There is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.
Rainer Maria Rilke
I pull on tall rubber boots and forge a path through the snow down to the lake. For the first few minutes, it’s Little House on the Prairie snow, the insistent cloud of blizzard crystals stinging my face, the accumulated weight of the storm dragging up to my knees. It doesn’t take long, though, to find a passable route, sidewalks where feet or cross-country skis have compacted the snow enough that I don’t have to create each step from nothing. My feet begin to carry me automatically down the hill toward the water so that I can look around a bit, taking in the transformation of my city on a snowy day.
It hasn’t been an easy winter. Last winter was hard, too, in ways that seemed mundane but unique to me at the time; my children were sick a lot, and that meant we canceled what few plans we had and spent most of our time at home. This year is more of the same, for entirely different reasons. The circumstances now are far from mundane—a global pandemic—and shared by virtually everyone, but the results are similar. We don’t make many plans and we don’t really see anyone. And it’s Seattle winter, mostly grey and wet, the winter following three seasons that were also mostly without plans or people or other places.
The three-mile path around Green Lake is well-packed and not too crowded, and as the snow is falling lightly and I’m only a few tracks into my favorite snow-listening album (Sigur Ros’s Hvarf—it can’t be beat), I continue around. I’ve lived two or three blocks from this lake for about a quarter of my life, and though I’ve walked, run, biked and rollerbladed around it literally hundreds of times, I’ve never come here on a snowy day, being for most of those years a teenager with legitimate slopes to sled during those school-free miracles.
The atmosphere on the path—in the city, even—is a festival one. It’s Saturday, so few people are trying to work. Fewer than usual are leaving home for work these days, anyway, but the difference of snow has pulled a good portion of the city out of their homes, luring us with the promise of novelty and beauty, a bit of change in what has seemed a changeless season. Seattle driving is treacherous with even half an inch on the ground, and today so far about nine inches have accumulated, so I can only assume that most of these people did what I did, identified the nearest bit of nature and walked there, committed to the search for loveliness.
I’ve missed Germany a great deal this winter, specifically the little village in the southwest that I called home for the better part of eight years. It has seemed unreasonable to me at times, even somehow indecent, to still be missing a place I left almost three years ago. In the terms of life transitions, three years seems like a long time. Shouldn’t I have, you know, moved on? It’s the only place that I’ve chosen to move myself, and then chosen to leave, so I really wouldn’t know. I haven’t left a home like this before, not permanently.
It’s easy to talk myself out of missing Kandern, my village, because the community that we lived in was ever-changing. As a high school teacher, my students were transient by nature, and they’ve all graduated by now. Even the staff flows in and out of the valley regularly; most of my closest friends have gone, either permanently or for years spent raising support back home. And this disaster hasn’t been much kinder to Germany. The school I left is different now, a place of masks and remote learning, the constant interpretation of ever-changing guidelines in a second language. It would have been hard there, too, I tell myself.
But it’s been snowing all winter there, turning that always-lovely village into something magical. Honestly I could go back to that village in sixty years, without knowing a single person, and be happy just to walk through those hills and forests, the ageless topography I can still see when I close my eyes. This is where I’m from, Washington, but that is a place that I learned to love on purpose. And I still miss it.
I’m halfway around Green Lake when the snow changes, the crystals coalescing into slow-falling flakes that meander to the ground in silence. I peer through the February-naked network of branches along the shore, across the pewter-grey water to the other side, to the ridge where I grew up, where teenaged Kristi would be sledding today with the neighbors. Coal-black ducks slide across the water, and all around me are the cheerful sounds of neighbors I don’t know, enjoying this day as much as I am. It is beautiful, so much so it brings tears to my eyes, this display of goodness piercing the gloom of this month, this year.
For a moment, I want to say that this snowy day in Seattle makes it all fine, that it somehow fixes my homesickness for another place. You missed winter in Germany, I tell myself. Take this winter in Seattle, instead. That would be a nice trade, a clean way to cover uncomfortable feelings by layering some kind of contentment on top.
I never questioned my students, back in Germany, when they told me that the still missed the places they lived when they were ten, or six, or two. They had vivid memories of other places and times, and it didn’t matter that I or anyone else found those places a strange or hard or even forbidding; to them, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan and Yemen were home, beloved and missed, no matter how long ago they’d left. I was always more than a little impressed when I saw them engaging with a new place, choosing to love somewhere else even as part of them remained in the homes they’d left behind.
Writing to the “young poet” Franz Xavier Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke once described the feeling of being overwhelmed by the “beauty” of Rome:
Finally, after weeks of being daily on the defensive, one finds oneself again, if still somewhat confused, and one says to oneself: no, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere…but there is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’m nearly back to the sidewalk, deep and perilous, before I put back the notion that I have to move on or forget that place I once loved, a place that formed me as much as this one has. I resist the urge to let this snowfall cover over those others, or to insist that this happiness should somehow cancel out the bittersweet longing for that one. Both feelings, both places, are good. There is much beauty here, there, everywhere.
Like my students from Germany, I hold these homes gently, one in each hand, the sweet affection for the two places—as different from each other as they are familiar to me—that I love the most.