"Spring has sprung, the sun has riz,
I wonder where the flowers is."
That little childhood ditty feels appropriate here in mid-April when the wondering and the whining have been going on for a while. Of all the seasons, spring may be the most anticipated, the most aggravating, and the most astonishing. It also offers, if one keeps a flexible attitude, quite a bit of entertainment given the way we humans respond. Spring brings the promise of change: lower utility bills, more benign weather, clear sidewalks, fewer layers of heavy clothes with easier movement between inside and outside.
Spring is the promise of winter as expressed by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “O wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Anyone who lives in Northern Minnesota knows the answer to that is a resounding “No!” But then Shelley lived in England with an annual average temperature range of 12º, from 54º to 42º; had he faced five to seven months of winter with temps dipping to 30 and 40 below, he might have written, “O wind, when winter comes, can we survive, will spring arrive…ever?” And had he lived through some Northern Minnesota springs, he might have penned, “O wind, if winter comes and leaves and comes again and yet again, how far behind wouldst real spring be?”
It is not hard to understand why we might get a tad crabby through the prolonged winter months, ready to stop shoveling and start the garden, but what is endlessly fascinating to me is how forgetful everyone is about what’s coming or, more precisely, the timing; hence, the whining. I call it “seasonal aphasia” and I don’t think there’s any cure aside from vigilant, persistent Googling of local weather history until it sinks in; or repeated conversations about the weather, which are inevitable. Our weather talk is the conversational glue that binds our errands and our community together and I would never suggest we try to refrain, but it continues to surprise me how forgetful people are from year to year, expressing dismay, surprise, even anger and depression during quite normal, easily-anticipated weather. Perhaps people are remembering weather from other places they have lived, warmer places like Duluth or Iowa. In the spring, the seasonal aphasia kicks in hard and it doesn’t seem to matter if people have lived here for two years or their whole life. One wintry day, I was admiring a beautiful snowfall through the living room window with a 92-year-old woman who had lived in Ely all her adult life. Smiling, she said, “Snow…who’d have thought?” It was December. Her age might give her a pass, but those of us decades younger also respond with, “Wow...snow!” and in not-so-delighted tones in April, “More snow?@#$!”
Perhaps the aphasia is a longing for predictability, an illusion of control that is part of our quixotic natures; I say “quixotic” because if life does become somewhat predictable and under control, we often become bored, seeking some change and new stimulation. Perhaps we’re choosing not to remember at some level of consciousness, preferring to be surprised rather than wondering why we would stick around such predictable inclemency. Maybe we just have really poor memories.
Research has shown that humans are hard-wired with a bias for optimism, information that initially surprised me. I have described myself as an optimist in the face of lots of information to discourage such a stance, but I hadn’t realized we all were. On hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that humans would need a hard core of optimism and hope to be willing to procreate and keep the species going. Aside from out-of-control hormones, another hard-wired strategy to keep us around, why would anyone bring a child into a world with no hope?
Neuroscientist Tali Sharot says in her TED book, The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope, “To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it.” She explains that because humans are able to mentally time travel, we can imagine the past and the future with us in it. This ability also allows us to be aware of our own mortality.
She suggests that the core function of the memory system is to be able to imagine the future and prepare for what is to come, so it is a process of creative reconstruction from known information, not a process of just recording exact details. This capacity relies partially on the brain’s hippocampus which, if damaged, inhibits the ability to recall the past or imagine the future. Research suggests that the frontal cortex, critical for language and goal setting, communicates with regions deep in our brain, enabling us to project our thoughts positively into the future.
These bits of understanding shifted my perceptions about memory and people, generally and specifically, now that I’m able to glimpse that inner optimist underlying the most cynical, hard-bitten pessimist. It always bugged me that negative, pessimistic people would say they weren’t cynical, just realistic, unlike the pie-eyed optimists they disparaged. I love it that science has blown their cover, saying in effect, “You can bluster all you want, spit out facts, generate pie charts and play the tough guy, but you had kids, didn’t you? Ha! Gotcha! We have unveiled the Teddy bear within.”
Realizing that perhaps our memory functions are meant to be creative rather than exact sure does explain a lot. I have swapped memories with my brother that are wildly different accounts of the same time period and events, each of us certain we are correct, making me feel like we’d grown up in different universes under the same roof, which, in reality, we did. I would think this would also take a load off anyone’s mind who’s concerned about their fading, inaccurate memories. I have said to friends, “It just shows the importance of friendship and sticking together, because more and more, it takes four or five of us together to create one whole memory.”
I’ve been enjoying this spring weather because in spite of having a generally bad memory, I remember clearly much harsher winters and very different springs, buried under deep snow. I gently remind others grumbling about winter returning, “This isn’t winter. This is what spring is like in Northern Minnesota. Remember 2013 and 2014? Blizzards in April, ice out in May? Let’s fall down on our knees in gratitude.” I continue to enjoy the surprise of whatever the new day brings, admittedly with more enjoyment some days than others. Here’s a poem:
“Winter comes afresh after a taste of spring.
I feel the newness, this rebirth into cold and white,
moved by the beauty of the world transformed,
more so because it won’t last;
white clumps of snow loading down the thinnest branches,
giving them a comical look, like monochromatic lollipop trees created carelessly when the coloring ran out,
flanked by towering pines carrying mini-glaciers of snow, weighing down each broad branch as if in supplication.”
You’re invited to come hear several local writers read from their work at Tuesday Group, April 26, 12 noon-1 p.m. at the Grand Ely Lodge.