The trees, along their bare limbs, contemplate green. A flicker, rising, flashes rust and white before vanishing into stillness, and raked leaves crumble imperceptibly to dirt.
On all sides life opens and closes around like a mouth. Will you pretend you are not caught between its teeth?
The kestrel in its swift dive and the mouse below, the first green shoots that will not wait for spring are a language constantly forming.
Quiet your pride and listen. There — beneath the rainfall and the ravens calling you can hear it — the great tongue constantly enunciating something that rings through the world as grace.
Lynn Ungar (Bread and Other Miracles)
Last week when I wrote about Wintering, I was aware it was Imbolc, the ancient Celtic holy day, midway between Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, that honours the “barely beginnings” of new life. Try as I might to acknowledge that in my post, I couldn’t, needing instead to simply stay put in the depth of wintering. Maybe a prescient response to the deep Arctic cold that descended upon us this week, nonetheless, those barely beginnings are evident. Sun rising earlier in the morning, sitting higher in the noon sky, setting later in the afternoon. Hyacinth, tulip and daffodil bulbs forced in greenhouse warmth. Latent buds on trees. We wait. It comes. Winter into Spring.
Krista Tippett: Somewhere you say that snow creates a “liminal space, a crossing point between the mundane and the magical.”
Katherine May: I think snow — what I love about snow is the way that it makes a clean break. It transforms the landscape. Everything’s different. Everything sounds different. The quality of light is different. The light kind of sparkles off it. You know, before you open your curtains, that snow has landed. And for me, I just think that’s such a gift. I know it’s less of a gift if it’s there for five or six months. But it’s a break in the routine. It’s a little bit like a kind of pause. You can’t go about your normal business. School chucks out. But you get to see your world in a different way. And it’s beautiful.
I grew up in quite an unbeautiful place, and snow used to make it beautiful. And I used to absolutely love that. And I now live in a very beautiful place, and snow makes it magical instead, when it comes.
On Being with Krista Tippett, January 21, 2021
Inspired by their conversation for Monday’s blog on Wintering, and given the recent snow and its transformation of so much around me, I had to include Katherine’s poetic rendering here, as Friday’s photo and poem feature.
“Dashed and disheartened – again,” I emailed a friend. What with last week’s winds having blown in Arctic cold temperatures and flat light skies, reading up on my country’s vaccination rollout debacle and delays, virus variants that are proving to be highly contagious and perhaps more deadly than the original, and a speculated move to mandated mask wearing outside, this might be an understatement. Certainly enough to have been stalled again in writing here, having missed two of my usual Monday postings. Plumbing a bit deeper, what with my husband having celebrated his first “Covid” birthday two weeks ago, we realized with age, and life as we’ve known it “on hold,” we’re feeling quite wistful. Most apparent for me is missing traveling and all that it gives me, more fully appreciated now in its absence. I’m resigned to the probability that this will be another year, and most likely then some, of staying put. Too, the whisper of a question held this past year, “Will I – we – ever travel again as in the past?”
A few days ago, somewhat warmer with soft snowflakes fluttering down, Annie and I walked, she happy for her full-length coat, and NOT having to wear her fleece boots. I plugged into a recent On Being podcast, curious having read Krista’s weekend letter:
“Katherine May, in her book, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020), meditatively explores ‘wintering’ as a season of the natural world but also as a place our bodies and psyches need to go, a season that recurs again and again across a life. We cheat and dismiss this in life as we’ve been living it, but it has presented itself insistently in a pandemic year we might reimagine as one long communal wintering.
We can’t move forward without grieving all we’ve lost in the past year. Closer to the ground, this means we have to let in the fact of sadness — a precursor to pain and fear — with some reverence. If happiness is a skill, Katherine May says, so is unhappiness. Winter embodies the strange complexity of reality. It is the bitterest season, we blithely say. And all the while it manages not to be the death of the life cycle, as Katherine May reminds, but its crucible.”
Krista Tippet, The Pause, January 23, 2021
That would be the odd place in which I found myself last spring and summer. Whereas I’d used the words “fallow” and “lost”, as I listened to Katherine May, I recognized in her words a fuller, more accurate description of those several months lying cold and low, when all around me blushed and blossomed.
“…wintering is a metaphor for those phases in our life when we feel frozen out or unable to make the next step, and that that can come at any time, in any season, in any weather; that it has nothing to do with the physical cold…”
Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021
Not bound to season as we know it, but a necessary and recurrent place to drop into when we appreciate the cyclical nature of our lives. Thinking back, during an actual winter fifteen years ago, I dropped into depression. Not major, but enough that I and others noticed I was not myself. Little energy and enthusiasm, waning concentration, major exertions of effort to get through a day of work and home chores. Enough that once on the other side that spring, I’d mentioned it to my family doctor, and upon closer examination, recognized its cyclical nature. Perhaps a bit of seasonal affective disorder with some inherited family predisposition towards the winter “blahs.” Never since as severe, though I have a letter I wrote to myself then, upon the suggestion of my doctor, “to be opened in the dark days, to remember.” I’ve never needed to, though I know it’s perched on my desk amidst a collection of mementos. And that brings reassurance enough.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021
I wonder if because we are mostly acculturated out of such natural rhythms and rituals, those embedded deep within our DNA and beneath our consciousness, we find ourselves in “winter” out of season? That if we heeded Nature’s signs and stirrings, we’d ready ourselves, with each other, for wintering’s alchemical invitation. I feel a growing love and appreciation for winter, the season, since being unfettered by work’s imposed schedule, demands, and need for driving. And as many of us have felt during the pandemic, in lives slowed and diminished of obligation, its paradoxical gifts.
“It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.”
Katherine May, On Being podcast, January 21, 2021
Recently I came upon these words from Toko-pa Turner’s book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. They echo the hidden transformative gifts in this crucible of winter and wintering:
“Like the bowl that has yet to be filled, there is an emptiness that precedes creativity that is alive with potential. With ordinary eyes, it’s easy to mistake this emptiness for stagnancy. We may think, “I have nothing of substance to offer! I have no original ideas!” But down at the invisible base of things, there is a holy dance taking place. Though we may want to run from the tension, the polarities are in constant motion, readying themselves into harmony. Far from dormant, this dance is the active receptivity that calls things into form. We are such a vessel. These times of nothingness are actually busy with living into a new capacity.
Originality comes when you stay close to that emptiness, making it a welcoming place, adorning it with your divine longing, learning the shape of it, and filling it with your questions. Every great artist I know is obsessed with a question, and their artworks are less attempts to answer that question than they are exaltations of asking. As Jean Cocteau says, ‘The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.'”
I listened last summer as I wintered, lost and fallow. I remembered it as a familiar season of my life and followed its nudges to find my way through. Walking with Annie. Reading and writing. Photography and painting. Making love notes to friends. Cooking and circling up with women friends. And now in the fullness of its season, I sleep longer, nap more, give myself permission to pause the writing until I feel stirred. I let myself feel, once again, dashed and disheartened, trusting them to be worthy of these times. And I wonder.
“I recognized winter. I saw it coming a mile off, since you ask, and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started to feel the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child, with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and I made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself, what is this winter all about? I asked myself, what change is coming?”
Katherine May, Wintering – The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020)
Surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs you never intended. At the end there may be no answers and only a few very simple questions: did I love, finish my task in the world? Learn at least one of the many names of God? At the intersections, the boundaries where one life began and another ended, the jumping-off places between fear and possibility, at the ragged edges of pain, did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?
Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
NATURE. My word for 2021. Again, not so much chosen as received through the twelve-day process of deep listening and discerning hosted by the Abbey of the Arts. If this word – NATURE – has even a portion of prescient relevancy as last year’s word – HOME – I’ll become converted to this as an annual process.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, And next year’s words await another voice.”
T. S. Eliot in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
By registering and dedicating time to the daily lessons, I crossed a threshold into that liminal, imaginary space where symbols and signs, whispers and words, prayers and dreams have potential to bear fruit for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
“A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into the immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us.”
Thomas Merton in Abbey of the Arts, “Give Me a Word for 2021”
In an early lesson derived from the practice of Lectio Divina, I reviewed last year (yes, that year!) as a form of sacred text over which to meditate and select an image or event that “shimmered.” Without question it was my time outdoors – whether in urban nature by the river, suburban treks through the golf course, sitting in my treed back yard, walking through villages and cities in Andalusia, or getting lost on the Lost Lake trail in my provincial park – that inspired, soothed, challenged, settled.
Another day’s lesson of taking a contemplative walk has become so much a part of my daily routine during these many months of pandemic life, satisfying both Annie’s and my need for fresh air and movement and giving reassurance there is life beyond our house, that it simply confirmed my knowing of Nature’s promise and powers.
Still, to stay open and not prematurely settled, I noticed my dreams as per another day’s lesson, and when consulting a soul friend was prescribed, that day I just happened to open the “year in review” e-letter from beloved friends – they whose practical life wisdom and deep reverence for Nature serve as meaningful mentoring – and read their closing words which echoed and amplified my knowing:
“May the bigness and mysteries of Nature carry our hearts through all concerns. Let us trust the stones, the waters, the trees, the fungi. Let us befriend the birds, the fishes, the animals, the plants. Let us befriend one another.”
Allowing the word time to “ripen” by holding it gently while still wondering what else; illustrating the word visually through phone photos that caught my attention as we walked the snow-covered park paths; and committing to a “word rooted” practice, which for me is simply a re-commitment to heed Annie’s after lunch nudge, I feel settled that this word has come this year for me.
Writing a poem was the final day’s lesson. Today, my haiku in tribute took form:
This new year my word. NATURE, my holy Teacher, Healer, Guide, and Friend.