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.

Comments

Art Elser said…
Beautiful and true, Page. Thank you for posting this on WWI so I could go to your blog. I try to find something pure and simple each day, record it in a haiku, and then share it on my Facebook page. I too, have found the universe around us, the prairie grasses, the mountains, the creeks, the sky, night and day, the things that connect me to the world.
Page Lambert said…
Art, thank you for the kind comment about my most recent blog post. Your habit of finding something pure and simple each day and honoring it with a haiku is admirable. That routine, more of a ceremony really, will serve you well in 2018!

All the best,
Page
Pat J. said…
Beautiful! You hit the brown-eyed susan on the nose! And spoke for me as well. Thanks much, Page.
Wishing you a New Year full of Health, Healing, Happiness, & Harmony!
Pat J.
Heloise Jones said…
Happy 2018 to You, Page.

This post....Yes! Oh, Yes!

Thank you,
Warmly,
Heloise
rJo Herman said…
Funny how, when reconnecting with someone from long ago, we look to find something we remember; expressive brown eyes, crooked grin, ready laugh. It somehow softens, perfects how we find them today. Confirms that we can and do remember ourselves back then, too. Great words, thanks for sharing them.
emcl said…
Dear Page,
This made me miss you--your straight from the hip wisdom, compassionate heart and the sound of your laughter.
Yes, indeed, touch that snow and look up at that sky. The only way human beings are ever going to do right by this precious world of ours is to feel part of it in joy.

Happy New Year.
Love Ellen
Page Lambert said…
Thank you, Pat. Love the "brown-eyed susan" nose comment! Happy New Year.
Page Lambert said…
Heloise, wishing you the very best the New Year has to bring!
Page Lambert said…
Thank you, Jo. Yes, looking for those familiar gestures, or unique physical traits,is a confirmation and helps rekindle what we shared long ago. Your comment "perfects how we find them today" is wonderful.
Page Lambert said…
Ellen, your note made me miss you too! I was just gazing at one of our river trip photos,grateful that we shared those hero's journeys together. Much love to you this New Year!
Laura Luther said…
Thank you for sharing this. It is beautiful- I share your resolutions. We can remain calm in simple happiness even when our surroundings are chaotic. The article is so well-written, I am glad I can view your blog now.:)
Mary Estill said…
How lovely Page. Thank you. Been reflecting last evening and today on joy and happiness. And attending the word choice. They overlap but are not quite the same. For me, joy brings us out of ourselves into something bigger, and then feeds back in enlarging happiness and deepening contentment. Joy is the moments when "heaven and nature sing," as the Christmas carol evokes. And it is fragile, easily quelled. Happiness is hardier, can endure as a state of mind through a lot more. Yet joy can be recovered in memories when those moments are relived. Happiness cannot. It's there, or not.

wishing you many joys in your New Years.

Mary Estill
Monica Devine said…
It is a very popular notion these days that one is better off experiencing true happiness and joy by staying in the moment; to slow down and notice what is happening in present time in order to appreciate it. I think this is true, but it is also a great gift that our minds can deliver a marvelous joy by reveling in our past. Today as the snow sashays to the ground, I'm looking out my window and thinking of how us kids would spend an entire day outside in the snow. Our mother packed our pockets with peanut butter sandwiches and off we'd go to hike across a cornfield and build forts in the snow. Gorgeous writing, Page. Thanks for inspiring my memories!
Page Lambert said…
Thank you, Monica. These two ideas work in partnership, yes? Stay in the moment--absorb every sense-based experience, soak them up into every cell of your body. Then when you look back, you'll recall the aroma of the peanut butter, the whiteness of the snow, the way the grape jelly slid out from beneath the layers of bread, the sweetness on your tongue. All of it!

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