nature

the shortest days. the longest nights.

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We’re inching towards a day I dread on the calendar. The winter solstice: shortest day of the year. As a lover of light and warmth, I cringe at the cold, recoiling from the longest dark.

When I worked outside the home, I hated these December days even more – commuting to work in the blue-black before dawn, driving home after the sun had already set. All the life seemed sucked out of the hours before I ever got a chance to enjoy them.

Small consolations twinkle: Christmas lights flashing through dark neighborhoods, a thick cover of snow that glows luminescent all night long. But still I long for summer’s bright yellow light and stretching evenings. Pulling tight the curtains in the kids’ rooms to convince them it’s time for bed even though their parents plan to sneak back outside barefoot once the covers have been tucked under their chins.

But every year in Advent, a season of lighting candles and marking time, we lose sunlight hour by hour. It gnaws at me: how I have to release into the dark to let these days pass.

. . .

When I was pregnant for the first time, my wise friend Anita wrote to me on a baby shower card that the best truth she’d heard about raising babies (and she’d had three, so she knew well) was that the years are short but the days are long.

I’ve heard this comforting adage a thousand times since, so I know it rings true for parents who have passed through the throes of life with little ones. In the endless cycle of dragging days filled with newborns and diapers and toddlers and tantrums and preschoolers and discipline, the years somehow slip by. Quickly and quietly.

I hear parents of grown children tell me to relish these days, because they long for them now. And of course I won’t, any more than they savored potty training or dinners full of whining or 3:00 am sobbing wakeup calls.

Still I respect their wisdom; I know that I will one day look back fondly at the same. How wondrous and fleeting were these years full of tiny ones.

But the same truth echoes across the cold dark snow of this winter solstice, too. A month full of shortest days means longest nights. So much temptation for brooding in the darkness. Advent is a necessary hope: we must light the candles and sing the songs and prepare as the weeks pass.

Otherwise we would despair.

. . .

Some parents call a child after miscarriage their “rainbow baby.” A promise of hope after loss. A shimmer of colored light after bleak rain. A sign of calming peace after the storm.

But for me, this baby has been a full moon. Round and bright in the dark sky. Pulling my eyes back to its light whenever they stray. Casting its glowing shine onto a cold world waiting below.

The full moon has brought me comfort through each passing month. Whenever I would rise at night – from nausea, from anxiety, from restless sleep – I found my companion in that glowing orb.

A single light strong enough to fill the sky and flood the land below.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Lachlan Donald from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr)

My longest nights have been full of this presence of God’s promise: that light always returns. Even when the days are short from December’s cold, or the nights are long from children’s demands, there is always brightness somewhere, if I keep searching.

If I keep looking up. Even in the deepest dark.

Christ, be our light. 

oh, october

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Some months of the year are almost too bittersweet to bear.

April is one. It teases, coy and cunning, with windows-down 45-degree days, full of more soft breezes than we remembered possible. Then the next day the blizzard dump another 6-to-9 and the interstate is piled with skeletons of cars spun out in six-foot drifts.

October is a heartbreaker, too. It starts so bright and beckoning, full of rich yellow light and red leaves splashing the treetops. But by month’s end we’ll be bracing ourselves against biting winds as we drag costumed kids through dark streets.

Too much change in one short month.

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Today as we colored with chalk on the sidewalk outside (or rather, as I took orders from the tiny artistic director barking over my shoulder: do a square, mama! now do a triangle!), I glimpsed again how the natural world mirrors our own seasons, each one slightly different from last year’s version.

This is our only fall with a four- and two-year old. No matter what the coming autumns bring us, it will never have quite this same configuration.

And each of my children – my blond-haired, blue-eyed eldest and my brown-haired, dark-eyed youngest – are crammed with so many changes of their own within these ever-evolving seasons. Favorite foods, toy obsessions, beloved stuffed animals, bedtime routines – they all shift so slightly as the weeks turn.

The first day of a month rarely resembles its last.

Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I love change, that I’m type-B enough to breeze through without anxiety over the unknown. But these months of too-much-change always remind me this is false.

I cling to summer, squinting through September’s last golden days to make them masquerade as August. And as soon as the leaves start to swirl to the ground, I find myself frowning at the fact that fall is here and winter’s chill is right around the corner.

Maybe it’s the same with my kids, too.

I tell myself I want them to grow up, to grow out of diapers and into shoes they can tie themselves, to grow out of potty jokes and into academic interests to deepen our dinner table conversations.

But secretly I cling to their small selves, too – the way my toddler’s legs wrap around my waist like a koala when I scoop him up, the soft rub of my preschooler’s skin when we snuggle our noses together to say goodnight.

It’s the vertigo back and forth between the two – the babes they are today and the big boys they will become – that exhausts me sometimes. I watch it ripple over their faces in an instant as the light hits just so, and I see the glint of the men they will become and the memory of the newborns they once were.

So much to hold all at once.

But October reminds me that it can exist all together, this tension between summer innocence and weathered winter. That in the short plan of a month everything can shift around us, even while the same calendar page stays tacked to the wall.

Reminding me as we run barefoot through green grass to pick pumpkins that the only constant is change.

seeing stars in sunlight

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“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

~ 1st reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

I always thought Abram was staring up into a dark night sky, dazzled with stars-as-descendants, breathing in cold crisp air as he tried to believe the impossible for a childless man of his age.

Turns out I was wrong.

Read the rest closely. The sun sets later, as the story slips into Act Two of the fateful covenant, as Abram and God seal the deal over a nighttime sacrifice and a burning torch of hope in the darkness. So the day was likely still bright and blazing when an aging Abram was first asked to trust in stars he could not see.

I’m deeply grateful to Ignatian Spirituality’s Just Parenting blog for this insight that turned this Sunday’s Scripture inside out for me. Because I never realized how the time of day adds a final layer of implausibility to the story: God drags the old man outside into noontime sun, tells him to count all the stars he can see and then trust that he’ll have offspring so many.

Either the cruelest joke or the crucial test of faith: to trust what you cannot see.

. . .

Infertility is the foundation of my parenting.

When I’m sinking into a dreadful day of tired tempers and toddler tantrums, when I’m floundering and grasping for air as I spiral downward, infertility is always the solid ground I finally touch with my toes, the reassuring firm beneath my feet from which I pause and push off to rise, to gasp up to the surface again. I remember and right my thinking:

 At least I have them. At least we were able to have children. At least they exist.

Any small annoyance is relativized in the face of my babies’ being, the sheer graced gift of their lives. No matter the current crisis, my view is widened to the scope of what matters. My momentary maternal failings become but a blink.

I remember that I have the blessing of a bad day as a mother.

Because it means I mother.

sun

I wonder when these daily, weekly, monthly reminders of the blessedness of bearing children will start to fade. Like the people who live tucked in the foothills of towering mountains or stretched along the edge of the vast sea – I always wonder when they start to take the landscape for granted. Time settles us into the way-it-turned-out as if it were always given. But it is never simply given.

The immensity of what we’re asked to trust, in those rare times when we’re asked to truly trust, only becomes visible later. We see what was obvious only in a different time or season.

But in the blinding sear of midday, when the sweat runs in rivulets down our back, when our necks crick from craning skyward, it is easier to wave it away, shrug off with a sneer.

It is always easier to walk by sight than faith.

. . .

Now the stars are clear as night. Now I start to sense the scope of what I was called to trust when parenthood seemed far from predictable. Now I see the bright sparks against the black sky, the wider span of a greater plan than I could grasp during long months of waiting and wanting and wondering and wallowing.

Did I trust the noontime promise, the prospect of distant lights that would shine brighter when I needed them in deepest dark? Mostly what I remember from our years of infertility is sadness, anger, bargaining with God, weeping with jealousy at others’ good gifts.

But from where I watch tonight, staring out at a winter’s wash of white stars shining through cold darkness, I see clearly. How the wrestling with God, the willingness to trust the divine with my deepest desires, was trust enough for that time. Because it saw me through the heat of day to the calming cool of night.

I wonder what I am called to trust today. What noontime stars am I unable to see, squinting into the sun? What promise of a wider view, a multitude beyond imagining? What prospect so much bigger than my one small life, but of which I am still a part?

I stand at the window watching stars and I marvel at Abram’s trust.

All that he believed he could see at midday.

the winter hill: God speaks in seasons

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Every year I try to love winter. A little bit, at least, as much as a Midwesterner ought. I usually fail, flounder by February with dramatic declarations about how much I hate snow and sub-zero temps and skin cracked so dry it bleeds.

But this year I’m trying to be humbled by the cold dark, trying to see what I can learn from stark outlines of bare trees against white skies.

Maybe it’s because I have new views from windows to notice this year, or because the winter has been (mostly) light on snow. But I find myself drawn to the dark lines of the landscape around me, the hills that slowly emerged as leaves blew away last fall.

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When we moved here in the spring, the homes around us were hidden behind green trees and lush grass and rows of shrubs. Our new house was tucked into a corner of a hill with woods behind, and I marveled at the soft roll of the land as we walked through the neighborhood. But until winter stripped the yards bare, I didn’t realize how dramatic the hills leapt up around us, how many more I could spy from our upstairs window than I ever imagined when they were hidden in summer’s lush leaves.

At first I felt silly about discovering the hills six months after we moved in. What had I thought was underneath the rising sweep of trees around the road’s bend? But I couldn’t follow the fullness of the line until it was traced white with snow, the hills rolling higher and reaching further than my summer eyes could see.

Every morning now I rise to watch the hills, still surprised to them wrapping around me in this new place I call home.

. . .

I notice God in seasons. The surprise of springtime buds after the long winter, promised and delivered. The lush drench of summer green, fertile and waiting. The burst of autumn leaves, brilliant and fleeting. The hushed blanket of winter snow, stilling and silencing.

I find that God speaks differently as the seasons turn. However I feel or see or hear God at the time, whether in whispers or in silence, in laughter or in wind, it seems amplified by the world outside and echoed in the land around me. Like the shimmer of a summer lake in the brightness of morning or the cold blue dark of white stars scattered in fall’s night sky. God’s voice becomes warmer or colder, soaked or dry, brightly colored or drabbed in grey.

If I open my eyes, if I pause to look around, I am surprised every single time to find God there, outside as well as within, fuller than I expected.

. . .

Lately as I watch the hills, the words of Wendell Berry sift through my mind:

The hill is like an old woman, all her human obligations met, who sits at work day after day, in a kind of rapt leisure, at an intricate embroidery. She has time for all things. Because she does not expect ever to be finished, she is endlessly patient with details. She perfects flower and leaf, feather and song, adorning the briefest life in great beauty as though it were meant to last forever.

(from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath blog)

I love the image of God as the hill – the old woman resting in pure delight of her craft. Working and waiting. Patient and at peace. Resting in the beauty of the moment around her.

When the world presses in with its frantic whirling, I find stillness and strength in this image of the hills: God’s steady, quiet witness to our lives rolling on around the strong, silent center.

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She has time for all things. I wonder if this is what draws my eyes to the hills this winter: a longing for more time, deeper time, fuller time. For a God whose strong silence stills the racing worry of my own heart and mind.

For a God whose depth and width and breadth I can only start to trace when the world around me grows cold and dark.

seasons of thanksgiving

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The last day of November.

I woke up and peeked out the window to find nothing but winter silence: black outline of trees, white dust of snow, stillness of the world folded in on itself. December is about to turn, and Advent eager on its heels. I love the waiting of this corner of the year.

I’m resolved anew to welcome winter this time, to stop grimacing against the cold, hunching my shoulders against the wind. To relax into the reality of the world around me, a world that is frozen and frigid, but still bright with light and bathed in moon once sun sets early. There’s gratitude for winter yet, if I can dig my toes into the snow to find it.

Today I’m writing about gratitude over at The Power of Moms. About trying to grab all that life has to offer, whether fistfuls of green beans or fleeting kisses from growing boys. As the season of September 2012 051thanksgiving ends and the wonder of waiting begins, I’m mindful of how much gratitude matters, how it shapes our vision as the world around us changes, how it warms with hope even as life gets cold.

To read more about my gardening mishaps (and gratitude for these sweet boys I get to mother), come on over to the Power of Moms

harvesting hope

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We go every year. Maybe you do, too.

We pick a perfect fall morning, bright and clear. We drive through rolling country roads, farms and hills and trees ablaze with orange, yellow, red. We grab our bags and head for the rows of trees upon trees.

We pick, pluck, pause and pick another, piling the apples high. We eat them off the branch, munching as we crunch through the leaves. The kids kick the fallen fruit; the adults haul the harvest in heavy paper sacks. We head back to the farm for cool cider and warm donuts. Then we wind our way back home, plans of pies and sauce and crisp and muffins wafting through our weekend.

The annual apple orchard trip.

This year we found a new farm, smaller-scale, family-owned. I laughed with another mom as we circled the gnarly trees, branches heavy with shiny red fruits. “Isn’t it great to beat the crowds here?” she said. I agreed, nodding. A bulky black camera swung from her neck. “We’re yuppies, don’t get me wrong. We’re not really here for the apples. But we just have to come every year, you know?”

I know.

I noticed, for the first time this year. Even in the quieter crowds, every parent had a camera. We clicked as the kids picked. We followed as they wandered round the trees. We snapped as they spun around swings and slides.

Why? I wondered. Yes, the autumn light is bright and crisp in the morning, perfect for photos. And rosy-cheeked children next to nature’s greens and reds are a pretty combination. But maybe it’s more.

These annual trips become touchstones, Kairos moments in the chronos of parenting. We step outside with our kids, away from home and school and work, and realize – suddenly, swiftly, sharply – how much they’ve grown. We scramble to capture a moment that is already fleeting.

Because we need to know, amidst the endless, exhausting and exasperating days, how close the harvest creeps under our very eyes. How quickly the years race by.

I’m guilty of it, too. I snap all day as my babies play. Something deep inside me tugs; I can’t help but try to capture what it means to my mothering soul to see them a little taller, a little bigger each year. All at once I want to wrap my arms around them and keep them this small, sweet age for always, and nudge them on to the next stage, too. Sentiment and melancholy in the same breath, so quintessentially autumn.

I realized this year why parents photograph the picking, not the planting of seeds. Because that work – the slow, tedious, watchful work of tending and waiting – is the work we do every single day. We know sowing and growing, but what we long to see, what we hope will come, what the family rituals and the yearly crop celebrate, is that one day their harvest will be here, too. They’ll be ripe and ready, big and beautiful. We’ll be able to see the fruits of our labors. We hope.

Some day. Still so far.