Kathleen Hirsch | Winter poem
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Winter poem

Advent, 7: Walking through Snow

Today we get our first snowstorm of the year.  This feels God-sent for so many reasons.

Snow draws a boundary.  Within an hour, the landscape is transformed, Pygmalion-like, from the austere beauty of towering trees upholding the winter nests, to a much younger presence, cloaked in ermines and ready for the ball.  Or so it has always seemed to me.

The first storm makes the world virginal again, sweet, wrapped in a silence in which anything can be imagined, where streams whisper and lone birds speak.

Today is a day for turning.  From the usual grinding deadlines to holiday parties.  Robotic routines to gift giving.

This is the week when I really begin to “feel” Advent.  The last great ancient prophet, John the Baptist, is heard crying across the centuries, urging us to make the crooked paths straight.  To “turn.”  To change.

What in the busy lives we are living needs turning?   What paths must straighten for us?  What broken bridges and failed links in our communities need mending?

It becomes easy to walk in circles.  Or to pursue each intriguing detour that takes us further from our true selves.  Do we say “yes” when we mean “no”?  Do we take the easy way out and refuse to engage with the pain and the needs around us?  Do we pile on the calendar to escape the essential quiet that alone can guide us home, to the light in the windows of our souls?

Because I do, yes, indeed, and far too often, I’ve taken up a book of Advent meditations this past week.  Watch for the Light is a rich compilation of writings from brilliant, thoughtful writers, from Thomas Merton to Annie Dillard and Sylvia Plath.  I recommend it.

The epigraph, an unattributed poem from the 15th century, speaks to my own hunger and need for quiet as the days grow shorter, in order to discern true path from the many, many tantalizing substitutes:

Lo, in the silent night

A child to God is born

And all is brought again

That ere was lost or lorn.

Could that thy soul, O man,

Become a silent night!

God would be born in thee

And set all things aright.

I will soon go out to walk in a world about to be transformed.  As I prepare to set out, I carry not only these lines, but the haunting words of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

I know well, as did John centuries ago, that I have “miles to go” before I see more than a flickering glimpse of the light of home.  But it is good and necessary to be taking the first step, and to trust that the snow, and a good book of reflections, will keep my footsteps visible, should I be tempted to tarry.

 

 

2

Winter Roses

Roses and rosemary in January!  I am walking along a path in Los Angeles in the company of roses.  Rain has drawn out their perfume.  It wraps me in palpable grace.

A day earlier, I shoveled my front walk half a dozen times during a snow storm.  Now, here I am, bending to a bloom that opens my heart after a long, hard season.

On the morning of November 9, I discovered that I had lost my voice.  That day, I tried a few post-election letters to my world.  But a stone lay on my tongue.  Words seemed wholly inadequate to circumstance.  Or: the words I would have used would have skidded across the surface of a numbingly frozen pond.

My season of Advent, like that of so many friends, was long and dark and uncertain.   It didn’t feel anticipatory in the slightest.  I watched the sky (it seemed as good a thing as any to watch), but the stars didn’t speak.

In unaccustomed silence, slowly, I found that I was able to move away from grief, shock, fear.  All of the sure, strident, clever, glib, able words — all of the polished, official and oft-repeated phrases — fell mute.

At first, it felt a kind of withdrawal.  But gradually the sense of being a news-amputee gave way to a different, far more steadying quality of awareness.  I was no longer flitting from idea to idea, or text to text, from one shallow conversation to the next.  I was no longer focused on logistics and next actions.  I felt my attention shifting.  Or, better, the very act of “attending” was transformed.  What changed wasn’t the focus of my thoughts.  It was the quality of thought itself.

As long as I remained aware in this way, no unfinished wrapping, no late-arriving packages or broken ornament or family members’ “attitude” issues, could disrupt me.

More than this: I began to see the important life that matters beyond the glare of the headlines.

As sanity returned, so did a kind of moral memory: hurry destroys the capacity to be with oneself in any meaningful sense; our “out there” culture of activism with its constant pressures to identify with causes, have a position, be socially and politically useful, can make us brittle and leave no room for inner movement.  In the face of certitude and efficiencies, the “inner witness” falls silent, or just repeats what it is accustomed to saying.  Either way, it ends up failing me.

During these months, only thistles and thorns were visible in my garden, and this was oddly apt.  To renew, and see life with fresh eyes, I needed to stop.  Stop ruminating, producing for the sake of producing, and most importantly, stop consuming a diet of sound bites that was starving me of deeper wisdom and the still, small voice within.  For days.  Weeks.  Going on three months.  Winter, or just about.

Now here I am, walking down a path filled with roses and beauty, on a warm day under soft skies.  Perhaps, the roses seemed to suggest, it is time to emerge from hibernation and get on with the business of blooming again.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned how easy it is to join the wagging tongues, the policy patois, the dangerously false urgencies that always drive bad politics.  Easy to become too depressed or distracted to be present to what is in front of me: my loved ones, neighbors, community, and the needs right next door or under my own roof.

Healing and growth may both require the fallow time of the winter roses, the waiting time, when we unhook from reactive living and simplify long and amply enough to let some new green slip of insight unfurl. Each day is about becoming, isn’t it?  When I lose myself in the high winds of talking heads, and dishonest politicians, I completely forget the value of a more considered vigilance, which along with a certain detachment, prepares the ground for what the Buddhists call “right action.”

So.  Onward.

In honor of the winter roses, I have written a poem to illuminate the collage above, my New Year’s greeting to you, dear readers.

 

Wherever I look

Look!

If I allow myself the sweet prayer

of mere being,

I can see the greeting

of the winter roses,

the dance of the birds,

the beribboned and wholly

sufficient gift

of sunrise.

 

Original nature

rests in its just orders —

How we define or defile

right livelihood

will bring the winter roses

to their knees;

the nests of blue jays,

the red-capped woodpeckers,

the hungry hawk

on a barren bough

the cistern with its cold sweet water

our waiting doves of peace.

 

 

 

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