The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,


Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-Wallace Stevens

Earlier this week, my son Andrew and I got into an unexpectedly existential conversation about meditation, suffering, and the illusion of the “self.” Now, please don’t imagine that he and I always slip in and out of deep philosophical discussions as we drive home in the afternoons. Most of the time, we barely talk to each other and silently listen to a podcast or the radio. But this time, Andrew mentioned that his English teacher had assigned his class a recitation of Wallace Stevens’s The Snowman and that he would be responsible for the final stanza. 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Andrew explained that the poem cautions the listener against looking at nature in ways that come from the listener’s emotional interpretation of the world rather than from its physical reality.  He told me that he liked the almost “Stoic” advice (his words not mine) of not thinking so much and trying to see the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Obviously, I loved his reading of the piece. I loved the deep reflection of his personal response. And I loved how he patiently struggled to orient the poem into the rest of his life. Ironically, earlier that day, I had done a guided meditation that had addressed some similar ideas about using the senses – seeing, hearing, feeling, as orienting guides when lost in thinking. The meditation explored the relationship between thinking, attachment, and pain. It suggested that we often attach personal expectations and narcissistic emotions to what we see in the world – that guy cut ME off in traffic, of course that bird would poop on MY car, or why wouldn’t that light stay green for ME. Those attachments lead to labeling. We label what we hear, what we see, and what we feel to an arbitrary set of emotions. And because those labels are nothing more than an unnecessary attachment to what we observe in the world, we cause ourselves pain. We become those labels and those emotions rather than remembering that, like the listener from the poem, we are “nothing” and that the world we observe offers us “nothing that is not there.”

Andrew does his recitation this Monday and I’m interested to hear how it goes when I pick him up from school.  In the meantime, I hope to keep myself oriented to seeing, hearing, and feeling what the world actually offers. I have no doubt that I will enter into fantasy, expectations, and judgment. The trick is to not fight those feelings and those moments of being lost in thought but to simply note it and let the thoughts go. I can do that. If not, maybe I’ll just read the poem again. And then do a burpee.

See you in the box.

-Coach Jack