Wednesday, March 26, 2014

THE COLORS WE BRING – Adrift In a Sea of Gray

This has been a winter to remember, at least here in the U.S. Throughout much of the country, low temperatures and extraordinary snowfall amounts ranked it among the worst in decades. Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we’ve endured 53 days with temperatures dipping below zero Fahrenheit.

The most extraordinary thing about our winter has been not the amount of snowfall, but its frequency. Every few days, it seems, we’ve received at least a dusting of fresh snow. And, with so few days above freezing, there’s been a minimum of the sloppy gray mush we usually have to wade through as spring approaches.

All this snow is a mixed blessing; it’s brought out the sheer beauty that’s possible in winter. Sparkly-white-cloaked trees and landscapes, lakes and rivers you can walk and ski on, and the perverse joy of comrades together facing the arctic blast armed with shovels, skis and sleds.

Nonetheless, having just returned to all this after a month in a place that’s never seen a single flake of snow—has me thinking about winter and how we manage to survive it with so little color.

Esthetically, it might seem that winters here in Minnesota are to those in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich, spicy paella. For someone like me who draws nourishment from color, that can prove a pretty bland diet. It seems that, when all our buildings were designed, there must have been a shortage of materials—even paint—in any colors but shades of white, brown and gray.

People tend to stick to the same palette. Why, when our clothing could so easily splash a bit of vibrant color on our being, do so many of us choose black and gray? Okay, you’ll see some navy blue now and then, but...really, navy blue?

Compound this dreary palette with our low winter sun’s feeble output and daylight that’s snuffed by 4:30, and you have a recipe for what we call “cabin fever.” But, as Garrison Keeler captures so well in his reports from Lake Wobegon, we stoically accept what is and make the best of it.

To be fair, when you really put your mind to it, there is, indeed, color to be found in a Minnesota winter. If you’re aware, you catch it in threads of vivid nylon sewn down a ski slope. It rises in the roaring flamboyance of a hot air balloon.

Indoors, it might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw or beguile you with the sizzling yellow and orange dance of a fire. It’s in a ruddy cheek, a warm smile and the resilient spirits of the folks you get to know so well when you’re housebound together for a while.

       It’s the pigment we bring to the mix that 
       ultimately determines the color we see.

And, for those of us unsatisfied with man-made color, even Nature teases us with her reluctant hues. Unlike those of summer that nearly accost you, these shades tend to lay low, obscure to all but the most determined eye. Yet, once found, they delight all the more for their scarcity.

They’re the raw umber and burnt sienna cloaks the oak trees refused to give up last autumn; the golden, burgundy, crimson, even chartreuse stems of dogwood and other shrubs; the gilded glow of sun setting over virgin snow; the quick red checkmark of a cardinal alighting for just an instant.

The color of winter is, at its best, a collaboration. Nature does her part, albeit begrudgingly. The rest is up to us. After all, it’s the pigment we bring to the mix—in our openness, our creativity, our zest for life, our rejection of cynicism—that ultimately determines the color we see.

Yes, you may have to look a little harder, perhaps open your heart and soul a bit further, but, as with anything in short supply, you learn to appreciate winter’s little wonders all the more for their incongruity. The alternative? Well, believe me, it can be an awfully long time between October and March.

And now March is almost gone, and still no break in this extraordinary winter’s cold, pale grip. Not even the brave pastels of crocus or the bold blue of Siberian squill have dared stick their tender heads out. Oh, for those first thaws when they will break through and show the way for all the other blooms, that profusion of spring and summer color to come.

My senses, my soul, can scarcely wait!


Ruthie Redden said...

Great post Jeffrey, got me thinking. often used to look around me when I lived in the city at the drabness, it was as if the concrete greys had seeped out into the people, maybe it's one of the reasons why I looove colour so much now. It was my dear Mom who taught me to really look and see there are so many hues in everything. Here's to brave pastels ;)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Ruthie -- THanks for stopping by OMW. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who's incomplete without color. I love your term "brave pastels."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a long white winter will bring a greater spectrum of colors and growth bursting enthusiastically into the world. Maybe such a season will invigorate a new outlook in an atmosphere that will be prolific with innovations.

May you spring forth in this awakening Season.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Bern -- I hope those colors will come bursting not just from the earth, but from the soil of my soul -- a medium, like good, sweet compost, enriched by months of simmering in a broth of expectation and wonder.

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