“Springtime’s coming,” he said. “Cannot tha’ smell it?”
Mary sniffed and thought she could.
“I smell something nice and fresh and damp,” she said.
“That’s th’ good rich earth,” he answered, digging away.
“It’s in a good humour makin’ ready to grow things. It’s glad when plantin’ time comes. It’s dull in th’ winter when it’s got nowt to do.
“In th’ flower gardens out there things will be stirrin’ down below in th’ dark. Th’ sun’s warmin’ ‘em. You’ll see bits o’ green spikes stickin’ out o’ th’ black earth after a bit … crocuses an’ snowdrops an’ daffydowndillys … Tha’ll have to wait for ‘em. They’ll poke up a bit higher here, and push out a spike more there, an’ uncurl a leaf this day an’ another that. You watch ‘em.”
“I am going to,” answered Mary.
Monthly Practice: Leaning in to Winter
“Springtime’s coming,” he said. “Cannot tha’ smell it?”
As a young girl, I loved the themes found in my beloved book, The Secret Garden. The idea of a child discovering a secret garden in a beautiful old manor house on a massive estate in the Yorkshire moors filled me with awe and joy.
Mary’s journey to Misselthwaite Manor is precipitated by the death of her parents, and she arrives midwinter. Cold, wet, grey days stretch before her in a drafty house with no friends. She is a frail child, sickly and out of temper.
I can identify with Mary. Her feelings about her life are similar to mine, and, at times, I share her experiences—specifically in winter. Mary is miserable; her feet and fingers are often cold, and the rain outside her window comes down in sheets. The overcast days provide no bright light. There is only the flatness of gunmetal grey that persists all around her. I wonder if, like Mary, my ill temper deepens because I miss the light and shadow (the artist’s chiaroscuro) that define the effects of a beautiful summer’s day. The extreme contrast of light and darkness do not exist in full-scale winter. The light is flat, and my mood begins to reflect this lacklustre atmosphere. I am trapped in a foggy haze; like Mary, I am out of temper.
But Mary is surprised to find that winter is not always one ongoing state of being. As she takes an honest look at her surroundings, she notices that winter is part of the season of life around her. I, like Mary, notice the earth turning in the season of winter. The fallow ground is fertile, not barren. Mary soon finds a hidden key that unlocks a secret garden where the possibility and hope of spring is kept hidden under deep, dark earth. And her imagination begins to soar.
Over time, Mary’s cheeks begin to pink up on the moor at Misselthwaite. She is full of the joy of running, skipping, planning, and weeding, making herself ready for the first shoots of green bulbs peeping through the snow in her beloved garden. The roses are, as her friend Colin says, “wick”—alive with life. They may look like dead, dry, brown branches, but when you scratch beneath the surface with a gentle thumbnail, they are harbouring a greenness that is growing. And slowly, like Mary, my trust in the hope of spring brings me back to life again.
But, before we get to spring, we have to go through winter. Winter means that the plants in my garden continue to shrivel, getting sodden and soggy. For me, it’s a sad time. For example, my pink cosmos have all dropped their blossoms and only black twigs remain. Last week, I pulled them out with gusto (and not a little frustration). My dahlias’ leaves have been through the same shift, and also my strawflowers as well. The snails and slugs have munched my herbs; the Italian parsley, coriander, and dill are all gone. My tarragon is barely hanging on. I suppose my basil will be next. And the geraniums that were gifted to me by an older lady in my parish are not going to make it, I suspect.
As an American, the seasonal shifts for me are very real and can be even a bit confusing. I find my garden “half asleep.” Some things are not able to sustain life, but other times, I notice my bulbs sprouting too early, all shoots but no blossoms. Are they confused? Do they need more time? Should they have been planted later? Did they not overwinter well? Is it just too warm here? I am bewildered.
And what is there to celebrate? I remember the shock when, as a newcomer to New Zealand (before the celebration of Matariki), there seemed to be no holiday between Queen’s (King’s) Birthday and Labour Day. No glistening fairy lights heralding Christmas, no warm soul food to mark long, dark days with the gratitude of harvest and Thanksgiving. No New Year’s hopes to dream about. No time to be with friends and family with extra time to share. No excuse to make merry for days and weeks on end. Even in the church calendar, the days seem to drag: after the exuberance of Pentecost, at the end of May comes Ordinary Time. A double portion of ordinariness and greyness, and, yes, winter.
How do you break up the monotony? What things must we do to enter into this grey wetness?
For this month’s “Practice,” I invite you here to embrace three steps—three steps that are not only physical but also spiritual. Just like the rose peony, which flourishes after a good hard freeze, I need winter in order to take time to attend to the interior life with myself and God. In these ways, this season can be a gift for you too.
- Lean into the season
- Spiritually: What does the soul long for in this season of winter? Consider what needs to be given away to God and, with gentle grace, entrust these things to God. Let them go. Welcome winter. Let go of the need to be busy all the time and overfill the calendar. Let yourself sleep longer. Find moments of quiet. Go for a winter walk at night with the Creator.
- Physically: Invest in winter gear so you can enjoy the snow, the wind, the rain, the whisking away of “dullness” by the bracing experience of extreme weather. Do you need new woollen slippers or socks? A good handy umbrella? A dehumidifier for your wettish basement flat? A good raincoat? Do not underestimate the gift of appropriate accoutrements to make the season not just “bearable” but “thrivable” and “adventurable.” It need not be expensive: borrow, loan, or thrift these items for yourself and others in your community.
- Nestle down.
- Spiritually: Consider nestling down into the God of love. God is a God of comfort and joy. How might God be inviting you into nurturing love this winter? I invite you to read Psalm 139 as a reflective practice over winter with a cup of your favourite warm brew.
- Physically: Invest in crafts, baking, and art that is alive with the joys of “cozy.” If it sounds like a COVID-19 remix, just remember that winter lockdown doesn’t have to be cabin fever! Don’t do this alone. Mulled wine or cider with friends over firelight. Long stories and jazz and Shakespeare into the night. An evening cocktail dress-up dance party with friends (I happen to know a good spot for a fun rollicking Ceilidh sometime mid-August). A fortnightly Sunday film with caramel popcorn. Do it with others. It’s how we are meant to be with each other.
- Step into hope.
- Spiritually: What sorts of things can you watch being unearthed in your soul? What delights await you as you step into the hope of new life growing in you?
- Physically: Imagine a garden, or a holiday, time with friends, or an art project, a hobby, or adventure that you can plan for. Savour the promise of the spring that is coming. Matariki can be this new step—lean into the gift that it can be.