Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nordic Rhapsody no. 1: Blue Moment

I'm sitting at my desk after a walk, eating a Runebergin torttu with my tea. (How many national literary figures have their own tasty treat marking their birthday?) Outside, it's one of those cold, clear, snowy days that make living up here through the winter worth it. The sun is sinking below the horizon, and it looks like the sky is gearing up for one of my favorite Nordic sights: the blue moment – "sininen hetki" in Finnish. It's an exclusively late winter phenomenon at this latitude, when the twilight sky turns a shade of indigo so deep that if you saw it in a photograph or painting, you'd think it fanciful. I won't bother linking to photographic evidence; it's impossible to capture it on film. But until you've seen it, you might believe that nothing naturally occurring could be so blue. It's one of the first things I came to love about living in Finland, and one of the rare sights that never seems to get old. (White nights are another.)

The aspect I love most about blue moments – and this is what sets the experience apart from white nights – is their evanescence. It only lasts a few minutes, so you have to be out at the right time to see it. There's a paradoxical quality to the moment, in which one perceives an extraordinary, deep, deep calm, and at the same time, the sky seems to to be trembling with potential energy. It's moments like these, hovering on the edge of non-being, in which the linear flow of time that shapes our days and lives seems to slow and even stop, that most fascinate me in nature, and in art. Not coincidentally, those are the precise values that inform much of the art that inspires me, especially Japanese art forms like haiku poetry and sumi-e painting.

Form, linearity, architectonics: these are strong, beautiful, admirable things, and led to some of the greatest art humanity has ever created. But the spontaneous capturing of that fragile, exquisite moment, and the feeling of stillness and utter peace and boundless energy that accompany it, the telescoping of the experience beyond its natural duration, making eternal that which is transient, these goals will always be much more interesting to me than another masterful essay in the ordering of time. Time flows by itself without our help. Stopping it would seem to be a much neater trick to pull off.

A few years ago, I was tasked to write several classically structured 5-7-5 haiku for a Zen aesthetics class. The goal of the exercise, as with all Zen arts, is to be spontaneous yet controlled, to freeze the import of a moment in time through the free, yet studied and rigorously prepared use of minimal materials. The problem is, after the first couple of attempts, self-consciousness tends to take over, and you find yourself trying to outdo your earliest poems in the Zen-ness of their content, leading to kitsch. Try though I might, I couldn't come up wth anything better than my first haiku, so I only submitted that one, which I now offer here, whatever its value. Then I'm going to go out and have my moment.

bare winter birches
twilight sky unearthly blue
evenings not yet come

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