"A sad tale's best for winter - I have one of sprites and goblins"
A Winter's Tale
Just before I left for the U.S., I visited the Colours of Jazz exhibit at the MBAM, apparently the first exhibition ever to feature the Beaver Hall Group. The portraits were especially lovely, but it was the winter landscapes drew my eye. Most were set in the countryside or city, an aesthetic which differs greatly from the Group of Seven, who concentrated on the wild and untouched Canadian landscape. One of the plaques commented on this, explaining that Quebecois painters' work often emphasized “the long and continuous history of Quebecois habitation of rural landscapes, an important symbol of the survival of French-Canadian culture and values.” What resonates with me, from both perspectives, is the way snow is presented. It strikes me as quintessentially Canadian to sit and ponder the beauty of paintings of snow. I love when the snow banks reflect yellow, orange and blue, a strange mix of warm and cool colours, a testament the pure quality of light. I adore the paintings of cloudy days, the world a uniform grey, the land almost indistinguishable from the horizon, and bare trees like lacework on the hazy background. I remember an elementary school art class where our teacher explained that white is not a naturally occurring colour, that the pureness of snow is always hinted at by the colours it reflects.
Before someone turned the switch on winter, I felt robbed by the temperate climate and green lawns - I don’t think I was alone in this sentiment and I don’t think I’m the only one who felt a little hypocritical or ungrateful for thinking it. Complaining about long cold winters is what we do best and we were momentarily cheated out of it. But perhaps it’s not just that. The winter has a pristine and distinct beauty that flowers or warm beaches lack. As a child, I remember stepping out of school and being blinded by the over-exposure of the bright Alberta sun reflecting off the ice and snow. I remember how on cloudy nights, the world would maintain an eerie glow, as if the lights were on a dimmer and turned low. I remember working in Northern B.C., where roads turned to ice and one could see wolves and moose moving through the lattice of trees, unable to blend into the sparse background.
It’s not just the chill beauty of the winter that strikes me. It’s how warm everything becomes in comparison - A heated apartment after a long wait for the bus, the glow of a fireplace, or even sitting near the heater as the furnace starts to kick in. The sun setting early and the long nights offset the street lights beautifully, the world turns an eerie yellow as they reflect off the snow. What does a crackling fire signify without the snowstorm outside, the gales of wind whistling through bare trees and loose shingles?
I would suggest that the winter is a necessary opposition to spring and summer. I am a creature that hibernates, or at least I entire into a state of torpor. Most of my activity, my decision making, my adventuring happens in the warmer seasons. After this flurry of action, I dig into the snowy months and ruminate on my decisions, consider their consequences, and dream of my plans for future follow-through. Of course not all of my decisions throughout a year are right or easy. After all the leaves fell from the trees and before the cold came, I made a very important, very difficult choice. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but it was the right thing to do. I’m sure that years from now the pain and conflict it incited will have faded and melted with all the winters in between, but now as I lie in bed and consider what next year will bring, the wound is very fresh. I’m not from the school of constant and consistent positive thinking. I believe that loss, melancholy, and grief are important to acknowledge and experience, if only for a little while. So now sadness sits at my door with the snow drifts and I take time to consider the shape, depth, and colour of it. I will hold it, digest it, and by the spring I will have moved beyond it. Like cold and warmth, I believe sadness and joy define each other. Perhaps there is no pure happiness, it is the contrast of other emotions that punctuates it and defines it.