“Despair is a lack of gratitude” – Unknown
This winter depressed the hell out of me.
Maybe it’s the lack of sunlight, or maybe it’s a symptom of living away from home, but either way, I found myself crying a lot this season. Despite the fact that I’ve moved to a city with a population of more than two million people, I’ve often felt lonely and isolated.
Emotionally, I’ve felt isolated from the many new people that frequent my life, and intellectually, I’ve felt isolated from the academy, which until this year has always been my home. In the winter, the weather only accentuates my sense of isolation: each night, when temperatures drop below freezing and darkness greedily eats up daylight, we retreat to our nests to hibernate, experiencing what we’ve termed in Canada as “cabin fever.”
What’s more, a lot of the people I care about most aren’t here. When I say that they’re “not here,” I mean that some people are no longer near while others have dropped out of my life completely. I get hung up on the impermanency of relationships; I want to keep people, but they can’t always stay.
One of my best friends packed up her life and left to dance on a cruise ship while another comrade has taken a month-long vacation in Australia. My kin are also far away: my older brother lives in Los Angeles and my little sister lives in Texas. While I understand their need to live in the U.S., and while I still communicate with them daily via the internet, it doesn’t always coat the times when I want to hug them, when I want to see my brothers eyes wink when he’s proud of me, or when my sister’s face lights up when she has something brilliantly silly to say.
Romantically, I’ve also felt alone. Some actors have left my life, exiting swiftly backstage to become nothing more than characters on my playbill when I thought they’d stick around to be heros. Other strangers that I’ve come to care about live in cities too far away to touch, and I’m left wondering if I cross their minds as often as they cross mine. While we may remain in contact (again, through digital correspondences) I long to stay in touch with them, which is completely different than corresponding. “To stay in touch” implies just that—touch. It’s that interpersonal point of contact where skin meets skin, which can’t be achieved over the internet.
I’ve also been disheartened at the type of writing I’m producing. Currently, I’m working at a few online magazines, and I’ve been uneasy with my role as a blogger. You see, I’m drawn to writing for its permanency—for its ability to immortalize authors. In fact, the moment I realized I wanted to write was the moment I read the line “my words are the only immortal part of my soul.” (I think it was Shakespeare who wrote it.) If our existence is but one beat in humanity’s ravenous heart, then I want to write because I want my life to reverberate beyond itself; I want to make a sound that echos.
As a blogger, I saw no connection to the writers I’ve spent my life studying. Blogging seemed to me the least permanent form of writing possible, as a blog’s lifespan is comparable to that of a fruit fly. A published blog post for an online magazine seemed to me like an inconsequential blip, a small and insignificant note compared to the roar I know I can sound. And while I know it takes time to evolve from a fruit fly to a lion, I’m an impatient beast.
And then today happened.
I’ll tell you about it, but keep in mind the themes I’ve been working out in my mind: despair (and the nature of it), impermanency (as an overriding metaphor for romantic relationships and life itself) and loneliness (as the human condition) ……
Today I was walking to the subway station and I stumbled upon an ice sculpture display. When I say “stumbled upon” I really mean it: I was walking to Bay Station through Yorkville and I literally almost slipped and fell on a piece of ice. I looked up to see where the ice had come from (after all, it was such a sunny day today, how could there be such thick ice on the ground?) and I found myself face to face with an elephant. Not a real one, of course, but an elephant carved from ice!
Yorkville’s retail tenants commissioned a team of ice sculptors to create “art in the park,” a display entirely carved from ice! The display was in the theme of a carnival: circus tents, carousel horses, bears with hats, and a large elephant, who at this point in my story is staring me straight in the face. The elephant was crying because he was melting. The chunk of ice that I’d nearly tripped on had chipped away from the elephant’s base because as the day grew warmer, the displays were melting.
The journalist inside me immediately reached for my camera: something beautiful was fading before my eyes, and I wanted to capture it. It’s quite hysterical, this compulsive need to document things. Some passers-by also stood appreciating the art, including a little boy in an oversized winter jacket with mittens pinned to the arms. He wandered through the ice sculptures—which were three times his size—and for that moment, that boy was no longer grocery shopping with his mother in the city, but instead he was inside an unexpected winter wonderland.
After I’d taken these photos, I said goodbye to the little boy and my elephant and I descended the stairs to the Bay Street subway station. As I waited on the empty subway platform, I started thinking about ice sculptors. Why would anyone want to be an ice sculptor knowing that the sun would come and ruin your art? In fact, why would anyone want to do anything knowing it’s impermanent? It was a kind of existential crisis…. Why would children build snowmen knowing that they’ll melt? or Why do street artists display their best work on exposed city walls rather than in frames or on canvases?
Because it’s fun, that’s why. An ice sculptor carves not out of a desire for longevity, but out of a pure enjoyment for the art, the raw materials involved, and the laborious but rewarding process. Perhaps the impermanency makes it even that much more precious.
And then I realized: Maybe my blog posts are momentary and fleeting, but they touch people. Whether I’m writing about a new fashion designer’s spring collection or a seemingly trivial post for a women’s magazine, people read the things I write, and they’re inspired by them. Almost weekly I’ll get a message in my inbox from a former student or high school friend telling me how I’ve touched them with Lady Medusa.
Maybe, as a blogger, I’m carving ice sculptures in the sun, and that’s okay for now. Maybe people in life come and go, and perhaps one day I’ll be okay with that, too.
What my elephant taught me was that despair stems from a lack of gratitude. He wasn’t crying because he was melting, he was crying because he was just so god dammed grateful to be there in the first place.
One day, I will publish a great novel, but until I do, I need to recognize that all the work I accomplish in the meantime is a step along the way. The same goes for love: one day, I’ll find love, and it won’t be a constant question mark (yes? no? could it work? does he care?) it will just be. Often, these things strike us when we least expect them to, kind of like when you slip on a chunk of ice and find yourself face to face with a moment of recognition so clear that you can see through to the other side.
In Canada, we’re faced with desolate and depressing winters, but today I learned that when life gives you ice, you should make ice sculptures! There may be a lack of sun in your life, but look around at the way the light winks off the snow.
Today I also learned to approach my work and relationships like an ice sculptor: in my writing, I need to let go of my desire for permanency and instead just aim to carve something beautiful for passers by to enjoy. To create worlds of art through which people can wander. In my love life, I need to learn not to hold on so desperately. After all, ice melts more quickly when you hold it tight.
I also learned that we, too, are ice sculptures in the sun. While we may not last, we can still inspire while we’re here.