I know that the killing freeze arrived later this year because I checked last year’s date in my journal. I understand that the cold air pouring in even as I type is, if anything, overdue, and yet I wish it had held off longer still.
Winter approaches, and I find myself afraid.
Most of the maple leaves have fallen, but the trees still wear a few. They look like dabs of watercolor paint. It is autumn’s last deep breath before the descent of winter’s gray veil.
Last winter was long, and the memory is still heavy. I love snow falling past the window, and I love pulling my children on a sled through the Christmas tree farm, but winter is not only that. Winter is also dark afternoons and ice in the chicken’s water and snow turned to mud.
We have all been sick for weeks, and I keep getting better only to get worse again. The baby’s eyes are red and infected, and our whole house shakes with bone-deep coughs.
I am too weary for bad news, I have kept the radio turned off, but terrible tidings slink in, like that draft around my office window. First there was a text from my friend. Such a devastating loss. A week later there was a phone call from family, and that one was so much worse.
They aren’t my stories to tell. Perhaps they aren’t stories at all. They are ruptures. Faultlines.
But you don’t need the details. I’m afraid you’ve heard them before. You, too, have received a text. You, too, have picked up that phone. These are the things that should never happen.
These are the stories every atheist mentions when he or she says they cannot, cannot believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God.
And I find I have no desire to argue with them. Such things should not happen. My atheist friends are absolutely right about that.
When the text came in, I started praying a prayer I’ve never prayed before. I think every true prayer is given, but the given-ness of this one was more apparent than most.
I prayed Let there be light.
I was still praying that prayer when the phone call came. And now I see no reason to stop. Lord, let there be some light. Dear God, please.
It is a winter prayer, and it beckons me toward spring promises:
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people …
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune.
– Isaiah 65:22-23
I want to believe that these words are true, but I am thinking of two mothers. One labored in vain. One bore a child doomed to misfortune. At least, that is what appears to be so.
But what if death was no more the end than winter is the end? What if these words are yet true for these mothers and their children? All hope seems lost, but maybe that is a lie.
After the cross came an empty tomb in a springtime garden.
Winter is near. They say it will be long and cold. I know for certain that it will be dark. But I also know that on the other side of winter is spring.
On the other side of death is life.
My youngest, not yet two years old, has begun to say her own name. She has been speaking of other things for quite some time. Important words like “shoe” and “mine” and “chicken.” But apparently one can live perfectly well for many, many months without feeling a pressing need to pronounce your own name.
But if I ask … if I say, “Elsa, where is Elsa?” then she will tap her own chest and say “Elsuh-suh.”
She is my fourth child. This means I am under no illusions. I know that even if I write the memory down in her baby book, even if I manage to capture phonetically the doubled sounds of her pronunciation, I will forget. A day will come, sooner than I imagine, when I will find myself unable to recall the particular cadence of my daughter, naming herself at not-quite-two.
This season, this brief summer at home with my children, seems built entirely of such small things. In five years, I doubt I will be able to recall anything of these weeks.
Scripture speaks repeatedly of a “fountain of life.” I am a mother, and I tend a garden. Raising babies and flowers, I have learned to seek that living, renewing water in things that would seem to be the most fleeting. The most temporary. I have learned that the most important things in life are only rarely weighty enough to settle permanently in our memories.
For instance, just when I had entirely forgotten them, the morning glories have returned. Green leaves and deep purple flowers are twining themselves around the spindles of the front porch. Each fall, the vines die. They die utterly, to the tips of their roots, but before the arrival of the first killing freeze, they scatter their seeds.
In early summer, those seeds sprout and stretch and reach for the same spindles of the same front porch. They are the most ephemeral of flowers. Yet, somehow, they are the most enduring. They are, in their way, eternal.
For years I sought eternity by keeping my arms wrapped tightly around solid things. Permanent things. Things known and understood. Things that were sure to last. These were the things I believed had eternal significance.
But years of mothering and years of gardening have taught me to look elsewhere. These years have taught me that I touch the far horizon of forever when I step forward into emptiness, seeking, like a twirling vine, for things unseen. Unknown. Imperfectly understood.
God our maker has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We reach for the far horizon of forever like those vines reaching for the home, the source, they have never actually touched.
It may be that eternity is the home of so many things I have forgotten or misplaced or failed even to notice.
Certainly, eternity is God’s home. The throne room of the One who counts hairs. Bottles tears. Holds sparrows as they fall.
I’ve written about my extended family before.
These are almost always stories of absence. The cousins we have yet to meet. The grandparents we too rarely hold. Family, for us, is always too much or too little.
I am a foreigner to my own family,
a stranger to my own mother’s children.
Our lives are stretched across too many time zones. My father has always said it is a good thing our country is not any larger because then we would only live farther apart. But with one sister’s imminent move to Hawaii, our country has suddenly grown much larger. And we will, indeed, live farther apart.
But summer days are reunion days, and through some miracle of spirit and frequent flier miles, we came together.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I have found this to be true. But now I know that absence grows other good fruit. Because the holes in our lives where family might be do not stay empty. These gaps and fissures turn out to be fertile ground for things like hospitality and community. Friendship and adventure. Without family to lean on, we become needy, but these needs are always met.
We come together and discover that we do not have less but so much more. We have family, and we have friends. We have family, and we have neighbors. We have family, and we have our communities. We have family, and we have life in abundance.
We have more.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.
“It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.”
(Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament)
We are, all of us, so hungry.
My children dream of sugar, and I crave hot, buttery toast. I spied the first white flowers in the strawberry bed, and now all I can think about is warm, rich red.
We hunger for food and drink. Not once or twice but every day with regularity, like well-loved timepieces. Our hunger is new every morning.
We hunger for touch and for love and for happiness. We hunger for purpose and meaning and beauty.
But we are so terrified of our appetites. So afraid of our hunger. Desire is a dirty word.
Maybe we are terrified by thoughts of sin and shame and selfishness. Maybe we are haunted by a fear of scarcity. My hunger is too big. There can never be enough.
But the Bread of Life has appeared to us, and he has told us: Do not be afraid.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
Our constant hunger bears the image of an even greater hunger. A beautiful, generative, truly terrifying hunger. This is the hunger that gave birth to spring. To stars. To nations.
Within the small boundaries of my own backyard fence, this hunger birthed wild, waving forsythia and two spinning daughters. Unleashed, this hunger envisioned nodding daffodils and wild violets that pour themselves out like a river.
This hunger spoke a tree so shocking, so pink, it burns my eyes like a sun.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
The sour cherry tree beyond my kitchen window is in bloom. The flowers are dainty. They are white ghosted with silvery green.
But the smell … it is nectar and roses and honey on the wind.
The air, like the breath of God himself, teases us. Tempts us. This is purposeful scent. This is devious scent. We can close our eyes and stop up our ears. We can harden our hearts with walls of fear, but the breeze slides past all of it.
And nectar and roses and honey say what are you hungry for?
What is your heart’s desire?
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce, “The Dead”
I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.
And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.
I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.
But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.
And this place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.
After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.
Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.
The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.
But I do not think we are always given that choice.
I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.
This is suffering unfinished.
I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.
And I wanted it finished.
As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.
We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.
This place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.