An Abundance of Life Shrouded by the Dormancy of Winter

Photo: Shaun C. Williams, Creative commons, some rights reserved https://www.flickr.com/photos/oceanstater/5479815772/in/photostream/

Although I may live in one of the tiniest houses in my suburban Chicago town, the best part about it is its location. What I didn’t realize or really even notice when my husband and I planted roots in our neighborhood sixteen years ago, just a mere two blocks away there exists an 19th century estate, surrounded by an old stone wall reminiscent of those found endlessly lining the lush green fields of Ireland. The best part of this property is that it is adjacent to a beautiful river and long ago was acquired by our county to become part of the forest preserve lands. It wasn’t until five years after moving in, when I took up running, that I first discovered the magical universe that resides on the other side of the stacks of crumbling limestone.

One spring afternoon, entering the preserve through an opening in the wall I had no idea the new world that was about to be opened up to me. The beauty was unbelievable and there was so much to discover—forests of enormous old trees, a plethora of enchanting wildlife, a perfectly manicured Japanese garden, interesting architectural structures and gates leading to paths along the river for miles and miles with bridges that connect to the other side. Crossing over to the Eastern shore, there are bubbling streams to be found which flow into and feed the river and an old windmill that sits high on a hill reminding all of days gone by.

Very quickly, it became apparent to me that this was my happy place and I couldn’t imagine how it was that I had lived without it for so many years of my life. On the days I was able to carve out time for a run, the very minute I crossed the street and entered the forest, it was as if the burdens of everyday life were lifted and I experienced a sense of freedom and deep connectivity. Here, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I felt able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here I felt able to connect deeply to the One who had, it seemed. created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. These encounters we had in this Cathedral of Creation returned me to myself and connected me to a sense of my purpose. Such extravagant displays of nature in spring, summer and autumn led me to embrace the belief in our collective belovedness before our Creator.

Though hibernation remained a daily temptation every winter, I sought to continue some semblance of an active running schedule throughout the cold days. My great sadness, however, was the forest paths became most difficult and treacherous to navigate. The fear of twisting an ankle or enduring another ice-related injury that could end my active life kept me playing it safe on the plowed and salted streets of town. These runs which led me past houses and cars and stores never provided the same sense of freedom and connectivity that my beloved forest and river always did. Running along the road adjacent to the forest preserve, I would peer lovingly at the trees inside the forest, longing to immerse myself in their shelter and glory. I dreamed of the first days of spring when I could once again breach the wall and find all to be well with my soul.

This past fall, as colder and shorter days were approaching, I knew I needed to figure out a way to continue to immerse myself in this Cathedral of Creation even throughout the winter. There were some new challenges I was facing on the daily and without the perspective so generously imparted by the immersion in nature, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with them. After much thought, research and reflection, I made the decision to bring my running inside to the gym a few days a week and committed myself to walking outside a couple more. It is surprisingly easy to stay warm while running outside in the winter, but walking the 5 1/2 mile loop was an entirely different reality. It took a lot longer and seemed much colder. After some experimentation with layers, I finally figured out my standard configuration of warm gear and set out for a new adventure into a winter of walking in my happy place.

At first glance, the winter landscape seemed quite monochromatic and uninspiring to me. The shades of blah found in dead leaves and mud and faded wet grass were rather underwhelming. As a girl who has always been most captivated by the sea of colors liberally furnished by spring, summer and autumn, this was quite an adjustment. However, the more days I have spent walking the river path, my eyes have adjusted to see more clearly the subtle abundance of life shrouded in the dormancy of winter. And although there is a different energy found in nature at other times of the year, immersed in this winterscape, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly than when cooped up in my tiny house.

On one particularly difficult day in December, I found myself burdened with the weight of worry over my daughter’s current situation. Feeling quite helpless and unsure of what I could do to move her forward, I set out on one of my winter walks. A light layer of snow covered the trees and natural grasses that line the pathway. Coming into my focus was a tree with several buds springing forth from its many branches. Never before had I noticed this occurrence on trees in the winter, but I did on this particular day. It signaled to me that even though the worst of winter hadn’t yet come, and it would be many months before these buds would swell and flower, an abundance of life is promised to spring forth from this tree in due time. “So it is with your daughter” the still, small voice whispered deep within my heart. During subsequent bouts with fear and doubt, I have returned to those words time and again, believing that despite a time of dormancy, her time to blossom is coming. I need not try to cajole or force the growth, but instead, wait in joyful hope.

In January, after the wind had died down from a storm, I couldn’t wait to go outside into the freshly fallen snow. Much to my delight, as I entered into the forest, mine were the only human footprints to be seen. Yet all around were big footprints and little footprints and all the sizes in between. The wildlife who call this place home were quite busy, out and about, not allowing the storm to stop them. I felt privileged to join them and sensed a oneness as together we enjoyed the pure and clean covering which made everything seem new. Along the way I laughed at the goose footprints, triangular, clever and intelligently designed! For a while I followed the prints of what looked to belong to a raccoon. It had walked for over a mile down the very middle of the trail, out in the wide open, before veering off into the woods. I felt amused by the fearlessness of this creature in the absence of humanity, as if it was strutting down the runway at a forest fashion show. The elements of pure whimsy I observed in the aftermath of a winter’s snow filled me with deep and childlike joy. As I returned the way I had came and saw that mine still remained the only human footprints, I felt so blessed to experience such solitude in the midst of my busy life.

During a string of recent walks there remained a backdrop of gloomy and grey skies, without as much as a wink from the sun. In the absence of bright light or color, I began to notice the shapes and textures that surrounded me. There were the branches, unencumbered by leaves, showing off their naked and unique artistry. Some were wide and curvy. Others were narrow and straight. The river, it too was displaying its many different looks. In certain places along the journey it was frozen and placid. In others it was unfrozen and flowing with a gentle and soothing sound. At the end of my expedition, it could be seen showing off tall waves with peaks preserved in icy motion by the biting winds. Being awakened to all of these exhibitions of abundant life returned me to myself. It reminded me of the complexity of beauty there is to discover in each and every person, even those we would normally overlook, if we but pay close attention.

Stepping outside for my walk today, I was gleefully greeted by the bluest of skies and the warm glow of the sun. The slushy, melting snow yielded to each step I took and at times revealed the black asphalt of the path underneath. The faint taste of the earliest days of spring was in the air and I walked with a lightness in my stride. Basking in the warmth felt especially amazing and life-giving. After such incredible encounters this winter in the Cathedral of Creation, I felt pregnant with the expectation of what today’s experience would provide. Rounding my way through the boardwalks on the peninsula found at my halfway mark, I paused to gaze out at the river.

Hand in hand they entered the covered gazebo just behind me. A grandfather and his granddaughter who looked to be about 3 years old were joining me at the same lookout point. Peeking out from the top of his zip front jacket was her well-loved teddy bear, along for the adventure. Though I was close by, all he saw was her. He looked at her with incredibly deep love, as if she was the best thing that ever happened to him. “Look at them! Do you see them?” he said excitedly as he pointed at the river. “They’re Canadian Geese,” he explained with great joy. Then he picked her up and put her on his shoulder so she could get a better look. “There’s hundreds of them!” he exclaimed. “Can you hear them?” he asked. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, she responded with a resounding “Yes!”

In this moment it is all so clear to me the loving exchange I had just witnessed between this child and her grandfather is the same one I have been having all winter with my Creator. He looks at me with eyes who see a beloved child. He keeps lifting me up and giving me a higher vantage point with which to view more clearly all that has been made so intentionally. He keeps drawing my attention to the abundance of life to be found all around me, even though it might seem to be shrouded by the dormancy of winter. “Look! Do you see? he says excitedly. Can you hear? he asks. Here in this moment, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here in this moment, I feel able to connect deeply to the One who has, it seems, created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, I respond with a resounding “Yes!”

When What We Consume Consumes Us

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Aday or two before the dreaded time change back in the beginning of November, I threw out a few questions to my Facebook friends in regards to how to face the dreaded darkness that was about to descend upon us:  What are your most successful coping strategies for adjusting and thriving? Or even just surviving? Is it just me or does this just seem to get harder every year? I am happy to report, my FB Friends did not disappoint and I received nearly twenty responses full of empathy and helpful suggestions. I waded through them all to find the common denominators and made my mind up to incorporate a few into my daily and weekly routine: Up my intake of Vitamin D; check! Take walks outside in nature; check! Get to the gym on the regular; check! Eat more nutritionally dense foods; check! As the days shortened in November and December, I honestly felt as if my newly incorporated practices were making for a better season than I had anticipated. I was thriving and productive…at least until January rolled around.

The Dawn of a New Decade: 2020

Returning home after work in the permeating gray gloom on most days and the darkness on others, all I could bring myself to do after crossing the threshold of the front door was to greet my family of humans and felines, change into my most comfortable pair of sweats and plop myself down on the sofa. From that point in the evening, the struggle to keep myself awake became the all-consuming challenge for the few hours until 8 p.m. or so. At that time, I could somehow justify to myself that it was time for bed. (Before you judge me, you should probably know that one of my cats does make a pretty forceful attempt to wake me at 3:30 a.m. each day ; )

In my nightly pursuit of alertness, I quickly discovered that if I tried to crack open the cover of one of the fifteen or so books I have in the TO READ pile next to my sofa, within a couple of pages not even toothpicks propped in my open eyes could keep my eyelids from closing. The thought of getting up to cook or clean or God forbid, leave the house to go shopping, was WAY too overwhelming to even consider. On most nights, my ace-in-the-hole go-to solution to stay awake was to consume the high adrenaline producing news of the day. With a simple click of the remote, I could get ticked off enough by the reporting of national political shenanigans to get my 2-3 hour buzz of wakefulness to cross the finish line until my 8 p.m bedtime. In the absence of any other truly meaningful productivity in my life outside of work, subconsciously I had convinced myself that becoming an angry couch activist who was tempted to hate certain politicians with every new bombshell of a story, was a good and worthwhile undertaking.

February: A Light LITERALLY Shines in the Darkness

January 2020 will go down tied with January 1914 as the third gloomiest on record. The Chicago area was officially just four minutes shy of nine straight days without sun thanks to a brief break in the clouds Friday morning.”

CHICAGO (WLS)

After what felt like an eternal stretch of time without sunshine, about a week ago, the golden ball in the sky finally reappeared. Almost instantly, I felt reinvigorated. And with several days of light following the first one, shining into the darkest recesses of my psyche, the idea is beginning to occur to me that maybe, just possibly, the very thing I was consuming nightly during the past month has really been consuming me and not in any sort of positive way.

Why is it that I am so quick to give my power away to those who anger me for making the most vulnerable among us feel powerless and afraid? Why do I allow these individuals to make me into someone I don’t want to be? Why would I give anyone the power to make me hate them when a hateful and spiteful person is not who I want to become in this world?

In a recent interview I heard with Ruby Sales, an African-American social justice activist, she explained how the enslaved created spirituals to sing to remind them of the power they each had, even in the midst of slavery. I was especially captivated about what she had to say about hatred as addressed in one of the spirituals she was taught, “I Love Everybody in My Heart”:

“You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

She went on to explain the difference between redemptive anger and non-redemptive anger:

Well, first of all, as you’ve just pointed out, love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

With this dawning revelation, I entered the pew on Saturday night to worship and be inspired by the words of the Scriptures, instead of being agitated by non-redemptive angry words found in tweets and reactionary news stories and ugly back and forth discourse on social media. I longed to be reminded that I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. What I heard was life-giving and affirming. It caused me to recall the kind of person I want to become and the simple, yet challenging actions I can take which will lead me there.

Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own…then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed…If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Isaiah 58:7, 8a, 9b-10

What became crystal clear to me that night is that by devouring the national news of polarization and vitriol, I have been allowing forces beyond my control to paralyze me in a state of non-redemptive anger, effectively devouring my ability to become an active participant in creating a community in which the vulnerable are cared for, where the marginalized are lifted up and all are treated with dignity.

Moving Forward in a Year of Election

There is a common theme that runs through the teachings of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that has always remained a difficult one for me to embrace. Many of her most quotable moments are summed up in this one:

It is easy to love the people far away.  It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

On a recent return trip home from my early morning coffee run, I spied them. Mother and teenage son, walking on our street, bundled up in heavy layers in the pre-dawn darkness of a snowy and cold winter’s day. As my car grew closer, the outline of the tool in their hands grew clearer. Each of them was walking in opposite directions from their house, carrying a shovel with which to clear the driveways and walkways of elderly neighbors on our block.

Such a simple view of how we can make a difference in our world each day is not exciting, it isn’t adrenaline producing, nor does it ignite a sense of righteousness and need to feel important. Instead, loving those close to me is hard. It is humbling. It is self-sacrificial. Many times it doesn’t lead to any sort of special acknowledgment. In my experience these acts of love in my home and neighborhood and workplace don’t energize me, but more often times deplete me. Yet as I am promised by my Creator and shown by the examples of people in my lifetime, these simple ways of channeling my redemptive anger will effectively build up and transform those in my family, in my local community and ultimately in my world. They will even change me.

Each vote in the upcoming election, though an action of great importance, a right earned for us through the sacrifices of many brave men and women throughout the ages, remains but a tiny ripple of influence in a world ripe for a revolution of civility, kindness and redemptive love. However, I realize that in these remaining months before the election, I can pray for the courage and strength to choose what remains mine to choose every single day, now and forever.

May I choose acts of transforming love over acts of non-redemptive anger and hatred. May I choose to share my bread with the hungry instead of sharing vitriolic articles on social media about my adversaries. May I choose to shelter the oppressed instead of oppressing those with whom I disagree. May I choose to clothe the naked with dignity, instead of stripping the humanity from those whom I don’t trust. May I choose to support my own family and friends, even when we don’t see eye to eye on how things should be. And may the love I choose to preserve be that which preserves me. For it is then, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Good Day, Sunshine!