I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Northern California, within a few miles of the San Francisco Bay. This is not the California of endless sunshine and balmy weather, imported palm trees and orange groves. This is the California of moody weather and lots of fog, tulle fog in the winter, so dense that it is not rare at all to have multiple, multiple car crashes. And fog so thick and unrelenting in the summer that Mark Twain noted that the coldest winter he ever spent was July in San Francisco.
There are days in January that are warm and sunny, the kind I remember when my college roommates and I would go up on the roof of our boarding house and sun bathe. But there are so many days in June, July, and August when the sun never breaks through that I spent inside, sipping hot drinks and huddling under quilts. When my first child was born, in June, we were living in the Richmond district of The City, out in the avenues built on sand. The combination of postpartum hormonal shifts and the constant grey and chill nearly killed us both, and it was not until he was several months old that it was warm enough there for me to let him lie on a blanket in the park and feel sun on his face.
We moved south, not for the weather. Which was fortunate because I have discovered in the dozen years I have lived in North Georgia, that these parts too are meteorologically unpredictable.
Like the California I lived in, I soon heard that if you didn’t like the weather here one day, then just wait until the next. And I am not just talking that famous March blizzard more than a decade ago, or the severe thunderstorms that strike, even in January sometimes. I am talking thick blankets of fog, the ones I thought I had escaped. I am talking overcast and wind and chill. Unusually cool and wet summers, which I admit I still prefer to the sweaty, steamy heat.
All in preface to noting that when I thought about this morning’s homily, it was December, the December that started off warm, then got cold, especially Christmas weekend, and then warmed as we got to January, unusually, record-breaking warm. Last week it broke 70 degrees, and today it will be nearly the same, and next week as well. I checked the Farmer’s Almanac, though, to verify what I thought I heard or read someplace. This mild weather, this mild weather which might trick flowering trees to start budding, even blossoming, this mild weather which might also bring lightening storms and tornadoes, will turn. By mid-February, we will get the cold back, a foot of snow in Tennessee, and these mountains for sure will be more than just dusted.
And then the cold will last long and hard, they say, until March anyway.
So what’s the big deal, you mountain folks might be asking right about now? After all, many of you chose to live here, in the foothills of the Appalachians, where the snow and cold hit first and longer than down the road. You could have lived in Florida, or even Atlanta, but you chose to place yourself here. You chop or bring in your loads of firewood, stoke your stoves, and hunker down.
Some of you, of course, are here for reasons other than the weather and the views, and even those of you who in general like the mountain weather here in the less swampy part of the South, may, like me, respond poorly to the light that comes with winter.
Or, more accurately, does not come.
Winter light, the dimmer days, the paler days, the bare sky, the bare trees. Grey on grey. Or black and white landscape, tree trunks and bare branches, gnarled and ghostly. Winter for those of us who do not fare well in the dim and the loss of light, can come to view this season mainly as a time of sorrow and barrenness.
It is the winter described by former islander, writer Jamaica Kincaid, who observes that “people will go on and on about the beauty of the garden in winter… but this is not true at all… not for me.” She lives now in Vermont where she says that, for her, the garden does not exist in January. “It is lying underneath an expanse of snow, there is a deep thick mist slowly seeping out the woods, and when I see it, I am not enraptured by it.”
Between the end of summer, she writes, and those shortest days of the year, she battles a constant feeling of disbelief. “All things come to a halt rapidly: they die, die, die; the garden is all brown stalks and the ground is tightening. People will go on and on about the beauty of the garden in winter. They will point out the scarlet berries in clusters hanging on stark brown brittle branches.
Not so for her, in her garden where she sees little beauty in the depths.
She writes that white is not a color, it is the absence of color. The colors she longs for, and hopes for, with the coming of spring.
In a book I read this fall and early winter, Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, an anthology of poems, essays, and excerpts from stories and novels, I was reminded that the beginning of winter has a long tradition of representing the coming of a fearsome time.
Anthropologists who have studied primitive people learned that they used to watch the sun drop lower on the horizon in great terror, because they were afraid that one day it would not ever rise again, leaving them in constant darkness. There would be gnashing of teeth and great wailing as the terror of great darkness stuck them.
In Egypt, the winter solstice in December was the time when the God-Man Osiris was entombed. In the mythology of ancient Greece, the editors wrote, it was the time when the God Dionysus was torn into pieces to be reborn, in the spring, as an infant. Shakespeare famously wrote about winter in Hamlet, when in the opening, the castle guard, who stands in the bitter Danish cold, says, “‘Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.”
These metaphors of bitterness and darkness, death and burial, have not disappeared, even as we know the what and why of winter, and the predictability that day follows night, and spring follows winter. The certainty that after the winter solstice the light begins to return.
Even in this culture where most of us can live in almost eternal light and warmth: plugging in our lamps, ramping up the wattage in our bulbs, turning up the thermostat, lighting our wood and gas fires, it is still there — that sense of darkness that might not end.
And for those of us, those 10 to 25 million of us in this country that have what is sometime called the winter blues, the common name for “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or SAD, no amount of scientific information or even cognitive awareness can simply make this sense of gloom and doom and hopelessness go away. The winter blues, SAD, can be a serious disorder, causing those who suffer with it varying degrees of depression and moodiness through the winter months.
Year after year.
More women than men have SAD, but anyone can be affected, and millions of children and young people are affected in some way by this condition. We have it because, during the winters, as the days get shorter and our exposure to strong light gets less, our internal “body clock” can get out of rhythm, producing the wrong hormones at the wrong time of the day.
Some scientists believe that the winter’s lower levels of strong light — sunlight — may cause the body to produce an increased level of melatonin, a mood controlling hormone that the brain produces during periods of darkness. This increased level of melatonin can impact some of us differently. We can become irritable, anxious, have insomnia, eat more carbs and sweets, gain weight. We feel like it’s hard to move, get drowsy, get moody, feel depressed.
The holiday blues stretch out. We start fights for no particular reason. We get in each other’s faces. We quit things. We get what they call cabin fever, want to break out.
We can feel like that lazy bird Maizy in the classic Dr. Seuss story about the mom-to-be who asks the elephant Horton to sit on her egg, while she flies to Florida for a long, long winter break.
There are things we can do to make the winter blues less devastating. We can watch how much caffeine we take in, watch the carbs, watch the sugar, eat more protein. We can watch for patches of sun, and make sure we take advantage of it. We can walk, even if we don’t feel like it, or work out. We can buy special lamps, or sit in a light box. We can go on chat lines with other SAD people, or talk one to one.
We can take up a new hobby or practice: walk a labyrinth, learn to meditate, learn new music, start a scrapbook or journal, work with clay or wood. We can do instead of letting ourselves be passively buffeted.
All of us, those who find winter physically and emotionally particularly challenging, and those who can take winter or leave it or who even find it the best time of year, can look at winter itself as a great spiritual journey. Not ignoring its dimmer, darker aspects all, because full spiritual growth is not about just looking for and living in the light. It is about sharp and soft, blossom and decay, and the complete cycle of life and death. For each one of us.
It is about knowing, as one writer comments, that the spiritual biography of winter begins with the soul pitted against harsh surroundings, this bleak white season, with its stillness, darkness and death, when we hunker down. Not fighting against as much as humbling ourselves to its strong inevitability.
The spiritual biography of winter includes also lessons in the sense of being personally scoured — cleaned of excess and pretense. It can include stories about helping those for whom winter and life is especially harsh. Winter can highlight our fragility and vulnerability, our need for community and hospitality. For tea and comfort. For reaching out.
Winter makes us aware of those for whom cold and damp make them especially vulnerable to illness and helplessness. Winter can show us those corners where children are too cold to get out from under the covers, to dress in unheated rooms, and go to school. Where holiday food baskets empty and gardens lay barren.
Winter can teach us to shore ourselves up, refill ourselves with rest and reflection. With good books and music, with soup pots and stacks of CDs, with games that challenge our minds and keep our brains agile, cell by cell.
Winter can teach us to look for small glories and reasons to praise. The same small red berries that our Jamaican writer scoffs at in her need for voluptuous tropical beauty can be breathtakingly beautiful in their singularity. The flash of a cardinal or the single candle light.
Winter can also, yes, be a time of delight and play. What some people, me included, can see as a sea of cold and wet and treacherous ice, others of us can use as a vast playground. Can turn snow into balls to play with, statues, and castles. Can conquer with sleds and skis. Can ski on and dance on, and see magnificent crystals in.
Appreciate, and even regret, its passing. Its wondrous and terrible beauty.