Winter has been upon us. You can see it on the landscape as much as on a person. We’ve drawn into ourselves, dropped our heads to the ground to keep the wind from hitting our faces, buried our hands in pockets.
Winter, certainly, has been upon me. I say “has been” somewhat tentatively, because I look out my window and watch hailstones fall onto the streets of Dublin from a sky that was blue only minutes ago. And these contrasting sights seem appropriate to me. Pedestrians, caught unaware, hold newspapers above their heads. The seagulls take shelter on top of the Bank of Ireland building. But that blue sky was there. Transitions are occurring. Seasonally, we’re past the solstice, and daylight is growing. Academically, a new term is beginning. And for these small transitions, I am thankful.
This year, Trinity switched from 10-week terms to 12-week, and this past December, by the end of week 10, the entire campus felt ragged. No longer did the Wednesday night partykids stumble past my window at 3am, shrieking Lady GaGa lyrics. The library security guards didn’t seem to take the same pleasure in violently ringing their large brass bells to signal closing time.
This exhaustion was most apparent in the Theatre Department. As my classmates and I neared Week 12, it felt like we were slowly becoming beasts of burden, slouching from the library to the lecture hall, grumbling about Lacan’s mirror stage, verfremdungseffekt, and whether we cared if the Gulf War was “real” or not (see Jean Baudrillard). During the first months, we hurled ourselves at these oftentimes arrogant, sometimes ridiculous, giants of modern thought. Now we felt chained to them. We sucked down cups of black tea without delight.
When we were finally liberated, the goodbye hugs were half-hearted, we just wanted to get home and get away from art theory. When I landed back in Seattle and found myself surrounded by my old friends, fresh-roasted coffees, and local beers, I had some time to reflect on the wintering process I had experienced. Typically I feel above the seasons, not that Seattle, like Dublin, has any seasons besides Gray and Not Gray. Typically I feel like I am creature of rationality and the natural world is little more than a changing wallpaper. But this year, winter snuck up on me and took its toll. As the light disappeared earlier each day, I pulled away from the city around me. And as I pulled away, I felt like I had less life.
Holiday parties were a red flag that something was out of sync. At every gathering, I would inevitably face the Ireland questions:
“How is Ireland?”
“You must love Ireland!”
“Isn’t Ireland the best?”
Very quickly, I settled into an answer that I thought was both honest and evasive. “I love my program, but it’s sucking the life out of me.” Which was true in some senses but avoided the real answer, which would have been: “Ireland is lovely, but I’m not letting myself live it.”
This is not to say that I’ve led an ascetic life in Dublin. I’ve been traveling about the country visiting the other Mitchells in Belfast, Cork, and Galway. When my girlfriend came out to visit, we had an amazing time on Inishmore, meeting locals, eating apple tarts inside peat-heated cottages, listening to trad music in neighborhood pubs. But after giving my Holiday Party response enough times, it occurred to me that when I returned to Dublin, I need to drop my uber-studious habits and live my life.
And now that I’m back, I’ve started shaking the winter off my body–cooking for classmates, dropping in on my favorite bookstore every day just to browse. They sound so simple as to be negligible, but these small practices add up to an entirely different life in Dublin. And while I consider myself a pretty firm agnostic, the most intimate habit I’ve formed has been attending morning mass.
Each day I wake at 6:45. The city is still dark. The shops are closed, and the supply trucks are unloading their crates. As I head up Grafton Street, I pass by silent streams of people shuffling up and down the streets, getting themselves to work as quickly as they can. I need to get to St. Teresa’s before mass starts, but I love this twilight world. Visually, it looks no different than Dublin at midnight. But all around, the world is waking itself, giving life to the new day. I love this time because it is an external manifestation of how I feel at that moment, rousing myself from a long winter, investing myself in small signs of new life.
Being back home–cooking meals for my family, going out with friends–reminded me that everything flows from a sense of investment in the world. Honest art is the product of life experience, just as an honest life is the product of life experience. And if I spend my days holed up in the library, I’m essentially cutting myself off from creating any worthwhile piece of art influenced by Dublin because I’m cutting myself off from living in the city, absorbing its moods, eccentricities, and countless human dramas.
The simple practice of attending daily mass inspired my first stab at a video essay, which can be found on youtube (just search “Neil Ferron” or follow the link to part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmJfEeN3d1U and part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9IobeB-TkY). Translating my morning experience into a visual story brought me to examine my city in a new way–I was now standing around on street corners at 7am and 2am, just to observe and engage. I was watching seagulls circle overhead, waiting for the sun to brighten the sky to a lighter shade of gray. As I used the project to connect my personal experiences to Dublin, I felt like tiny buds were blooming. Winter had been upon me, but now, tiny transformations are occurring. The world might look like midnight, but all around, there are signs of life.