Dreaming In Winter

December 23, 2012

On the 45th parallel where I have lived my entire life, I find I am still not a winter person. But while SADS sits down in my living room like an unwelcome nine-hundred pound elephant, there is a large part of me that sighs gratefully for the wave of darkness and quiet that kaamos brings. For many people this is the season of skiing, skating, snow boarding, hockey, winter camping, hunting, snowmobiling, and yes, carving holes in lake ice and jumping in– and it all seems so healthy and invigorating as I ponder it from a distance while I sit with a pile of afghans, drinking a cup of Mexican hot chocolate. That is their winter season. For me, winter is museum season.

I am fortunate to live in a metropolitan area with many choices regarding museums. Some of my favorites are the Mill City Museum housed in an old flour mill where the likes of Beatrice Ojakangas will teach you how to bake a cake, the Science Museum of Minnesota where I can hang out with a diploducus and learn that it takes 400 years for a drop of water to travel from the headwaters of Lake Superior to the shores of Lake Ontario and the Minnesota Children’s Museum where I visit the bubble room. I have learned you can never have too many bubbles in the month of February. Never. The choices go on and I choose to go, for now almost all of the museums in the Twin Cities are for the people. I can go to any library and get a free pass to many museums in town. Ah, the library, my other winter temple. But that is another story.

A regular haunt of mine in the winter is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It is a five minute drive from my house and I go there every week. In addition to all of the Greek and African rooms, Impressionist and Renaissance paintings, this winter I can visit China’s Terra Cotta Warriors. It is an exhibit so astonishing if simply to witness the rippling of the horse’s flanks or the individual features of each warrior’s face sculpted with precision,– let alone to grasp how vast this army was, why it was constructed and what became of the army of artists that produced it. And how like a dream it feels when walking among them– those birds, those distinct human faces.

One year there was an exhibit at the MIA jointly presented with the Walker Art Center called Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. It was the first major museum retrospective of the Finnish architect’s career. On a cold winter day I could look at his Grasshopper, Tulip and Womb chairs, study his plans and models for a Yale hockey rink, TWA terminal, the Dulles International airport and of course his Gateway Arch. Saarinen was prolific, unorthodox and controversial. He was certainly gifted at designing for corporate America. They say he was a structural expressionist and it shows in his vast sweeps and swirls, spin-outs and bird-like allegories. And he was often criticized for varying his style for each of his projects. I remember sitting in his North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana on my way to Nashville one rainy day. As I sat there in silence, I was impressed at how spiritual a space could feel that had been described as a “steel hat over a concrete bowl”. Saarinen died shortly before it was completed and he had said he wanted to tell St. Peter “This was one of the best buildings I had ever done.”

I watched a film by Charles Guggenheim on the construction of Saarinen’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was called Monument to the Dream. You could see amid all the strange blocks of concrete, elevators, wires, ladders and dozens of men in hard hats –how a thin arc of concrete can speak of vastness, how a dream can be formed.

Museums are places to explore, learn, and try out. My daughter and I learned how to draw our own Saarinen arches with rulers and graph paper. We assembled models of houses and sculpture gardens with foam core, colored papers, glue, scissors and shreds of upholstery. And I am a convert. I have learned from my many winter trips to museums I am a huge advocate of occupational therapy. No matter how miserable you may feel, regardless of the sinking state of the economy, the rampages of world hunger, senseless violence– or the mere fact it’s so cold, leaving your house could potentially kill you,– it’s nothing a little glue, markers and pretty colored, shiny paper can’t soothe for the moment. At least that is how it is for me. It helps to have a kid in tow, but not necessary. It is Zen to sit, calm the mind and in this case, use your hands to make a dream. I have made several little dreams like rangolis, mandalas, Tibetan prayer flags, Calder-esque mobiles, origami boxes, dragon kites…

Obviously we go to museums because we can travel to the universe of the artist and see fresh statements about the world in new, astounding ways –and to witness dreams. Art– love it, hate it, — got to have it. The same goes for me with winter. It is ridiculously hostile at times and it is a gift to those of us who need to slow down. The poet Billy Collins said, ‘bare branches in winter are a form of writing’. I am glad I can pause and have a look at a winter tree, a sculpture, a corner of my life that has piled up and desperately needs attention. Winter allows us to just sit –or maybe sleep like some of our fellow mammals, but also muse, create, re-invent, attend.

The Sami poet/singer Nils-Aslak Valkeapää said “I know that you are waiting for a dawn, a wondrously beautiful future. I don’t want to deny you that, because dreaming is the gift of life.”

I suppose artists can be accused of escape and denial for their time spent seeking dreams. But we all wait for the dawn in our own way. And when life is harsh, a dream can feed our hungers and lead us in surprising ways that connect us with others.

The new year is coming. The Finnish poet Kirsi Kunnas says, “breathe earth’s vastness so that each of you, alone, but neighboring together, will fill with stars.”

Let us all fill ourselves up and make some dreams.

(An earlier version of this piece was previously published in the New World Finn.)