Yesterday, there was softly falling snow. Today, there is a hard rain hurling itself against the windowpane.
In my ears, the quiet shush of snow has always sounded like the voice I most want to hear. It has always seemed like the embrace of the One who is so often hidden from us.
But if the snow whispers I Am, this rain screams Why? Why? Why?
It is the unanswerable question the world keeps on asking. Why do terrible things happen? Why did this terrible thing happen?
To be honest, it’s a question I don’t want answered. At least not yet. If there is an answer, I know that I am not ready to hear it. The only question I feel able to ask is this: what happens next?
What comes after the nightmare?
The answer I’ve considered this week has surprised me. I am not sure why that is when I have felt it before. For me, what comes after the nightmare is a strange sort of peace.
I once watched my son begin to die in a suburban Florida frozen yogurt shop. Two bites in to his dairy-free frozen treat and some trace contamination caused his throat to swell shut. I realized what was happening in the same second that I realized I had forgotten to carry his epi-pen.
A stranger in that shop saved my son’s life when she pulled an epi-pen junior from her purse. She had curly, red hair and two kids by her side. I struggled to uncap the pen because my hands would not stop shaking.
My son recovered so quickly he didn’t even need to ride in the ambulance that arrived a few minutes later. But it took me longer to recover. It took a long time for my hands to stop shaking and an even longer time to realize that all the fear I had carried since my son’s first allergic reaction was gone.
I felt sad and guilty and shaky, but I was no longer afraid. I understood that I could never keep my son perfectly safe. I understood that life and death are so much bigger than I am. So much bigger even than the love a mother has for her child, and that both, life and death, are held in someone else’s hands.
Today, again, I am sad and shaky. Today, again, I feel guilty. Before, I felt guilty and ashamed because I had risked my son’s life through forgetfulness. Now, though I recognize it isn’t logical, I feel guilty that I still have a husband. That my children still have a father in their house.
But I am not afraid.
I no longer think that losing my husband or even my child to death would be the end of me. I could lose even this house, this hilltop where I have planted so much of myself, and still go on. I have seen how it is possible to smash into a thousand pieces yet remain, not happy, certainly, not well, or whole, but held. Sustained. I have seen how God carries us through the very thing we imagine we cannot endure.
It is written, “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). I have read those words and imagined this love like something familiar, something sweet like the candy hearts my children have been eating for days. But fear is powerful. Enormous. It takes a very big love to drive it out.
I don’t know if this love causes terrible things.
I don’t know if this love allows terrible things.
All I know is I cannot look at the terrible thing without also seeing love.
I hate the sound of this driving rain. I don’t like the questions it is stirring up. But though I still long for the comforting blanket of yesterday’s snow, I am grateful for any rain that washes all my fears away.
I am grateful to be where I am. Here, in the churning, foaming center of a great river of peace.
Our first serious snowfall arrived the day before Thanksgiving.
The day began with rain. I left the house early to meet a friend for coffee and prayer, and the rain was already running in rivers. They said the rain would turn to snow mid-morning, yet that is a miracle I am always reluctant to believe without seeing. They were right. At ten in the morning, as I sat writing in one of the third-floor attic bedrooms, the rain turned quietly to snow.
Within minutes the golden-brown leaves still piled on our lawn were dusted with snow. Within an hour, the whole world had changed. Autumn had disappeared, buried beneath a new, wintry world.
My children had an early release from school for the holiday. I was standing at the parlor window, watching for them to come walking the long length of our driveway, when I heard it. A rumble. Like a heavy truck. But the rumble grew and cracked and broke into pieces, and I recognized it for what it was.
Thunder. A long, rolling river of thunder.
Every year since I began writing this website, I have blogged daily during Advent. During the rest of the year, I struggle to post regularly once each week. But those Advent seasons of daily writing have been my favorite seasons. The intensity of those days, the witnessing and the telling, have changed me. They have also changed my life.
I began this discipline of daily Advent blogging because I was desperate. Desperate for something new and good in my life. Desperate for more. I ached and yearned and waited, and I wrote about it. I tried to anchor my own story in The Story. That January I found out I was pregnant. I’d had no idea what I was aching for, but Elsa Spring is, as her name suggests, new and good and as beautiful as a long-anticipated spring.
The second year I was weighed down by a gray post-partum fog. I was sure I had nothing to say. But God showed himself and gave me words. And in January the fog was finally rolled back. I was myself again. I knew happiness again.
The third year, I was sure I couldn’t do it. I had not had time to pre-plan a single post. I kept my eyes wide open, and I scratched out a few words each night. And God showed up. I woke every day feeling empty, and I went to bed every night having been given the story for that day.
In January, my long, vague dream of writing a book crystalized unexpectedly. Just after Epiphany, a book idea dropped, fully formed, into my head. And, in another year, that book will show up in bookstores.
You would be right if you guessed that I approach Advent with not a small amount of fear and trembling.
Advent is a journey. And it changes us. It is a season of quiet beauty and gentle expectation, but it can roll over our lives like thunder. Sit. Watch. Wait. There is no telling what you might see.
Two thousand years ago, the whole world changed. And it goes on changing. There is always, always something new.
This year, I am deep in words for my book. For the first time, I have had to admit that I cannot blog every day of Advent. But I have not wanted to give it up. Instead, I have asked a few of my writer friends to join me here. I’ll be sharing their Advent reflections with you this season. I’ll also be showing up with Saturday book recommendations and a special food-themed Christmas giveaway.
And I pray, however you observe Advent, that it will be as beautiful as the first snowfall of the season. I pray that it will rock the earth beneath your feet like thunder.
You were a child, and they wanted only the best for you. So they told you your heart was deceitful. They told you that every desire was only a misplaced desire for Him.
They spoke the (partial) truth in love, and you took their words to heart. Those words kept you safe. They kept you on a narrow way, and you will always be grateful for that.
But Jesus never promised safety; He promised abundance. The abundant life is a wide-awake life, and it is anything but safe.
Infertility was unexpected. It was a hammer blow to your heart, and when your heart cracked open something precious and dangerous slipped out.
First one and then one more. And just when you thought that was all, convinced you’d closed the box up tight, even more would come leaking out. We were made to be deep water, but you were terrified when you first glimpsed the depths of your desiring self.
You wanted, and you wanted fiercely. You wanted a baby of your own. And when that miracle baby was born you asked for more.
There are three things that are never satisfied, / four that never say, ‘Enough!’: / the grave, the barren womb, / land, which is never satisfied with water, / and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ (Proverbs 30:16).
Babies were only the beginning. You wanted to earn that PhD. You wanted to live in the big city. You wanted to read poetry on green Irish cliffs.
You wanted to live a life that mattered. You wanted to create. You wanted to be loved.
Fiery desire had been unleashed. You held your hands to the flames, and you were consumed.
God gave you the babies. God gave you the degree. God gave you poetry in Ireland, and God gave you love.
But God wanted to give you more. So He took you to the wilderness.
You cried every day for two years, Lord I want to go home. Lord I have no home. Lord I want to go home. Please, oh please, take me home.
When God led you through the desert to the farmhouse on the hill, you heard again the message given by those well-meaning Christians all those years ago.
It is true that all desire is misleading.
Desire isn’t necessarily wrong (though it might be). It isn’t necessarily sinful (though it might be). Desire is misleading because, if God-given, it leads you somewhere unexpected.
The babies bring joy, but they grow so quickly and every day they slip just a little further from your arms. The PhD sharpened you, but it didn’t provide the career you imagined. The house is a dream-come-true, the garden is your canvas, but the work is relentless and you do not have what it takes.
Those things do not satisfy completely but wanting them was never wrong. Those dreams were planted in you by God himself and in reaching for them you found something better – someone better – than any dream-come-true.
Sitting in the deep recess of the old parlor window, you notice the snow beginning to dust your hilltop. Stepping outside, snowflakes tap-dancing on your cheeks, you feel a great longing well up in your heart.
This is a familiar feeling. For years, you could see some clear thing whenever you felt it. A child. Or an accomplishment. Or a garden of your own. But you have come home and what is there left to want? What is the object of this longing and where will it lead?
Perhaps the snowflakes blur your vision just enough to help you see. Because it is here – in the snow on the hilltop – that you finally glimpse the truth. Yes, the farmhouse on the hill is a gift, God-given, but it is only the shadow of your true home.
Now you understand that God is, that he has always been, leading you home to himself.
I love winter. I love snow.
I love them for themselves, but, let’s be honest, I love that they give me more time for my books.
Is your driveway buried in as much snow as mine? Here are a few books perfect for snowy days.
Now, if only the library delivered …
(You can find all my Saturday book recommendations here and some explanation about my use of affiliate links.)
Lately, I’ve kept my nose buried in seed and plant catalogs rather than books. I open one up determined to find just the right cucumber for pickling and within minutes I am planning a quarter-acre rose garden. These catalogs are just a little dangerous for me.
Almost the only thing with the power to pull me away from the catalogs (and the daydreams) is a book by Louise Penny. Her Chief Inspector Gamache detective novels are my new favorite thing. One by one, I am devouring them. I’ve started treating them like chocolate. I am always greedy for more, but I’m desperately concerned I’ll run out.
Yes, they are that good.
You’ll want to begin with the first: Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Mysteries, No. 1). Today, I’m reading # 6: Bury Your Dead: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel. These books just keep getting better.
Number Six is perfect snow day reading. Inspector Gamache is wandering the snowy streets of old Quebec City, and it is Winter Carnival time. Everything that makes this series so special is present and accounted for: a charming and brave hero, tangled mysteries, delicious food and drink (I can’t read one of these books without craving fresh-baked croissants and creamy cafe au lait), history, spirituality, and a beautiful setting.
Have I mentioned I love these books?
Another book I love is Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. I’d never read this one before December, but, like one of my favorite book bloggers, I plan to reread it every December from now on.
This novel is beautifully written but easy to read. It is deeply thoughtful but light and fun. It is set in Scotland. There’s a snowstorm. The characters are wonderful.
And the ending? Beautiful.
Here is a book for the little skiers and sledders: It’s Snowing! by Olivier Dunrea. This sweet little picture book captures the joy of a mama and her baby playing in the snow. It’s simple and lovely and quiet, and I love it very much.
I bought it while living in Florida and just about cried the first time I read it, but now? I read it with a smile on my face.
Tell me, which books keep you company in winter?
Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
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. – “The Dead”
Find earlier recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.