I have never liked the cold.
This made growing up in central Texas a natural fit. Temperatures would drop to the thirties for a few weeks each January, with the occasional dusting of snow, before inching up the thermostat again for an early spring. Sure, summers were oppressively hot but I never minded. I would laze in the sun freely for hours, a lizard on a rock in a past life.
So moving to Iowa seven years ago was a shock to say the least. When we turned the corner on our first Midwestern winter, my kindergartener brought home a school reminder that all students must have snow pants and snow boots every single day in order to be allowed to play at recess. I stared at the piece of paper, dumbfounded. Did this mean there would be snow on the ground, like, all winter long?! (Author’s note: Yes. Yes, that is exactly what it means.)
Gradually, I learned the tricks of the trade. Wear plenty of layers, leave no skin exposed, embrace the coziness of hibernation indoors but be sure to get enough fresh air and sunshine to keep the winter blues at bay. I read books like Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark and Katherine May’s Wintering for spiritual and emotional health and novels like Eowyn Ivy’s The Snow Child for a little winter magic. I learned about hygge, a Danish concept of embracing the slowness, contentment, and rest that the cozy rhythms of winter can establish in the home. I came to accept winter, but I never liked it.
That changed this time last year when we moved to a house outside the city limits. The December chill had stripped the trees to the bone. The tall prairie grass was brown and brittle. The sun went down at 5:00 and with no street lights to conceal them, the stars cluttered the black sky. Ice and snow blanketed the world. This was how I first met the now-familair forest and prairie out my back door: quiet and white, dry and wintered.
Every day I would pull on my snow gear and walk through the midst of it, brought to incredulous tears that such a place could be mine. I learned to identify the tracks and scat of my animal neighbors; kept the feeders full of birdseed; scattered corn for the deer; collected bones and feathers. There was something about the abundant life hidden in the deceptive appearance of barrenness that nourished my soul. I found a sacred place in the frost. I found love in the dead of winter.
There was something about the abundant life hidden in the deceptive appearance of barrenness that nourished my soul.
The more I opened myself to the frozen landscape around me, the more I felt my insides changing, too. I was stronger and more patient than I thought. I could go inward in the cold darkness of winter and find no lack within me. I could hold space for discomfort and for unknowing.
Winter was isolating, yes, but I was not alone; when I entered the forest, the birds noticed from overhead and communicated the news to one another, which was then passed to the squirrels and rabbits and prairie chickens and foxes. By the time I came face-to-face with a white-tailed deer, she would have already known of my presence long before. I was part of the great web of being.
The seasons changed, as they do, and each one brought its own beauty and magic. But when this second winter started showing her face and I once more walked through a white forest, my heart leapt with recognition. Ah, here it is again; the place I fell in love with. It had been beautiful in the buds of spring and the colors of fall. It had been lush and welcoming in summer. But here in the winter once more, it felt like magic; like refinding a first love.
Its appropriate that, at least here in the northern hemisphere, Advent and Christmas fall at the very beginning of winter rather than as a culmination at the end. For they ready us with the skills we will need in the coming months: Advent, how to be still and present in our waiting; Christmas, how to rejoice out of faith and not circumstance.
But such lessons are easy to miss. Its easier to treat Advent like a mere countdown and Christmas like the big show; and if we do, then winter is downhill after Dec. 25th. But if we’re paying close attention to the teachings of the calendar? If winter is a rabbi? If winter is a midwife? Well then, December is the practice run and January and February are the real gifts.
What if winter is a rabbi? What if winter is a midwife?
So, why not let winter make us mystics this time? Outside my window there is a squirrel scavaging fallen acorns from our native oak tree back and forth into her little burrow somewhere hidden in its branches. What if we went and did likewise — stored December’s wisdom in the burrow of our soul, stocking up on wonder like acorns; a pile of tiny reflections ready to nourish us through January and February’s most brutal days?
May it be so. May we collect it all. May we trust winter.
~ New retreat opportunity ~
I’m thrilled to announce that Eric and I will be co-facilitating Sacred Partnerships, an in-person retreat for couples at the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa after the holidays. Bring your significant other for a time of investing in your relationship together on the beautiful grounds of Shalom, where we will explore the contemplative dimensions, joys, and demands of committed romantic partnerships in a weekend retreat setting. All genders and partnerships are affirmed and welcome!
In-person overnight retreat in Dubuque, Iowa. Feb. 3-5, 2023 Scholarships are available.
I’m happy to answer any questions, so don’t hesitate to reply with them to this email.
~ 30 Second Activism ~
Antisemitism is on the rise, which is utterly maddening and hard to believe in the year 2023. But bigotry never dies, I suppose; it just gets quieter at some times than others. It’s recently been brought to my attention by Alums for Campus Fairness that anti-Jewish sentiment is growing on college campuses, and Jewish students are suffering from vandalism, censorship, and even violence.
Those of us who are alumni or current students need to hold our administrations accountable. Please take 30 seconds to fill out this short form to stay updated about how you can protect Jewish students and combat antisemitism at your alma mater. (Pssst… This is particularly important for those of us who went to Christian schools!)
*Please note, this is a sponsored initiative. I only participate in partnerships that align with my values and moral code.
If you’re looking for holiday gift ideas for a mom in your life, I hope you’ll consider getting her a copy of Rewilding Motherhood. I’ve been humbled to read moving reviews of the book from women of all ages and stages of mothering. Thanks for supporting small authors at Christmastime!
May your Advent be dark and your heart light,
"What if winter is a midwife?" Oooo...I'm going to be pondering this for many winters to come. Such a beautiful essay, Shannon!
Also, it makes me so happy to see a Catholic offering a couples' retreat that is open-armed to LGBTQ couples. I can only imagine how few opportunities there are like this. ❤️
“There was something about the abundant life hidden in the deceptive appearance of barrenness that nourished my soul.” 😭 🙌🏽 YES.
Also, having stepped away from church several years ago, I miss all things rest and ritual of Advent. This year, it WAS the countdown to the Big Show. I’d love to know what you recommend for reading, even ritual during this season, so I can ready for next year. I also so appreciate your hope for the year’s beginning months. I do feel more dialed in, more in tune with the Sacred in all things when fewer distractions are tapping me on the shoulder, a gift of winter.
Thank you for this!