It’s 16 or so below zero here — the Cody weather says -16, and I’m too lazy and warm to get up and look at either of my thermometers. I like cold weather largely because surviving it allows me to feel morally superior to people who live in more temperate climes. But in a perverse way, I do enjoy the cold, and the way your nostrils freeze and thaw with every breath, and the frost on the insides of the windows, and how very bright and crisp everything seems, and the crunching of the snow when you step on it, and the ice formations everywhere. I walked around my house this afternoon trying to pound my windows back into place so I could get them shut properly before I put plastic up over them, and I discovered that somehow the faucet attached to my leaky hose had come on, and there were ice sculptures at all the places where it leaks. I don’t suppose it’s good for the hose, and I rather dread what it may have done to the water bill, and I hate waste — but it looked beautiful and fantastical — a pleasure dome with caves of ice and all that.
I’ve been thinking this evening, on the eve of my thirty-third birthday, about the time around my twenty-first birthday, when I was a junior in college and terribly depressed. I had a dinner party for my birthday, although I had to hold it several days before my actual birthday, since I had a nine a.m. final the day after my birthday, and so my friends had to go out and buy the wine. Everybody had some role — wine buying, dessert making, music selecting, cocktail shaking — and it was one night in that time I remember fondly. And I even remember my actual birthday fondly. I went down to the patrol office at the midnight shift change to say hi, and my friend Jack, who had the same nine a.m. final I did the next day, talked me into driving the shuttle. “Hey, if we can’t be hungover, at least we can be exhausted!”
But tonight I’m thinking about another night from around that time. I was trying to take my finals and pack up all my belongings and get them moved into my friends’ basement. I was moving off campus the next semester, and I had to be out of my dorm room but couldn’t yet get into my apartment. The girl next door to me was taking my room, and she asked every time she saw me when I was moving, and every single time I told her not until I was done with my last final on Friday morning. Anyway, when I wasn’t working, I spent my time packing up my room and studying. I had one book out that wasn’t part of my studying regimen. It was the text from my Romantics class, an anthology edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, and I wasn’t at all sure why I’d left it out, until one night, unable to concentrate on anything else, I opened it up to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight“:
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud — and hark, again loud! as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude. . .
It is not really a poem about my situation then, or my situation now, but one of the things I’ve come to appreciate as a librarian and a reader that I did not appreciate as a writer and a teacher is that sometimes literature is not so much about what it is about as it is about what it needs to be for the particular reader in a particular place and time. A story isn’t yours once you’ve told it: it belongs as much to the people who read it and come to inhabit it as it does to you. And so tonight I’m thinking about the secret ministry of frost and the quiet moon, and I hope both are working their magic over you all, wherever you may be.