Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heady Emotions

I suppose I ought to be doing some work. But it’s a sunny morning and the world is covered with newly fallen snow. It’s four degrees outside, and what’s even better, it’s mid February, which means the winter light is at its best, turning the mounds of snow into glistening chunks of matter like fiery chalk, half peachy white (where the sun hits them) and half moonlight (where they lie in shadow).

I suppose I ought to be doing some work. And in fact, I just now came in from smashing icicles and scraping huge drifts of snow off the eaves, using a bamboo roof-scraper and an aluminum ladder. (To be more precise, I climbed up the ladder and then used the twelve-foot bamboo scraper.) While I was out in the yard I also cut a limb off the pin oak outside the bedroom window. It’s been dead for years, the birds have enjoyed perching on it as they wait their turn at the feeder… but there are plenty of dead branches higher up, and there I was, in the backyard under the tree in the dead of winter, with a ladder. All I had to do was get the saw.

Going out into the backyard in the middle of winter can be a remarkable event. I hadn’t been out there since mid-November. It’s a view I recognize, but had become slightly unused to, and now it has returned to my world-view, like a long-absent friend. It was while I was standing out there that the beauty of the snow (or the sunlight on the snow, or the snow illuminated by the sunlight) really began to hit home.

I ought to get going and do some work. But once I’d put the bamboo roof-scraper, the saw, and the ladder away in the garage, I decided to sit for a minute with a cup of coffee and enjoy the piles of snow on the yew bushes outside the window. I opened the book on the table by my side, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, by Martha Nussbaum, and here’s what I read:

Emotions, I shall argue, involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Well, OK. But I don’t much like the word “neediness.” Perhaps it would have been simpler to say, “Emotions are the juice that binds us to things outside ourselves, and fuels our efforts to bring those things into our lives more fully—important things, and also seemingly unimportant things.”

I love the light on the snow, though it might be gone in a few minutes. I didn’t make it, I don’t control it, but I’ve seen it before, and hope to see it again sometime. It isn't that important, yet I find it difficult to describe adequately the tizzy of pleasure this lustrous white world outside the window drives me to. I want to dive into it, or hum along with it. I'm not sure if such a moment is "salient" to my well-being, but it sure contributes to it.

Now I am really going to settle down and do some work.

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