By Peter Bregman
“No art is possible without a dance with death.”
The dark chill of a winter in the upper Midwest has a profound impact on the mind; as if the loss of warmth and light begins to form cracks in the walls around our psyche—cracks just big enough to let errant thoughts slip through.
I’ve had them before—morose fantasies of driving out into the night and finding the perfect country road in the middle of the vast white fields, pulling over, turning off the engine, and filling my mind with silence. I could fall asleep under the stars and let the cold night carry me away. On the stillest of nights, I’ve been drawn to the inky-black lake water that I know is too cold to fight. The thought of slipping into the cold darkness has seemed comforting at times.
These images are only passing, like a sudden memory flooding my mind, only to recede as a wave into the nothingness. But instead of reading these thoughts as premonitions or suggestions, I see them as beacons of a simpler truth: winter as death is not a despairing delusion. It is an inevitability, a fact. A marker in our temporal perceptions.
For as long as animals have had thoughts in their heads, they have been aware of the changing of seasons; the parting of springs’ vibrancy and determination for summers’ languid follies and freedom. There has never been any question as to whether winter will come again. Man, bird, and snake have all seen the trees go dormant, the lakes freeze up, and the landscape tucked under the cold blanket of winter. What else could it be but death?
Being caught in the cyclical whirlwind of time doesn’t seem to have rubbed off much on our young species. Every year we fight and curse and dig in our heels. We are determined to make it through winter unscathed. We try to continue on with our lives, futility pretending that the world around us isn’t dying. But we must embrace death! We must allow ourselves to die a little to make room for new spring growth.
Death after all is only the act of relenting to time and submitting to the transient nature of our mortality. Our bodies are relegated to dust; our minds quieted and stilled. The energy in our atoms is assigned a new purpose. If we allow it, winter could be the death of our egos; the cleaning out of old wounds; the cleansing of our minds. In this, death could be the compost for new ideas.
When I have grave visions of walking coatless into a snow-blanketed forest, I smile to myself. I know I have just cleaned something out, done away with an unnecessary grudge, or calmed my mind. The dark of winter is a time when I can reflect on my life, and make room for life to come. It is only in the darkness that we can turn our vision within, and it is only when we look within that we can project the best version of ourselves outward.