Winter Into Spring

We are on the downhill slide of the endurance race that is weathering a Kentucky winter. So far we have experienced a couple of half-inch snows, disappointing in their brevity and depth. Really, they were hardly worth the hot chocolate and chili we threw at them.

A quick peek at the prediction for the first two weeks in March is just plain disheartening in its monotony—mid-forties, some fifties, cloudy, rainy, a little dip into the thirties, some shower/rain events, and so it goes for as far as the eye can see.

Or as far as the eye cares to look.

This is that weird, not-quite-any season that takes hold along about now, and it is hard to take most years, but this year I am taking it harder than usual. I am one of the lucky ones who likes winter and when there comes a big snow, I am excused from showing up at work. I suppose I might feel differently about it if I had to rise extra early, struggle into a parka and gloves, a hat, boots, scrape the car, slide around, curse the cold.

I get to watch snow from a window, hands wrapped around a coffee mug, Netflix screen saver bouncing around on the TV. I might stick my head out the back door and pant as I try to see my breath, and if I manage it, I run back inside and congratulate myself on being so hardy, what with my prairie stock genetics and all.

But this late winter we have had rain, rain, and then some rain. A few frigid days—dangerously cold and frightening—and then, for fun, more rain. And now I gaze glumly at the forecast and see little hope of that last ditch snow, and likewise no promising signs of spring.

How shall we cope with these last days of winter? Surely it will be just days, a couple of weeks at most—before we get glimpses of spring, some faint hint of budding in the yard, a return of birdsong, that awareness, all of a sudden, that yes, the days are getting longer.

I like my signs obvious, even when I am too dense to catch on right away.

A few years back, on one of my trips with Caritas College of Social Work colleagues, we traveled to the Monastery Želiv, where we stayed overnight for a spiritual retreat and then some meetings. It is a beautiful place and they run a successful monastery hotel and restaurant, and where, as luck would have it, they also brew their famous unpasteurized beer.

It is made as it was in the 1300s, and we took a tour of the surprisingly small one-man operation. The beer is brewed in three or four different alcohol contents and we were served generous and redundant samples as we sussed out our favorite. After such taxing work, we decided to take a short walk through the village to clear our heads and enjoy the landscape.

Martin, always the taker of the longest strides, led the way, pointing out trees, details of architectural interest, infrastructure and other things. He stopped at the small wooden fence separating us from a family dwelling, and pointing into the back yard he said,

“Look. Spring.”

I didn’t get it. It was a gray afternoon, threatening rain, and cold. I saw upturned buckets, the ghost of a garden plot, outdoor furniture scattered about.

“No, look. Spring. Mama sees spring.”

There, almost invisible in the grayness of the afternoon, was a clothesline stretched between two slanting and rickety posts. Marching across it were sets of mittens, a dozen or more small mittens to large ones, waving winter goodbye. Then came the gloves, still waving, and finally woolen hats and scarves, fluttering in the damp.

The Czechs seem to me a cold-natured bunch, bundled up at the first little drop of temperature, their homes and offices baking chambers of nice steam heat, students blowing on their hands to warm them and scarves wrapped to their ears in sweater weather. The good Czech mother must have been certain about the approach of spring for surely she would not have snatched her family’s woolens prematurely.

So, you see, a sign. Perhaps our signs of spring are lurking, just there, waiting for us to notice. Something tangible but subtle, a promise and adieu, winter into spring, as easily as that.

Lententide

I was raised a Southern Baptist, attending the church my grandmother helped get off the ground, and we went every Sunday morning, after studying our Sunday school lessons the night before.

I was a fierce Sword Drill competitor, as I knew all the books of the Bible, more or less in order. I either won or came in a close second, and if I failed to place in either of these positions, I refreshed and renewed my skills at night, under the covers, with my Bible and my Girl Scout flashlight.

On Sunday mornings my dime for the offering plate scooted around inside my white glove, and it usually stayed there. Sometimes, though, because the cold metal felt so strange and lovely wiggling back and forth, that I ended up waving, then flapping, my hand to such a degree that the dime escaped and flew out, never to be seen again.

I sang in the beginner choir, graduated to junior, and eventually anchored the alto row in the time of “Pass it On!” and Easter cantatas. But we did not observe Lent.
Lent is rooted in the Christian tradition, and all major world religions have a similar tradition of fasting and self-sacrifice, spiritual contemplation and introspection. There are specifics to each tradition’s fasting, differing from each other, of course, but all with the intent of bringing about a state of cleansing and purifying, of mind, body, spirit.

Growing up I had friends who would give things up for Lent. In adolescence these sacrifices often looked suspiciously like efforts to clear up bad skin or to look better in a swimsuit come spring break, which often occurred sometime in April at just about Easter time. Abstaining from chocolate, cokes, and bread seemed to serve purpose quite nicely.

I played at giving something up for Lent because I didn’t want to be left out, but my offering was as shallow as everyone else’s seemed to be. I also had an escape hatch when I abandoned my half-hearted attempt as soon as it got difficult. All I had to say to myself was “we don’t really do that,” and I was off the hook.

The fast and the sacrifice, as I understand it, is supposed to get our attention in a significant way, to deprive the physical in order to point us in the direction of the spiritual. It is not, strictly speaking, a plan to jumpstart the cessation of bad habits—smoking, cussing, and the like.

Even so, some make the case that “fasting” from gossip, backbiting, social media and Netflix may be also be appropriate, if these activities are poisoning our spirits or our relationships.

The goal, I guess, is to stop—just stop—and pay attention, and denying ourselves something that feels essential is one way to do it. Every time we feel the pang of that denial, we remind ourselves of something bigger than ourselves.

We practice intention.

We practice reflection.

Contemplation.

Growing up, we would have called this practice prayer.

Mathew tells us not to moan and groan and carry on, making a big deal of our fasting, or our praying, either. Not to make a show of ourselves doing it. We never got that message, sitting around the lunch table at Southern Junior High, dramatically moaning about the last time we had M&M’s or Coca-Cola, or tater tots.

I don’t know, maybe it is my age, or just the age in which I find myself. So much in the world seems overwhelming and out of control. And by that I mean out of my control, which is all sorts of hubris, I know. Even so, it is unsettling.

I attend a church now that practices Lent and I would like to more fully take part in the service.There is something ancient and mysterious about Lent, and Ramadan, and Yom Kippur, and any of the other religious and spiritual traditions like these.

I will think about all this in the next forty days as I go quietly about Lent. Always the educator, I suppose I will research it some more, will contrast and compare this tradition with the fasting and self-sacrifice traditions of other religions. Or maybe that isn’t the point.  Maybe the point–which is harder than it sounds–is to just be quiet.

As the season slowly changes and brings with it new life and color and renewal, out there for us to see, I will be looking inward, too, searching for signs of renewal and color and the awareness that comes from sitting still and paying attention.