time for you to give up?


  1. This post was good for me to read. With the approach of winter, I've felt myself tensing up and feeling depressed, which is silly because it's making me miss out on the beautiful weather that's happening right now. I think this post needs to be a quarterly read for me.

    1. What's so funny about you finding this post helpful is that we are both upset about the opposite thing: for you that a cold winter is coming, and me that a cold winter is not coming. :) We really should just switch climates.