Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Snowflakes: A Panegyric

Someone called me a snowflake.

I don't know him. I also didn't know what he was talking about, but I naturally assumed -- due to the esoteric nature of his compliment -- he was a learned young man -- a polymath, if you will -- erudite, inquisitive, someone who reads critically and abundantly on a wide spectrum of topics. 

I'm guessing he is a graduate student, but not one who labored under my wise tutelage, either in high school or beyond.
Hi. My name is Roy.

Because he did not elaborate, I knew I would have to do a bit of research to chase down the true nature of his meaning.  

(Yes, I admit it, sometimes young scholars are smarter than their aging mentors, the brains of the latter becoming little more than calcified closed canons, stunted, immutable, locked shut by a gate with rusted hinges. A precocious prodigy can, quick as a pin-prick, preemptively prune a pedagogue's pride.)

So. Why "snowflake"?

From the Zen point of view, "a snowflake never falls in the wrong place." It falls where it must, as do we all. The snowflake's journey, never rigid, always tortuous, often shifting and erratic, flighty, sometimes desultory, others mimicking a meandering cadre of drunken nomads, yes, they all touch down where they should.

Would it matter, Zenically speaking, if some other snowflake had fallen there? Of course. As you know, no two are alike. Pattern A can't do the work of Pattern B. Not possible.

So far, I sense the young scholar was saying to me, "Master, there is no one else like you. You are where you should be. You are scratching an itch in the Universe that no other hand can reach."

Thank you, Grasshopper!

Further research indicates the young man was a scholar of the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, having particular knowledge of Hopkins' theory of "inscape," or "the charged essence, the absolute singularity that gives each created thing its being."*
Hopkins

Singularity again. For Hopkins, everything and everyone, not just snowflakes, are unique, said uniqueness being "a feature that forms or communicates the inner character, form or 'personality' of something," a kind of birthmark given by their Creator, setting them apart from everything else.** 

This feature is, in my case, my essential Royness, not just my identity, but my role, my meaning, my reason for being, my "charge" as Hopkins often called it. 

Roy, his dog and cats, the oaks and squirrels and Mexican petunias and azaleas and weeds in his yard, the soaring hawks in the dying oaks, the dying oaks themselves and the rattling Sandhill cranes all are charged with "the Grandeur of God," charged like a battery and charged as in assigned.

And everything's difference unites them into one common Creation, so it's their (God-given, according to Hopkins) snowflakish uniqueness that makes them all the same, just as the flake most often finds her home in a seemingly homogeneous blanket comprised of her unique brothers and sisters, where they will eventually melt into each other.

The young scholar would have memorized these beautiful lines reflecting Hopkins' beliefs: In Nature "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." And "All things counter, original, [rare], strange; / . . . fickle, freckled . . . / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change."

And regardless of his beliefs, surely my namer's eyes teared up reading Hopkins' beautiful, compressed expression of his notion that we are all different and all beautiful, and the beauty that joins us together is fathered forth from a father whose beauty is eternal.

Ah, snowflake! Like William Blake's sunflower, "Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveler's journey is done."

And finally, the young scholar (and I'm beginning to like him more with every sentence I write) would have been familiar with James Joyce, his use of "epiphanies" much like Hopkins' inscape, and especially his masterpiece "The Dead," the final dozen pages or so containing some of the most evocative and moving English writing in the history of literature.

As Joyce's long short story draws to a close, the protagonist Gabriel, an insecure snob, is stunned by a tale of love he has never experienced, and this awareness -- this epiphany, if you will -- has painfully reunited him with his fellow mortals, and especially to mortality itself, that other human feature that makes us all One. Out the window he sees the snow

softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

That passage still chills me after all these years, so I owe a debt of gratitude to the snowflake labeler: Whoever you are, thank you for guiding me back to a source of wisdom, i.e., to art, with no agenda other than telling the truth.

As a snowflake, I will land where I should. And ultimately, we'll all land together, our respective islands merging into a single Continent, as the snow falls upon us, the living and the dead.
   
*Anthony Domestico in a review of Paul Mariani's biography of Hopkins
**Catherine Philips in her introduction to the Oxford Authors edition of Hopkins' poetry and letters.

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