The last two days have been stunning autumn days with brilliant sunshine, frost and soft, cool breezed. Soon, the sun will vanish for 6 months and the sky will be filled with grey - and often snow. Such is the close to my favorite season to be outdoors - fall - and the sneaky start of a drift into winter. We hiked in the woods for a bit yesterday just to savor the smells of the leaves and to bask in the glory of a late afternoon orange sun. For most of my life, I have considered winter something to be avoided if not overly fought. The words of Carl Sandburg might have been my own...
I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.
The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.
But now - in fits and starts - and with a still emerging cautious optimism, I am starting to cherish the blessings of winter. Poet, Donald Hall, in a collection of essays about the seasons at his home on Eagle Pond, New Hampshire writes of people who have come to "know themselves" by winter.
In New Hampshire we know ourselves by winter - in snow, in cold, in darkness. For some of us the first true snow begins it. For others winter begins with the first bruising assault of zero weather. There is yet another sort, light lovers, for whom winter begins with dark's onset in mid-August... and then there are those who love the darkness... we are partly tuber, partly bear.
This is a unique perspective on living, yes? For me, a truly acquired taste, to be sure - not quite Hall's tuber but more like Robert Frost's crow.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
In an essay about "the spirituality of the seasons," Brenda Coleman notes "The gift of seasons (whether they are calendar seasons, church seasons, or the seasons of life) is in living in their movement, and recognizing the signs and subtleties of the changes. When we stop to notice, we give ourselves the opportunity to care for our souls, our inner selves. These changes are our road signs to stop and pay attention to the movement of God in and through us." Then she observes:
Then winter arrives . . . with its extremes . . . the ever present darkness, punctuated with blindingly bright sunshine that reflects off the white snow. We are forced to take notice of the contrasts. We sit in our warm houses and cars looking outside where the temperatures are extreme, wondering why we have to go out at all. We feel like we are on hold … and all of life, except an occasional cardinal at the feeder, seems to have abandoned the earth or be hidden away. Is there a spirituality of winter? What might God be telling us in . . .
• The sharp contrasts – the darkest nights, the brightest stars, the blinding white snow.
• The emptiness - the stillness - the quiet - the slowing down.
• The dying back to our bare potential and reducing our lives to what is essential.
• The beginnings of rejuvenation – both of the earth and ourselves
I am starting to get it - it is bigger than my feelings - bigger than my limited perspective, too. Frederic and Mary Ann Bruasault suggest that another part of winter's spirituality has to do with nourishing wonder. "Winter can be a wonderland for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. While on the surface the winter world appears drab, especially compared to the riot of summer and fall colors, with wonderosity we can find much to celebrate in these months. Increasing our appreciation for all of God’s Creation by consciously noticing what arouses our wonder is a spiritual practice."
Four little things have helped me start to embrace a healthy spirituality of winter: snow days, snow shoes, cross country skis and warm feet. Snow days are obvious: they force us all to stop and be still. It is so quiet in the Berkshires after a deep snow - dangerous, to be sure - but equally beautiful. Snow days are an unexpected retreat. I young mom said to me this morning, "When we got socked by 18" of snow last week, I didn't complain! I rested a bit longer, did some house chores with my husband - we NEVER do that unless in snows - and enjoyed a quiet time with the boys without having to rush around to their activities."
Snow shoes let you go into the woods - or by the frozen river - and enter into a whole different quiet. NOBODY is out there. Cross country skis are for moving - and that has its place - but snow shoes are for wandering through the most unlikely places. I've been on the Housatonic River at dusk when everything turns silver. I've listened to the wind whip across the ice without any other sound, too. Let's be honest, I'm not very good on cross country skis - yet - but they bring blessings too and get me moving when the weather would ordinarily keep me house bound. They get me sweating and celebrating being alive in the winter sun, too.
And let me simply note, that having warm feet is the difference between heaven and hell for me. One of the reasons I have hated winter for more than 50 years is directly attributable to cold, wet feet. So, while I still have miles to go before I can truly "sleep" and rest with winter, I'm getting closer to celebrating this season. I think Billy Collins gets it right he writes:
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children's School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with -- some will be delighted to hear --
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School,
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and -- clap your hands -- the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.