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Tag: winter

longest night: the blessing of december’s darkness

prayer for new year

amid the darkness, this flickered in this morning’s dawn. it’s a gift for the turning of season, winter’s solstice, the longest darkest night, when we need to look deep to find the light within….

“Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. And, in the northern hemisphere, December’s darkness invites us inward. A lesson in wonder, an elegy for light, and a call to pay attention for the unbroken darkness of a December night.”

so begins the gift i stumbled on this morning, one i share with you here. the words above are the introduction to an essay i wrote on the blessing of december’s darkness…

and here’s a bit of the back story: a couple weeks ago, i wrote here about my quivering knees as i was about to get up to a squawky microphone in a glorious downtown chicago old-guard club, the union league club, to say a few things about the gifts of the darkness, december’s darkness. ever since, i’ve been wanting to bring to the table the words i spoke on that first friday of advent. but i’ve been patiently waiting. i’d been given an inkling that a wish might come true, and those words might be posted online at OnBeing, the home of blessed krista tippett, and glorious trent gilliss, who fill the NPR airwaves and cyberspace with wisdom, and contemplative truths. they ask big questions, and mine the landscape searching for answers, or lamplights, along the way.

this morning, with some measure of astonishment, i found the essay, indeed posted in the public square that is OnBeing, the words beautifully draped in breath-taking images. you can find the words and pictures if you click on the link to the essay they’ve titled, “The Invitation of December.”

or, you can read along here, where i’ve unfurled the essay. (i say click the link, because OnBeing has made it so very pretty….)

The Invitation of December

By Barbara Mahany (as posted on OnBeing, the blog)

There is something about December, all right. And I call it a gift.

It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment.

It’s dark all right, come December, month of the longest night, when minute by minute our dot on the globe is darkening. Today, December 21st, darkness shrouds all but nine hours — give or take a few minutes and seconds — of mainland America’s hustle and bustle.

Yet darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention. And mine is a lonely outpost.

December, most everyone else complains, is unbroken darkness. And they’re grinding their teeth when they say it. The way I see it, though, maybe the saddest thing is, we’ve blinded ourselves to the darkness. Cut ourselves off from the God-given ebb and the flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow, measured in lumens per square foot. But, mostly, it’s lost on us — bright lights, big city.

Fact is, we live in a lightbulb world: LED, CFL, halogen, fluorescent — blaring, glaring, blinking 24/7, especially in modern-day December. When’s the last time you tiptoed out your kitchen door, or onto a fire escape, and took in the sky show? It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lesson in wonder.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, the intellect and the imagination.

Consider how attuned you are to sound and touch and danger when it’s late at night and you can’t find the light switch, and you’re groping your way up an unfamiliar staircase. Or, you’re out in the woods trying to clomp from sleeping bag to gosh-darned outhouse without falling into the brambles — or the icy-cold creek.

The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled ‘round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counter-culturism, and do not succumb.

Plug your ears the next time you hear Muzak Jingle Bells. Instead, fill your iPhone with Gregorian Chant or the 12th century symphonia of mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Be in the cave. Away from the crowd.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday. Look to Jesus, for starters. Bread and wine, everyday agrarian foodstuffs, he made into the most sacred sacramental feast.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Ditch fast food. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

A dear friend of mine laughs about being a person of “smells and bells,” and by that he means a certain affinity for the burning of incense and chiming of carillons. The candle, the tintinnabulation of the bells, it sets off a deep-down stirring in a Catholic or an Anglican of certain age, it echoes of our not-so-distant past. And what I love about the coining of that phrase, “the smells and the bells,” when I pause and really think about it, is that it reminds me that deep in the heart of our spiritual DNA, we are hard-wired to respond to the liturgical, to pulse with reverence at a life lived sacramentally, slowly, marveling at the magnificence, yes, at each and every turn.

Maybe we’re most purely and purposefully alive when we turn our backs to — press against — a guzzled-down life that pays no attention, that goes with the flow, that “kills a few hours,” that takes it — all of it, any of it — for granted.

And why? Why are we screeching the brakes, dialing down all the noise? Why are we ardently not joining in on a December punctuated by office-party folderol, and speed-dial shopping, and holiday cards canon-balled out of the printer, without so much as a touch of the human hand?
Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, “Please. Come. Closer.” Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg — finally —to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the Great Horned Owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I.

Maybe, so do you.

And December, at the cusp of winter, season of fury and stillness, December demands our attention. It is a month draped in myth and legend. It is a month that rings with the power of the simplest story, the one we wait for — childlike, rapt, noses pressed to the window, scanning the heavens for bright and shining light.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths in which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath.

glories bush at night

red on white

i couldn’t wait.

so, despite my achy tired bones, i was up before the sun, nose pressed against the glass, keeping watch.

we were graced last night. blanketed in the holy lull that is the first snowfall. before the neighbors cranked the snow machines. before the whir that shattered all the silence, the cloak of somnolent seasonal reprieve.

there was not a bird in sight. not the flutter of a wing. not a branch shaking from the wisp of weight that is a bird landing, taking shelter under piney bough.

if i wanted action at the feeders, and i dearly deeply did, there was work to be done. so off slipped the slippers, on went the boots. up zipped the puffy snowcoat. on slid the thick-wooled mittens.

i shoveled my sorry path, apologizing to the snow all along the way, hating to disrupt the plane of white.

but if a girl is going to make it to the feeder with her coffee can of seed, a girl needs a place to clomp her boots. and after many years of analyzing such maneuvers i’ve decided i prefer the neat line of a shoveled path (not really) to the scattershot and hyphenated punctuation of snowboot holes all along the way.

i’ve learned that i’m the only fool in my house who likes unmarred snow, and sooner or later the rest of the house will awake, will need to get to school, to work, and if the line of shoveled path isn’t there, they’ll just go and make a whirly mess of it. so i might as well cut my losses and cut the path.

i can always pretend it’s an alpine trail.

when at last i got out to where the feeders dangle, i chuckled in the early morning light. for the feeder nearly groaned under the weight of a good eight inches of crusted-over snow. there was barely a quarter-inch left for seed, so i dumped it right atop the snow mound, and figured this morning the birds would get some ice chunks with their sunflower.

and sure enough, by the time i’d turned and tromped back to the door, there was fluttering. there was sparrow, followed by nuthatch, followed by the whole crowd of cardinals.

once again, my world was white shot through with trumpet blasts of red.

there is, perhaps, no finer color contrast on the planet. or if there is, i’ve not yet felt it surge my heart in the way that scarlet-coated cardinal does on the first snow of the winter.

i wait all year for this, the hush of snowfall. the flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and all its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow, first snow. when at last the whole wide winter world takes in a breath, and holds it. fills its empty lungs. takes in the special brand of oxygen that comes inside fat flakes.

and then we wait for the animation to follow. the birds, first. much later, the squirrels. and long after that, the cat who gets brave enough at last to put paws to white stuff. to hop and dart and make like a real-live scaredy cat, so confused, bewildered, by the snow.

it’s the sort of rare and blessed day that makes me wrap up inside a blanket. makes me crank the stove and simmer something aromatic all day long (cinnamon and clove this morning, leek and garlic later in the day). makes me want to venture no farther than where my rubber boots can take me. makes me contemplate the canister of flour and the cubes of yeast. deep in the recesses of my brain, snow days and bread baking are synonymous.
i could use a snow day after this long week (with or without the bread).

how perfect that the skies conspired to bring me the very answer to my prayers.

red on white. and white as far as i can see.

it’s just the thing to set things right.

i should have let the picture do all the talking today. wouldn’t that be rash? wouldn’t it be wise…..
are you celebrating all the snow? what do snow days trigger inside of you?

storm’s comin’

i don’t even need to turn on the news to hear the squawkin’ ’bout the weather. don’t really need to turn to the back page of the newspaper, the one with all the arrows and the polka-dotted map and the adjectives to scare the dickens out of any sorry soul who’s lost her woolen mittens.

all’s i have to do is look to where the sky is turning marbled gray, the color of the pigeons who, right now, are gobbling up all the seed that they can wrestle in their beaks.

or, before the pigeons came, shooshed away the cardinals and the jays and all the sparrows, there was the buzz in the grocery line. you can tell a lot about the day looking at what is rolling down the check-out belt.

today there was not a lot of fuss over, say, artichokes or lamb chops. oh, no, this was a milk-by-the-gallon, and orange-juice-too sort of day.

this is a day to batten down the hatches, simmer soup, crank the oven, stock up on sidewalk salt. you can feel it in the cracklin’ that’s making hairs, and fur, and feathers, too, stand on end. you should see the squirrels vacuum-cleaning crumbs and crusty donut bits, as if there’s no tomorrow.

you see, here where arctic winds hurl their bowling balls of snow and ice down the alley called the great lake of michigan, here before the towers–hancock, sears and all the rest–do their muscled best to block the mighty gusts, we stand ready to shiver and shiver hard, as day turns to dusk turns to stormy whirling night.

worst drop in temps in a quarter century–fiercest, fastest downslide, they are saying–is due to hit any hour now, with winds whipping up to 50 miles an hour (“punishing winds,” my weather page tells me). it’s enough, they warn, to turn rush hour into a hefty bowl of blanc-en-blanc potage.

and i, a girl who loves some drama in my winter doldrums, say bring it on.

there’s nothin’ that gets me stirring quite like the hurl of howling winds. snow pelting on the window panes. the whiff of snow day in the air.

i woulda made one fine pioneer, i tell you. i hunker down, i brace for storm, like i am annie oakley’s long-lost sister.

i caught wind of what was brewing early on today. i made my way straight to the store. stocked up, i did, on milk and popcorn kernels, the two staples of extended hibernation.

before i unzipped my coat, flung my mittens to the pile, i was chopping, sauteing, starting me a toothsome corn-and chicken zoup.

i’ll not let my children starve, not let them shiver either. i’ve got blankets at the ready, and muffins in the oven. oh, lord, this day is a day for making like a mama bear bolting for the cave. we will bathe in what is warm and fortifying. we’ll not let the storm, well, take us by storm.

while stirring onions, beans and broth, i mused a bit about this winter blessing. the forecasting of winds and cold that gives us quite a warning.

what of life, though, i thought, that we don’t know, ever, when a storm is just around our bend.

in plain old life–not the life of weather maps and wind chills–we pick up the phone, and poof, there’s a winter storm on the line. we are driving here or there and, kebang, we just skidded off the road.

life gives no warning, unlike arctic rustlings.

and so, in life, we are left to be always stocked deep down inside with whatever it takes to weather whatever life throws our way. be it a broken neck on growing child. or an email baring threats. one day we think we’re basking in the balm of spring, and, kaboom, the next we are chilled and shaking in our wintry boots.

it is resilience, then, that we must line our inner shelves with. and unswerving faith, stored in gallon jugs, that we need on hand to make sure we can ride out any storm.

i’d say we do best with a host of friends, the ones who appear, as if by blessed magic, at our front door, the hospital bedside, or even as they rush our broken, bloodied child to the ambulance.

we need to live, this makes me think, stocked and ready, for what ever roiling winds come our way.

what a blessing, then, that when it’s merely ice and snow, we’ve got all the warning in the world.

oh, there’s the buzzer now. my muffins–chock full of apples and cranberry and a good dose of mother love–are golden brown, and ready to emerge, just before the winter storm starts swirling out the window.

do you like winter storms, or any brewing, bubbling weather as much as i do? and what would you say is essential to keep in the larder of your life, so you can weather winds that blow far harder, far more fiercely sometimes than any arctic puffer?