We’re back in the tundra today, snow heaped so high by the mailbox you can barely see to inch the car onto the icy street. Wind whips through the front door when I crack it to let the dog limp inside, paws frozen by the sub-zero ground. The forecast for the foreseeable future goes like this: freezing, bitter, worse, terrible, painful, record-breaking, complete surrender.
“Isn’t March supposed to be spring soon?” he sighs when he looks up from his coloring book.
24 hours ago we were beach-side, bare feet in the sugary white sand, skin browning in delicious sun. Hours in the pool every morning watching our frozen children melt into slippery fish. Blue skies and palm trees and a taste of life where winter doesn’t hurt.
A day into our southern sojourn, my latest piece ran at Practicing Families. One of the many to-dos that never got done before we snapped the suitcases shut was to write something here that would tease you to read it, because I was surprised by how much I ended up loving that piece, loved how it sparked out of nowhere on the day of deadline, loved how it hummed with the right refrain, loved how it captured something of the sacred in This Time in Our Lives.
But each lovely, lazy day as I padded up and down the same long sidewalk to the beach with our youngest boy, the toddler who insists on stopping and bending low and smelling every single blessed bloom of every flower he spots, regardless of its appearance or ability to produce fragrance, I thought about that post. And prayer. And what it means to practice as a family.
I realized I had forgotten something. Prayer is beholding; prayer is presence; prayer is promise, yes. But prayer is also pace.
Slowing down, way down, to the steady pulse of life underneath. Pausing long enough to let the soul catch up. Resting into the remembrance that all we mere mortals were asked to do was to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.
So I walked slowly and humbly in the heat, soaking up the long-forgotten sun, remembering the feel of concrete on bare feet, imprinting the memory of a small chubby hand pressed in my palm, stopping to witness a small boy’s wonder at the tiny beauty of hidden flowers, letting the walk back home take twice as long as it should because who’s watching the clock anyway?
And there was the prayer. Once again, without fail. The most and least surprising of all truths: God right before our eyes.
From Practicing Families…
We laugh in low voices as he gets dressed for work. The kids are still sleeping, and as I splash my face with warm water, I contemplate the sweet prospect of a quiet kitchen and a hot cup of tea. Maybe I could pull out the journal and pray for a bit before they wake. I slip on warm socks for the cold winter floors downstairs and turn the knob on our bedroom door.
Then I find our oldest boy waiting right outside, gazing up at me with wide eyes.
I sink to my knees and without a word he folds himself into my lap, clutching his beloved stuffed animal to his chest. We snuggle in the silence for a few minutes, and then he whispers, “Mama, sing ‘Morning Has Broken.’”
I forget about the journal downstairs. Here is the prayer.
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.
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.
Befriending the Darkness
The winter had never seemed so long or dark to me until our oldest child entered the world of high school swimming.
From November through January, we arose at 4:30 am three days a week for morning practice. My husband teaches at the school, so while he prepared for his day and Michael ate breakfast, I packed lunches and snacks. By 5:15 am, they bundled themselves and their books, swim gear, and lunches into the car and set out in the cold and dark.
Occasionally I would go back to bed until the next wave of activity with our other two children, but most often the silence beckoned.
I’m not really a morning person, but having to be up created an opportunity for the contemplative solitude that I relish. I poured a cup of coffee, picked up the psalms and my journal, and sat down in our living room, turning the club chair around to look east out of the picture window.
This ritual soon became akin to slipping into a hot bath, a luxurious time to savor. Eventually I turn a lamp on low to read scripture and write, but always I begin with the enveloping darkness.
Michael’s swimming days are now past, but the practice of morning darkness continues as my mainstay of self-care while parenting teens.
Their lives are very busy with homework, extracurricular commitments, friends, family, etc. Such competing demands create periodic stress and require my help in myriad ways, often on short notice, from running errands for project supplies and library books, to delivering forgotten items to school, to taking up the slack on chores. Depending on the day, these mundane tasks seem more or less burdensome, but I know that doing them conveys love in a language that teenagers understand.
More challenging are the situations for which simple solutions are unavailable, like heartbreak over not getting the part or frustrations with a teacher. It is very difficult to witness your child’s distress and be powerless to affect it.
Tending to these physical and spiritual needs of my teenagers, I’ve learned that the morning darkness is in fact a necessity rather than a luxury. I simply must anchor myself if I am to provide any steadying influence for them.
During any upheaval, the best response for me is to sit in the silent dark and listen for inner wisdom.
When there were tensions in our daughter’s group of friends over plans for an upcoming dance, she felt very hurt by a close friend. Angry text messages were exchanged one evening, jeopardizing the relationship. I maintained relative calm with Kieran, but inside I was seething at this mean girl who had upset my child.
The next morning, ensconced in the nurturing darkness, I could allow the painful emotions to well up, elicit tears, and dissipate into a more rational viewpoint that naturally led into prayers for all the girls.
The light seeps over the horizon, and I’m ready for a new day.
. . .
Peg Conway is a writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
She is the author of Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth and blogs about life and faith at pegconway.com.
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.
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.
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.