Can you remember all the grousing going on not that long ago about how hot it was? Beginning in May with those first startling 90 degree days, straight through to early October when it had cooled off to … 90 degree days, just about every conversation tossed into the atmosphere whimpered about the heat. These days I suspect a few of those folks would trade their snow blowers and a metric ton of rock salt to have the chance to moan like that again. I am not among them. Safe to say from my cyber hideaway, but I love winter. Pretty much everything about it: the landscape (even when — especially when — it’s buried in snow), the climate, the holidays and holy days dotting the calendar (Advent remains my favorite liturgical season and Valentine’s Day, well, any day that encourages me to cut up red construction paper and let someone know they’ve captured my heart is a very good day indeed), the flavors (soups and stews and spirits for sipping after relocating the aforementioned mounds of white), the fragrances (neighboring wood stoves, the air just before it snows, those soups and stews simmering in the kitchen) the textures (corduroy and flannel, quilts and comforters). It’s all good, as the saying goes.
I completely recognize and am truly grateful for the privilege I know that sanctions such a statement. Honorable work that allows for my heated home with its well-stocked pantry, permits me to seek skilled therapeutic care when necessary, and provides time for relaxation and restoration of body and spirit. I am given an abundance of life-giving relationships and the assurance of my identity as a beloved daughter of our loving God, with the prayerful and practical support of so many sisters and brothers. I recognize, too, that the flipside of winter’s delight is its share of danger, particularly to the most vulnerable among us. While coping with some temporary inconvenience or attending to my tired muscles, I cannot neglect any for whom this is a season of suffering and must be alert to the ways I can work to diminish that. This winter day however, from my place of opportunity, advantage and abundant blessing, it is all good. And it’s all grace.
There is grace in darkness. Winter days offer the least amount of light, time we can think nothing is growing, when we need gentle reminders that in frozen stillness, in barren fields and branches, in hibernating creatures, earth is renewed and life restored. “Winter is a lesson about the fine art of loss and growth,” suggests Joan Chittister, OSB, well-known author and speaker. “Its lesson is clear: there is only one way out of struggle and that is by going into its darkness, waiting for the light and being open to new growth.” (Rupp and Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life, 2005). Many of us schooled in utility and accomplishment, disciples of deadlines, masters of multi-tasking, do not take kindly to winter’s invitation to withdrawal, to being less busy and more reflective. Like nature, we produce. Again like nature, we must restore. Our bodies and spirits need dormancy, silence and solitude. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that will happen if I sit by the fire this evening? if I read a book? if I take a nap? No, it will not bring world peace, but chances are no one will be irrevocably harmed. Remember, too, that there is light that shines on in darkness. Even the darkness will not be dark to you, the Psalmist prays. The night will shine like the day, for dark and light are alike to you. (139:12)
There is grace in waiting. How long the winter has lasted – like a Mahler symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair, Jane Kenyon begins her poem “Walking Alone in Late Winter.” Though I haven’t done the math, I’m fairly certain each of the four seasons is about the same length, something on either side of 90 days. Winter can often seem longer, even with February, which an astronomer friend of mine, perhaps in a tribute to Pluto, refers to as the ‘dwarf month.’ A recent conversation we shared included the litany of why February is my favorite month. Some of my favorite festivals, yes, including my birthday and, very often, Mardi Gras, but it’s more about vision. Without too much trouble, in February I can imagine my garden in full bloom, presently hard at work beneath the snow. Thumbing through the seed and bulb catalogs that will arrive this month, my heart is stirred and I’m invited to be encouraged in other areas of my life. From February, I can see baseball. In a few days, pitchers and catchers will report for their first workouts, with snowdrifts only a memory and short sleeves on their practice uniforms. Even as I wait and trust that the buds are secretly growing in the frozen air and will return to the branches, that the flowers will push through the dirt to bloom again, that the Red Sox will make it to the playoffs, I can sometimes be tempted to stop believing in myself, to stop dreaming, stop imagining what’s still in store for me. Winter invites me to live with mystery, assures me that the seeds and bulbs of life are being tended, and what is needed for growth is patiently waiting to return.
There is grace in emptiness. The branches have been stripped bare. Tree limbs laden with ice have broken to decay on the ground. Parks and playing fields are vacant. Our inner landscapes can appear just as bleak and empty in these winter days. Something within us wants to fill the spaces and fill the silence. We would rather not sit with our insecurities, with our sadness, loneliness or grief. At the same time we can feel inert, willing to hole up, wondering if we will ever again feel good about ourselves or about life. For those of us living alone, we can often give ourselves permission to pitch our tents in this solitude, romanticize it even. Winter is the perfect excuse to stay inside and propagate our seclusion. Yet the grace of emptiness is fully realized as the opportunity to be filled again. The ice storms that crush our hearts and homes call forth our goodness, quickly moving to help one another.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep another poet famously noted about a snowy evening (though the New Englander Robert Frost spent his winters in Miami!) But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. For those of us here in the northeast, a true grace of winter is in imagining and then welcoming spring, from where we’ll visualize then greet summer, picture and receive autumn and finally, not all that many miles and promises from now, when it is time, winter will circle round again. We will wonder where the time went, and hopefully stop in the frozen darkness to be mindful of the graces each day held.