Thursday, February 25, 2010

Underneath All The Snow Lies Spring

Snow has covered the ground all winter. All this snow, layers of snow. So this is what winter is like for residents of northern climates.

It’s not just the snow. The dripping icicles form a hump of ice at my back door. Underneath the snow is ice, so that walking on it is a feat of diligent flatfootedness.

And so it begins, these 40 days of Lent, in the bleak, the cold, the darkness of winter. In the cycle of the four seasons, winter is death. Necessary death.

In religious lingo, there is a phrase: death to self. It is a paradox because, you see, we have the freedom to choose: life or death. Yet in choosing one we choose the other. For instance.

Yesterday, as I walked along the black ribbon of tarmac that winds its way between the wide white fields of my neighborhood, the wind bit my face, tried to slither up my sleeves and down my zippered neck. But there I was, out there walking, in spite of the desire to stay warm inside my house, a cup of tea steaming in the palm of my hand, candles aglow.

I had deliberated, as I do every time I walk in the cold. I chose to exercise my limbs, work my muscles, force my heart to beat harder, breathe deeply of the fresh clean air, bring more oxygen into my blood. I chose life.

In doing so, I chose not what I want, not to cater to my craving for comfort. Instead, I chose the cold and the wind, to die to my transient desire for warmth. I chose death to self. Do you see that?

We have the freedom to choose.

Every time I step out the door to take a walk, I choose life.

Every time I tell the truth, instead of a white lie to protect myself, I choose life.

Every time I write someone a letter, rather than go on with my busyness, I choose life.

Every time I take the time to prepare a meal with fresh foods, rather than the convenience of something instant, I choose life.

Every time I stay in relationship with someone I love who has hurt me, I choose life.

If there is a choice, why choose to indulge and protect the illusion of my self? Each of these choices represents death versus life. If I lie to protect myself or leave a relationship, is that not a death? Yet it is an eroding, decaying, destructive death. A death of character, integrity, compassion, nobility. I am choosing to preserve some self-glorifying illusion of my self.

Millions of girls every year are faced with a choice: to abort or give birth to their baby. It is scary, the feeling of losing control of the self, the life they had planned for themselves. It is unfortunate that the term “pro-choice” actually means “pro-abortion.” The recent scuffle over the Tim Tebow ad during the Super Bowl made that obvious, that it’s not about choice at all. If it was, women everywhere would have rejoiced in his mother’s choice to give birth to her child.

It is not easy to choose death to self. I am not very good at it. There is a faith that must go along with it. Faith that in choosing “not my will but thine,” I am choosing life. We cannot see, at the moment of our choosing, what will happen next, how it will all turn out, the promise. It’s inward stuff.

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12: 24-25, The Message).

What a paradox!

It is hard, on this Ash Wednesday, to even recall a time when the ground was not covered with snow. These 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent will end at Easter, on April 4.

April! The very word is a promise. It is one which I cannot now see, looking out my window.

Yet beneath the snow, there is earth. And beneath the surface of the earth, there is life.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life's Earthquakes Bring Up Rubble from the Past

The earth is broken.

A few days before the earthquake in Haiti, I watched a movie with an earthquake scene. The people ran every which way to escape it. Some fell into the cracking ground. Some were killed by the toppling of tall trees.

An earthquake is “a shaking or trembling of the crust of the earth, caused by underground volcanic forces or by breaking and shifting of rock beneath the surface.” This is what causes our personal earthquakes, too. Stuff we are not aware of going on beneath the surface.

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In an earthquake, that which was hidden is suddenly right there on the surface. The things in the darkness are exposed to daylight. Calamity does this, brings to the surface one’s forgotten past, repressed experiences, unexpressed feelings, buried traumas.

In the clean-up, we can bulldoze it all back underground again. Or, if we are brave enough, we can poke through the rubble. We have a rare opportunity to change.

When the world is put right again, do we really want this to be a part of it?

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that we are products of our first family. Our responses to our early childhood experiences form our character traits, the good, the bad, the ugly.

For instance. In a recent conversation, my friend and I realized we both had the same type of father: loud, funny, explosive, endearing, intimidating. I was afraid of mine. When I was little, his yelling terrified me. In order to avoid his angry tirades, I became a very good girl. I fetched his slippers, got straight A’s on my report card, looked pretty, laughed at his jokes. When he did get angry, I tried to placate him. I felt it was my responsibility to make him happy. If he got mad at anything or anyone, I took the blame.

My friend was afraid of her father, too. But instead of cowering, she stood up to him. She told him he was wrong, that he had no right to bully anyone in her family.

We grew up to be very different women in relation to men. It didn’t take much for us to feel threatened and—not always, but most of the time—to move into our operating modes: me into a placating role, her into a dominating role. Other women may have different responses, such as distancing themselves in some way.

Of course, we didn’t realize what was happening until we hit crisis, earthquakes. Then it was exposed.

In times of calamity, we can choose to not see the truth about ourselves. We can choose to blame others. However, if I decide to blame my father, that leaves me powerless to change. And how, then, do I explain my friend’s personality?

It was not our fathers who made us what we are, but our responses. It’s clearly up to me how I want to respond. Do I want to be stuck in this mode? As an adult, I see my father as a broken and flawed human being. He is no longer scary.

In “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by Salman Rushdie, the character Rai Merchant describes an earthquake: “Here was the eternal silence of faces and bodies and animals and even nature itself, caught … in the grip of the fear of the unforeseeable and the anguish of loss, in the clutches of this hated metamorphosis, the appalling silence of a way of life at the moment of its annihilation, its transformation into a golden past that could never wholly be rebuilt, because once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force.”

The reality is that if we don’t deal truthfully with the past, our responses to it, and ultimately, our fear, it will always be shifting and bubbling beneath the surface. It will affect our relationships, our jobs, our major and minor decisions.

If we do deal truthfully with our past, we must remember that it is always a work in progress. We never “arrive,” never fully master it. If we think have, we will be surprised.

For we are, as humans, broken.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Snow Renders The World Into A Tumultous Privacy

“We can expect from 10 to 12 inches.”
“The weatherman says 12 to 24 inches.”
“My wife heard at work we could get 30 to 40 inches.”

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
(“Snowstorm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The world so familiar to us, when it snows, is like another planet. Peering out, we cannot see our neighbor’s houses. Do we even have neighbors? Or are we the only ones in this unfamiliar place? All bearings are gone. The snow flies sideways this way, then straight down, then that way.

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

I am relieved at the cancellations. All obligations cease except the primal ones: shelter, warmth, light, food. Would that we had a fireplace. Lacking it, I light the four candles in the stand on the hearth in the mantle. We must have fire.

I think of other times, other snowstorms. During one blizzard in New York, I was eight and a half months pregnant with our second child. We lived in a barn apartment in the middle of a field, surrounded by suburbs. The husband was snowbound at work. As I looked out the window at the swirling whiteness, I wondered, if I went into labor, how I would get to the hospital.

That was the winter of the dogs. A pack of dogs had commandeered an empty house just a few hundred yards away. These tame family pets, when assembled together with no accountability but to each other, had been transformed into wild, ravenous, roving wolves. At times I could hear them. I would not go out alone.

My little daughter was my housemate in that storm. We did have a fireplace, a Franklin woodstove. We drank hot chocolate, read storybooks, played games.

These days it is the husband and me. What do we do, enclosed in this space together? Bake bread, make soup, read, crochet, listen to music, make music, watch movies, play Trivia. Quiet things.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.

We look out the window, at the round table on the deck. The table where we had so many barbecued meals on hot summer evenings. We sat, sleeveless, often with a friend or two, eating grilled ribeye steaks, nibbling on horseradish cheese, sipping cabernet franc or our mojitos. Now the brown table, like a mug of stout, is topped with a tall head.

And there, hanging off the roof, is a frozen snow outcrop. It is a huge crystal chandelier. As snowflake adds to snowflake, it projects out farther and farther. Who dared this to happen? Is there a celestial bet on how big this thing can get without crashing to the ground?

And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

In the morning after such a storm, we awaken to a world of whiteness. Drifts of snow are piled in odd places. Snowy hills indicate where our cars are hidden. Our pine trees’ branches, normally lifted to the sky as in praise, are now laden with snow, bowed down prostrate, touching the ground. All is still.

What is it about the unspoiled whiteness that evokes such awe?

In our neighborhood, the farmers plow the road first, making it passable. When the VDOT trucks come by, I feel joy and dismay.

For all its ferocity, this frolic architecture is a fragile, fleeting beauty. The world beyond — with its billions of people and obligations — is once again accessible. There is no excuse. We must dig out and go.