06 April 2008

April Is The Coolest Month

Well, no, not really; in fact the first time I encountered the opening lines of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland (some industrious vandal had carved the entire first stanza into the wet cement of a new sidewalk in Berkeley), I was pretty sure I knew exactly why the poet had called April the cruelest month.

There was the way an April day could turn on a dime from bright promise to abject misery, how the spectacular sunshine seen when looking out your window could mask a fierce and vicious north wind, or how yesterday's summerlike temperatures could dissolve overnight into a late season blizzard.

The opposite also happens, of course: yesterday and today were predicted to be cold and filled with nonstop rain; instead, the clouds started drifting away after a few sprinkles to be replaced by gorgeous sunshine and the first real day of spring. McCarren Park roared into life, with more joggers, ball players, promenaders and loungers per square foot than you'd think could be accommodated in Times Square and Grand Central Station, and all up and down the winter-worn back streets of Brooklyn people came spilling out onto the sidewalks. The more industrious ones waxed their cars or picked away at the debris that had accumulated in their postage-stamp-sized gardens; others were content to turn their stereos up loud and shout back and forth across the street at friends and neighbors who'd been missing in action these past few months.

A few more days of this and all the trees will be in bloom, with new leaves not far behind; naturally they're predicting that tomorrow will mark a return to rain and cold, but that doesn't come close to representing April's cruelest joke, which the poet comes closest to capturing when he refers to, "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain."

"Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow," he continues, and therein lies the rub: huddled indoors, concerned mainly with staying warm and keeping the elements at bay, it's easier not to think about the problematic aspects of our lives. But stripped of our layers of excess clothing and thrown into the giddy streets with thousands of our rapturously expectant fellows and our memories don't just mix with desire, they become it.

Everything we didn't do, everything that failed to come true last spring and summer or in the succession of springs and summers previous, lies before us once more, only this time it's going to be different, this time we're going to grab life by the scruff and bend it to our needs and wills. And even if we've lived long enough to have learned repeatedly that while some things change for the better - dramatically so, in some cases - the mistakes and shortcomings and disappointments of our past have a resilience all their own.

It's been observed by historians that revolutions most often occur not when conditions are at their worst, but when they have started to improve. People don't behead tyrants when they are starving in their hovels, but rather when they have just enough food in their bellies to stir up hopes of better days and belief in not only their ability, but their duty to bring them about.

So too does the lonely soul, the spurned lover, the artist or poet who has wintered in quiet desperation greet the spring with the determination that this year everything is going to be different. By the time June or July comes around, they swear, that new manuscript will be written, those excess pounds will have fallen away, strolls in the park will be hand-in-hand with the long-awaited new and perfect partner. Why, just look around, the reasoning goes: the streets are practically brimming over with happiness, some of it is bound to splash my way even if only by accident.

And it will, for some but not all. And while the blessed ones revel in the lazy richness of high summer, those who feel left behind grow bitter and begin to long for the early death of autumn and the oblivion of another winter. But that's a rather gloomy way of looking at it, wouldn't you say? Especially after a beautiful day like today, so I take back anything unkind I ever said about the month of April, and if I had a way of getting hold of T.S. Eliot, I'd make him do the same. This year April is going to be cool for all of us. Deal?


J.B. said...

I'll skip over the historical reading of the Waste Land that says that the first stanza is basically about facing the aftermath of the First World War as symbolized by its damage to the land because I like your reading almost better.

A couple of years ago I got into an argument with a some friends, one from Scotland, the other from BC, who told me they hated spring in MOntreal. They said in other parts of the world, spring is warm and flowery, smells sweet, and is generally delightful. In Montreal it smells like thawing rot and dogshit (dating as far back as November-- a whole season's worth), last fall's leaves stewing in foetid melted snow, and the retreating winter leaved behind it an array of filth.

I argued this was a great thing. It's dirty and foul, sure, but it's the end of a necessarily brutal winter, and whatever form this comes in is just as necessarily wonderful. And secondly, we know by now that without the putrid odours of spring, there will be no buds on trees, no grass, no flowers. It's a much longer process here than virtually any other very populous city, so I forgive people who come from elsewhere for not understanding the aching and occasionally ugly components of spring as part of the greater wonder of it all.

My friends did not understand this, naturally. I ran into one the other day and reminded her of this conversation and she said, "Look outside. I stand by what I said!" Everything is dripping and stinking now as the fourteen feet of snow we incurred starting in November melts, slowly, but I persisted that this is all just proof that even fourteen feet of snow can be beaten, albeit slowly. That to me is glorious.

As I mutter to myself at the end of every fall, if TS Eliot thought April was the cruelest month, it was only because he never saw Montreal in November.

ps. Finish your memoirs.

erika said...

Move back to California, hippie. It's nice here almost every day. I welcome the overcast days.

Larry Livermore said...

I really prefer New York weather to California, especially if we're talking about the immediate San Francisco area. It's just too damn cold out there, and the wind blows right through those flimsy, uninsulated houses. This past winter in New York I've been warmer most of the time than I typically was in the middle of a Frisco summer.

Larry Livermore said...

::ps. Finish your memoirs.::

Oh, I finished that three years ago.

And since I haven't done anything since then, no revisions should be necessary, right?