Friday, December 14, 2007

Becoming a master of December

December is the Sunday of months. Either you master its ways or fall prey to its portents.

Falling prey means you have already succumbed to thinking dreadful thoughts about February, the Monday of the months.

By February, more often than not, winter feels less like a natural phenomenon and more like a government experiment. The ice and snow become wedded to gravity and lack the same loveliness as their December counterparts. They stack up like returned Christmas gifts on a customer service shelf — secondhand and dismantled.

By February, maybe we're all a little loopy on cough syrup and cabin fever, but still the wondrous whiteness that instituted softness upon the world, rounding off the coarse edges, becomes a coarse edge itself. Even the snowflakes of December, which twirl earthward like tiny tilt-a-whirls, tend to become mean squints by February, mean squints that are accusatory in nature.

The month is called February for a reason. It is named for "Februa," the Roman festival of atonement. But being called to atone at that point of the calendar year seems strangely akin to blaming the victim. Aren't we the injured party? We who look for amusement and find only the cold, hard truth of February? We who thank God it's Friday, except on the Monday of months? We who see life as a thrill ride but who become lodged for 28 days upside down on February's busted roller coaster?

Out on the frostbitten flats of February, where powdery sheets of snow glide across lakes like giant air-hockey pucks, where even the trees seem to be mumbling incoherently, their arms raised in surrender, it feels as if the only thing we need to atone for is wishing it weren't February at all — ever — but instead, say, April, whose cruelty by comparison has been greatly exaggerated.

But it's not February now; it's December. And to carry upon our shoulders the load of the coming months is nothing less than a severe character flaw.

The same character flaw that allows our Sunday to be devastated, or even slightly tainted, by our anxieties about Monday.

To master December takes the same skill set as mastering Sundays. Foremost, it requires the ability to be present only to the present and to be pulled by real hands rather than future demands.

I met a master of Sundays two summers ago, and I've been forever changed. He emigrated from somewhere in Central America. It was a Sunday at the beach at Benedict's Pond in Beartown State Forest. He had packed up his beat-up hatchback with his wife and three young children. They drove up from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for a day trip.

Through some coincidence of space or miracle of creative packing, they managed to bring with them everything they needed to extract everything worthwhile from the present tense. At the forest-backed pulchritude, with their floats, food, baby things, a cooler, a battery-operated boombox and firewood all laid out beside a big blanket, they were like the chief theorists and main adherents to the Gospel of good living, providing a lesson in how to do a Sunday afternoon to the same degree that the Abbey of Pamposa in Italy provides an example on how to build a church.

It was getting to be dusk. As we were packing up, they were lighting a campfire and entering the next phase of their day trip. As I was feeling the stale, badgering breath of the workweek ahead, they were singing.

I'd bet you anything that guy and his family refuse to take 22 degrees Fahrenheit as an excuse to get morose in December.

As the winter light turns serious and diffused, and as everyone keeps to themselves because it's warmer that way, I can imagine them on an upstate reservoir with hushed, cathedral voices and Dr. Zhivago hats. They are sitting on empty, overturned joint compound buckets by a hole in the ice, jigging for bluegill and perch that they'll probably flash-fry on a skillet with peanut oil on a camp stove before heading home late with their kids fast asleep in the back seat.

I'd bet you anything they are masters of December, too.

I'd bet you anything the thought of February hasn't even crossed their minds. To them, the snowflakes of December must pile up like packing peanuts because the world is a precious thing.