Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A cold hard (absurd) winter

We just finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Before and After the Lightning about a winter spent on the Rosebud Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Ortiz teaches at the Reservation from November through mid-April – a season the Lakota call the time before the last lightning and after the first, bookends to the long winter.

It makes for good reading in a warm comfortable room by the fire on cold winter nights with snow on the ground outside. We also found some good absurd ideas in this book of prose and poems.

Nature figures as a major character in the book. There is the ever present cold of winter, of bare poplar trees, blue icy sky… and the wind, always the wind:

“The snowy wind is fierce, insistent, unrelenting, picking up dry snow off the hills, turning the hills into churning clouds and the sky, blending everything into on cold surging, exhaling, and forceful breath.”

And the vastness of the prairie…

“The prairie and more prairie of snow stretch for miles beyond miles, so vast it’s no use to estimate it. You just have to let it be, just like how you are at this present time in your life. You have it let I have its own tine and presence.”

Ortiz urges acceptance throughout… acceptance of time, space, pain, memory… a commitment to awareness of the natural world and our place in it… “The snowbanks have no idea of our coming nor of our leaving. It doesn’t matter.”

He writes about the passing of moons, suns, seasons… “Although it may snow again, it will not become ever the final one. It only changes as we change. It only becomes one more winter within the cycle of all time.”

The smallness of man becomes clear against the timeless forces of nature, against its power and indifference… reminders, of a kind, of the absurdity of our existence. Our own egos don’t help us see this absurd reality, as we seek cover under all kinds of guises… Ortiz recognizes this, too: “Our urgent selves have too much concern for burning ego that keeps us in mind within this world. It opens up from within the blindness.”

We enjoyed, too, how Ortiz stays planted in the world of experience. In the fashion of the absurd man, experience is all. There is a wonderful and simple little poem about horses in the woods by a creek, eating alfalfa. Ortiz remembers being there. He writes near the end, “But for that, nothing is there.” He reminds us throughout the book the role direct experience and memory has on the world as we see it.

There is quite a lot to chew on in this meaty little book. But the absurd thread is hard to miss – the commitment to staying in the present, rooted in the world of experience, the appreciation for the powerful cycles of nature and the smallness of man, the realization that ego is blinding and acceptance of the world as it is (or appears to be) not as we wish to make it.

Good stuff…

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