The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
-Maggie Smith, First Fall
It’s been a cloudy, cloudy month in these parts.
According to yearly averages from the National Weather Service, West Michigan is covered with clouds 70% of the time in January, so maybe my memory has blocked out past dark winters, but this month has seemed extra drab, emphasized by several days of cold, dreary rain. Local news stations confirm the cloudiness may not all be in my head, reporting that the first six days of 2023 touted only five minutes of sunshine, and our last day of full-sun was way back on December 4. I’m grateful for this past weekend’s snowfall — its white blanket a welcome cover over the gray landscape.
I am a sun person and a summer person. I can literally feel the serotonin release and my mood soar with the slightest glimpse of the sun’s rays. On a bright summer day, I can barely stand to be stuck indoors and will do whatever it takes to get myself outside, or at the very least, close to a window. Maybe it’s because I was raised by apple farmers whose livelihood has depended on the weather, or maybe because I’m an educator whose summer days generally hold more freedom and adventure than the monotonous rhythm and routine of the school year, but my default is to see midwest winters as something to be endured, while summer is our payoff, our reward.
Each June I find myself forgiving Michigan for its long, cold, and cloudy months. I make amends for giving January’s biting wind the cold shoulder, for grumbling and groaning at March’s cold drizzle, and for cursing April’s final snow. The first days of summer show up dazzling like brilliant and shiny superheroes, offering the promise and possibility of long days of light finally stretching out before us.
This is why I may have resisted when a good friend recommended the book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Like a pouting toddler, sometimes it’s easier to expend the energy of complaining and holding my ground than to consider that my energy could be used to try out a new perspective. (Or, said another way, rather than embrace winter in Michigan, wouldn’t it be easier if I just retired a couple decades early and became a snowbird who retreats to somewhere sunnier and warmer from New Years Day until Spring Break?)
But Friday afternoon, a copy of Wintering arrived on my snow-covered porch, and Katherine May lured me to spend part of the weekend curled up on the couch with a warm blanket while she convicted me with these words:
We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer. . .we dream of an equatorial habitat, forever closer to the sun, and endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.
May goes on to write, “Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.” She challenges that, rather than resist and protest the year’s coldest months, I might learn how to “invite the winter in.”
Maybe it’s the beauty of the softly falling snow outside my winter, but rather than responding with a “bah humbug,” I’m trying to lean in and consider what it might look like for me to surrender a bit more to the winter, to ponder what good even the gray might offer us.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter,” May writes, ‘They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. . .Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
With thoughts of metamorphosis, my mind quickly returns to some of my favorite ‘r” words in the theological dictionary. Without dark, without pain, without three days between the cross and the tomb, there would be no resurrection. Without the 40 days in the ark, without the three days in the belly of the fish, without the long walk in the wilderness, there would be no restoration, no repentance. And without the winter, maybe there would not be quite the same joy in spring’s first daffodils, in that first walk without wearing a jacket, in the first warm afternoon when the neighborhood fills again with the sound of kids out playing.
Perhaps part of my discomfort, whether it’s the physical cold of winter or the ache of winter of the soul, is that it exposes my weaknesses. In the winter, I’m vulnerable to nature’s power, aware of my own fragility and the fact that I probably couldn’t survive outside alone. Earlier this week, I turned a corner as I walked around a building and was stopped in my tracks by a particularly bitter wind that took my breath away. I immediately thought of those in our community without a home, those who endure winter in a much more literal and dangerous sense than myself.
There may be a correlation between my aversion to winter and my aversion for admitting my own helplessness. My mortality feels just a bit closer during the winter, just as I find it easier to pretend everything is okay on a warm summer day than on a dark, cold January night. In winter, we are closer to darkness. In winter, we have no choice but to confront the darkness.
It seems to be human nature, or at least my nature, to want to rush through the dark, hard parts, even as we understand that they are part of what makes a life, even though we know they are part of what makes us who we are to become. I’ve often written about my years as a middle school teacher, and the wisdom I gained from those years learning beside my students in the blizzard of their adolescence. Sometimes, the only way from one side to another is through, and my days surrounded by eighth graders made me less surprised by moments and days that were messy, awkward, and hard; they taught me to find more mercy and grace for others — and for myself — on days defined by more gray skies than sunshine.
I’m not ready for a complete change of heart, and I don’t plan to release my grip on summer’s gloriously long days (and please, Lord, send the February sun!), but maybe I am ready to be more open to the power, necessity, and possibility of winter. I need to be reminded of the beauty that is born in weakness, to admit that hustling and busyness can be a coverup for the control I’ve never had, and to be grateful that life does indeed sprout from under the dark, frozen ground — even as I look with hope to the sky, clinging to faith that the sun and summer will return.