When I got up this morning for a walk at 7am I had to wear a jacket because it was chilly outside. And it was dark, too. Just a few weeks ago the sun was at least low in the sky, providing spectacular colors for me to enjoy. Now it feels a little foreboding, and I know it’s only going to get worse as winter approaches.
And yet when I return home I can flip on a light, sit down and enjoy fruit that has been imported from sunnier climates, and turn up the thermostat to keep warm. It may be getting colder, darker, and less hospitable outside. But in our modern world, I can create whatever season I want in my home.
Because of the marvels of our modern world I feel we have lost some sense of the real drama that used to be a part of the seasons changing. For example, when the writer of Ecclesiastes penned, “For everything there is a season,” he was speaking to a world where an Autumn of bad crops brought the real risk of people dying in the Winter.
So how well you read nature, anticipated changes, and prepared for the future was a life and death skill. And a vital part of this was recognizing that there were some things you had absolutely no control over.
We’ve gotten used to being able to control things—from the temperature in the room to the time of year when we can eat fresh strawberries. But then 2020 came along and reminded us that our feeling of invincibility is an illusion. And if we are not careful, our hubris can be our downfall.
In her poem, “On Winter’s Margin,” Mary Oliver wrote:
And what I dream of are patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;–
They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.
I imagine Ms. Oliver bundled in her coat out for a walk in the middle of winter. She happens upon a skinny deer standing at attention, trying to figure out if it can keep searching for food or if it needs to bolt. The setting inspires the poet. Perhaps these words begin to form in her mind—deer with legs like reeds drinking the wind….
But then she wants the moment to say something. Winter is, after all, a cruel season of survival. Something the deer know all too well.
That brings us to the next stanza. Two words jump out at me—grow and thin. They don’t make sense together. To grow means to get larger, not smaller. But obviously that’s not the kind of growth she’s talking about. This is about “what saves the world.”
For that, we must “choose to grow.”
Answer: Thin to a starting point.
Perhaps because we have lived in a world where we no longer must worry about a season of sparse resources, we have concluded that such a time will never come
But this year of squalor has reminded us that whether we like it or not, winter is coming.
So that begs the question, how do we save the world from this, as Mary Oliver entreated? What does it mean to grow thin to a starting point?
To most of the natural world, Winter is all about scarcity. We must do without things. There is less light. Less heat. Less food. There are some things we cannot have, like fresh strawberries. In our modern world we don’t like to do without things. Our expectation is that we always deserve to be satiated.
But just like in Narnia where it wasn’t good for it to always be Winter and never Christmas. It’s also important to realize that it’s not good for it to always be Summer and never football.
We need Winter. We need a time of doing with less. We need to embrace the fact that there are some things we cannot control. Give up the expectations that we will always be full. We need to be humble. To respect Nature. To huddle together. To share. To sit still. To learn to embrace the darkness without fear.
To become thin by giving up the things that really don’t matter—that we might grow.
Take heart. It may seem like Winter is lasting forever. But remember, it is but a season. Which means it WILL change. The days will get longer. The air will warm. The ice will melt. The meadow will flower.
And then hope will dominate our days again.
For Spring is coming.
Photo credit: tfadam on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND