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By Wintery Light

Maybe it’s this long winter intersecting with Lent.  Maybe it’s just the personal season I’m in.  Or maybe it’s the combination of bitter cold and lingering illness that has kept me inside so much these last months–but winter, which always feels pensive to me, seems especially so this year.

In the midst of an extremely busy semester, our college has undertaken a campus-wide study of sabbath, a challenge to consider the richness promised when we come into the right balance.  So it feels critical this week to intentionally gentle the pace and reflect.

As an English professor that means turning to text.  To help us with a seasonal lectio divina, if you will, I offer two poems to help you find ways to slow down today: Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” and Tess Gallagher’s “Choices.” I don’t want to over-determine your reading here by interpreting too much about the poems, but I am struck by the possibilities–for contemplation and for celebration–that each alerts us to in the distinct lighting and landscapes of this chilly season.

Emily Dickinson, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” #320

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –


None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –


When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –


Tess Gallagher, “Choices”

I go to the mountain side

of the house to cut saplings,

and clear a view to snow

on the mountain. But when I look up,

saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in

the uppermost branches.

I don’t cut that one.

I don’t cut the others either.

Suddenly, in every tree,

an unseen nest

where a mountain

would be.


Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Dawn Boelkins says:

    Thank you for the “Choices” poem. I was unfamiliar with it, but it’s just right for this bitterly cold and beautiful day.

  • Right after reading your post, Jennifer, I walked to the Morgan Museum and Library and saw a wonderful installation titled “A Certain Slant of Light.” Lovely and serendipitous.

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