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Thomas International Center
December 2007


Ralph McInerny


Blythe Spirits



Those of us from the northern, colder parts of the country who go off to Florida for a few days or weeks of sun each winter are  somewhat disdainfully dubbed 'snow birds' by the indigenous population. ('Indigenous,' in this case, means largely those who, having visited Florida in winter, eventually moved there and acquired, mentally at least, les droits de seigneur). Two can play this game, of course, particularly when Floridians flee northward in summer to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of their adopted state. But what kind of bird should we call them?   After all, in the Northern hemisphere, migrant birds come north for the summer and go south in winter. We are after all complementary sorts of bird, or two seasons of the same bird.. (The Canadian chanteuse Anne Murray, has a lovely song called 'Snow Birds,' in which the metaphorical becomes literal to serve a further metaphor.)

A long windup for some thoughts on the role that the four seasons play for those of us closer to the supposedly melting polar ice cap. In song and story, in poetry, the four seasons function metaphorically for the phases of human life. 'Winter Dreams,' a novella of F. Scott Fitzgerald's,as well as his story 'The Ice Palace.' Or 'Waiting for Winter,' collection of short stories by John O'Hara. Winter was the serious season in which O'Hara wrote novels. The winter of our discontent, of course,  and often in popular songs in which life is likened to the passing seasons, our lifetime a year of sorts. 'September Song,' but also Chaucer's'Winter is acumen in.' Cardinal Newman's sermon on the reestablishment of the hierarchy in England was called 'Second Spring.'  I myself once wrote a novella called 'A Season of Endings.

Even to pick such random instances, tempts one to go on and on. Does one find this sort of thing in Mediterranean authors, in Dante? An Englishman in Italy could write, 'Oh to be in England, now that April's there." I suppose it seemed to him that it was always April in Italy. It would be a little smug, at least regional, to assert that the moral life requires four seasons in which to mature. To which a retort might be, 'Hail to thee, blythe spirit, bird thou never wert.' Human beings are not birds, of course, but we are inserted into the same natural world as they, issuing from fertilized eggs, followed by a protracted time in the nest, and then, at last, sent aloft in the world on our own, but always flocking together. Birds are, by nature, political animals, and so are we. But for  their 'lonely betters,' as Auden called us, it is a task as well as a condition.

We resist the thought that there are seasons in our life, a time for this, a time for that, as the Wisdom author did not quite put it. It was Ponce de Leon who sought in Florida the fountain of youth and his quest is mimicked to this day by temporary or permanent snow birds. Propaganda for retirement features the bronzed and youthful couple, having wisely earned and invested,  cavorting like the youths they no longer are under the friendly sun. The discontented with their biological winter offset by a good pension.

I have just returned from Sarasota where at first my family, then just my wife and I, and now just I alone have wintered for decades. Of late, I have been staying again on Siesta Key, and I can find there the places where long ago all of us spent such lovely weeks. Mais oł sont les neiges d'antan? And where are the tans of yesteryear? The tears of things are everywhere, even on the white sand of the Florida beaches. I get a lot of writing done in my now solitary migrations southward, counteracting the indolence by hours at my computer before I go and watch my fellow visitors gathering seashells that tumble ceaselessly ashore. The intricate permanent casings of their long gone contents. John D. McDonald, a prolific author of mysteries, took up residence on Siesta Key before the great post war developments began. He resented all these other northerners who had found the place as delightful as he did. Of course, he was pounding away on his typewriter much of the time, earning the right to go out in his boat. He had a more colorful term than 'snow bird' for those who came after him.

My mother once told me that, when she was a girl, she visited an ancient neighbor woman just after the harvest was in. In the course of their conversation, the old woman said, "I don't think I'll winter this year." She meant last through the winter, a thought that carries an edge when uttered in Minnesota. But she had wintered in another, better sense. She knew that she was old and that her life was drawing to an end. That would have been true whether she noticed or not. But it was her serene acceptance, animated by faith, that struck my mother, and consequently struck me. No literal bird could have that thought, of course, and if it does not make us blythe, it is a condition of moral maturity. We all end up, if we are lucky, 'sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything,' but few of us are wise. The task is, in the phrasse, to act our age.

When Ezio Pinza sang that 'our days dwindle down to a precious few, September, November...' we catch the note of sadness, and of self-pity too. Like Ponce de Leon, he could be the patron saint of those who in the winter of their lives winter where winter does not come. And that, alas, is all of us, to one degree or another. I got a nice tan in Sarasota.


Ralph McInerny