He scatters the frost like ashes — Psalm 147:16
The first day of winter has passed. The descent is complete. Baptized into the darkness, creation emerges ready for the light to invade, gradually. Each day, the sun will shine a little longer.
Winter is a time of waiting. The seeds rest in their hulls. The trees, stand, tight-fisted, ready to unleash its leaves upon the emptied sky. The rattlesnakes brumate. The rock chucks hibernate. The birds and butterflies migrate.
And people labor on, asserting ourselves against nature, determined to dispel the darkness with abnormal activity and artificial light. Like Satan, we must roam the earth, going to and fro in it.
I’m reading The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton.
“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”
That was in 1948. Who knew we had the ability to be excited and strained even further? Who knew we would begin to, not only consume the products of our factories, but messages by the thousands?
We need more quiet. More death. In fact, we need to die, regularly, like the seasons. Annie Dillard writes that death of self is not a violent act.
“It is merely the slow cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter; it is waiting like a hollow bell with stilled tongue.”
If only we could give into this natural rhythm and rest awhile in the shadows. If we could embrace the silence and solitude like the old desert fathers. Then, we might experience a rebirth. From darkness to light. From death to life.
And undergo a purification. In the Old Testament, the unclean were purified by ashes and water. Here, my world has been entombed in hoarfrost. On my walks, every branch and blade has a coating of ice, outlined in poignancy. My walks are graveyard visits as I weave in and around the sepulchers hiding the once-living.
It is strange how death is not a thing in and of itself, but can only be expressed in relation to what it does to life. Encases it. Suffocates it. Ceases it. Beautifies it.
All is blanketed in a brilliant plague of killing frost, but when the sun is at its zenith, life glimmers like a prophecy. It crawls, flits, scampers across the landscape in a rebellion. The flocks of vesper and fox sparrows join with the ubiquitous house sparrows and flutter from one spiny bush to another. The flicker still shouts its “kyeer” and flies to the next tree with that odd, oscillating flight. And mobs of geese lift off into the air in formation with the violence of a resurrection.
A few weeks ago, I was startled by a Great Blue Heron flying in front of me and perching in a bedraggled locust tree in Dry Canyon. It looked strange against the background of cliffs, sagebrush and tumbleweeds.
These are disruptions of death.
And while death can only be expressed in relation to what it does to life, can life be recognized without a backdrop of death? Would spring be spring without winter?
I think not. There is no spring in the Amazon.
I plan to embrace the silence, solitude and waiting this winter will bring. And plan to be surprised by life and joy.
It’ll be in the disruptions — the repetitive humming of an old Britney Spears’ tune from my teenage daughter, an earworm that infects my brain for the rest of the night. Or my husband losing his wallet again, with my credit card in it. The carelessly thrown sock. Sigh. The spill at the dinner table. A 25-pound tortoise ramming the cupboards in our house (Good grief, Paul! What possessed you to bring home a reptile in the middle of winter?)
In the winter, when we’re forced together more because we’re all elbowing for the best seats by the fireplace — the disruptions increase, mount up, bubble over like a triumphant eruption of life in the face of all this winter’s rest. It’s glorious to behold.