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Friday, December 29, 2017

Don’t Touch the Snow: Greeting the New Year with Willa Cather and My Antonia

A few years ago, during a progressive dinner in our mountain community, a neighbor who had moved to town said to me, “At our daughter’s new school, the kids aren’t allowed to touch the snow.” I nearly choked on my tomato tart. Willa Cather would have turned over in her grave.

Can a child who has never crunched a snowball between reddened palms, or run barefoot through knee-high grass, or climbed into the arms of a waiting tree, ever feel they belong to this great gorgeous and gritty earth? How else can a child come to know simple happiness?

Happiness, young Jim Burden contemplates in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, comes from being “dissolved into something complete and great.” He was laying under the sun “like a pumpkin” when he was thinking this profound thought, and he had no desire (just then) to be anything more than a pumpkin.

Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim crossed the plains of Nebraska by wagon, arriving at his grandfather’s farm before daybreak. But when the sun rose and he looked about him, he felt that the grass was the country, as the water was the sea. “There was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

At a writing conference in Montana once, New York editor Dan Slater (now an executive at Amazon Kindle) stayed perched outside on a corral fence long after the rest of us retreated inside. “I’ve never seen such a big sky,” he told me later, “or so many stars."

When young Jim first met Ántonia, he described her eyes as being warm and full of light, not like stars, but like the sun shining on “brown pools in the wood.” She was wild looking, and he loved her for it. His love for her grew each day as they raced toward creeks, or stood panting at the crumbling edges of ravines.

Memories of their childhood days together stayed with him over the many decades that they were separated. When he saw her once again, she was a farmwife with a gaggle of children, some nearly grown, some shy, all eager to gather the cows off the fields and bring them to the barn to be milked.

By then, Jim was an attorney, living in the city but he felt “Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails, the grunts and squeals of the pigs fighting over their supper.”

A few weeks ago, I was also reunited with a childhood friend—not in the pages of a novel, but on the mountain where we used to play together as toddlers. Mary and I would lose ourselves on the wildlife trails between our houses, eating wild onions and plucking bluebell bouquets for our mothers.

We had not seen each other in nearly fifty years, and we could not stop smiling. Her eyes had not changed – they remained mischievous and daring. Even as toddlers, we had been the wild ones, the ones who wandered too far from the safety of home, then fell asleep, cheeks to the soil.

When Antonia stood before Jim, she was not the lovely young girl he remembered, “but she still had that something which fires the imagination, that could still stop one’s breath for a moment. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body…”

I felt that way about Mary when we hugged each other, could feel all the strong things in her heart, even after all these years.

After Jim left Ántonia, he stood by himself on the faded and overgrown road that had connected his grandfather’s farm to her parents’ homestead. He sensed that he was coming home to himself.

“For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

A novel such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia reaches out to us through the sensibilities of the past, as if knowing that our modern souls yearn for a simpler time, and simpler happiness. The streets of our paved cities, though teeming with cars, will never be in motion like the prairie grasses stirred by a free-flowing wind. Our snow will never be quite as white, quite as pure.

But touch it, we must. Bend our eyes to the big sky with its bright stars, we must. Dissolve into something complete and greater than ourselves, we must. This will be my New Year's resolution - to look for simple joys, and to remember in all ways that I am only completed when I belong to something greater.

NOTES: My Antonia, published in 1918 and set during the 1880s–1910s, is cataloged as Frontier fiction. To learn more about the author, watch Yours, Willa Cather.