Falling like Forgiveness
Updated: Jun 28
"Darling the snow is falling, falling like forgiveness from the sky" — Over the Rhine
Yesterday was the first day of winter. It snowed all day in big wet flakes that splatted down in clumps and frills onto the not-yet-frozen earth. The ground is now covered a few inches deep through sheer determination.
We have had snow already this year. About a foot and a half fell in early November but it eventually melted away. We have come to expect this pattern. the early snowfalls may be heavy and it may grow cold, but the snow cover doesn’t last and we are returned to a dark and dingy version of Spring. Yesterday’s snow was likely different. We have probably seen the last of the ground for the next three months.
It is dark going down into December and darkest at Christmas. The mountains make it more so. On the clear days, we see the sun appear over the edge of the eastern hills at 9 in the morning and disappear at 3:30 or 4. By 5:00, it might as well be midnight. On the cloudy, foggy days — of which there are many in our valley— the term “day” feels liberal and misleading as a description for the milky grey glow that pulses briefly in the southern sky.
I have a happy light in my office that I consistently forget to use. Rebecca got it for me when we realized that my moods were starting to be affected by the lack of sunlight, despite my love of snow.
I feel better when I remind myself that it’s just a season and that this part of the season is the hardest. It’s hardest when the days are growing shorter rather than longer. It’s hardest right before the snow sets in for good. It feels very much like descending a long stairway into a dark tunnel where you can’t see the promise of Spring until you’re well down inside, beyond all memory of past Summers.
This is a pattern I never really appreciated growing up in Mississippi, where it rarely snows, the days are longer, and a late December afternoon may well be both sunny and warm. In the Deep South, the Summer and Winter stand in contrast like two brothers: one hot-tempered and passionate and one steady and rational. Here in The North, they stand in contrast like Life and Death.
This may seem like an overly dramatic characterization, but in many cases it is quite literally true. The descent into winter is not merely like death; for many forms of life it is death. The trees grow dormant and cold, the lesser plants are buried, all the seeds of Summer are pressed down against the hard-frozen soil. Animals die too — the old and infirm of both predator and prey, the excess of any population grown fat on Summer’s surplus is trimmed mercilessly by severe and prolonged shortage. The mountains that appeared friendly and inviting covered in wildflowers turn savagely inhospitable as the layers of frost cover over and extinguish whatever provision they once offered. Even the gentle rivulets and lakes — the very symbols of life — turn as hard and callused as stone, repulsing thirsty creatures at their banks. The whole landscape is crushed and smothered by an impossible burden of snow.
Something changes at Christmas and in the week following as Christmas opens the door to a new year. I feel better. More hopeful. I begin to see the possibility of Spring and the rest of the year with it.
Everyone else seems to feel this change too.
It would be easy to dismiss this shift as the placebo effect of sentiment and hype. Perhaps much of it is: the manufactured and commercialized holiday cheer, the New Year’s resolutions which will be soon forgotten, and the artificial stimulants of giddy crowds and alcohol. All of it together could be neatly discarded as so much bread and circuses — a way to appease the peasants and medicate the pain.
Even when the size of our celebrations are diminished in a pandemic, there are enough bright advertisements, and carefully-choreographed movie homecomings, and new cocktail recipes to last us for a lifetime of winter solstice self-soothing.
Perhaps that is all it is.
Perhaps the whole anthropology of Christmas and New Years is the collective human culture’s response to low levels of Vitamin D and reduced access to fresh foods. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Knowing that your morning coffee is an artificial fix doesn’t mean that the day’s not really better after a cup. Our methods to make ourselves feel better might be contrived — happy lamps, happy music, happy stories, and happy chemicals — but what does it matter if they work?
There’s another way to look at it. The fuss and perturbation of the holidays — even the most seemingly manipulated — may be acting in concert with a larger cycle. This deeper theme may resonate at a frequency that makes even the tinny, pop cultural tropes sound sweet and meaningful when they are played within it.
For instance, I know that if I allow myself to grow cold and wet in the mountains that my wits will begin to fail. Small problems will begin to appear insurmountable as my judgement and outlook fumbles along with my cold fingers. The simple and infallible solution to this mental and physical fog is to find warmth — although in the moment this seems mind-numbingly complicated. I need to add or change a layer, move faster to increase body heat, or perhaps pitch camp and get into my sleeping bag. These steps form a miraculous drug to restore well-being in the first stages of hypothermia. The effects of this drug could be described as an overdone and artificial stimulant interfering with the natural progression of a human body’s response to cold — first confusion and clumsiness, then delirium and uncontrollable shivering, then death — or they could be described as a restoration of the body’s normal state of graceful equilibrium. Getting warm is so simple as to be cliché but it’s effects are profound.
Those of you who have not felt extreme cold are still familiar with this interplay. You feel irritable and then realize that you’re hungry. You eat and then feel tired. You sleep for a bit and then you can think clearly. Everything we do or don’t do hang like ornaments on the branches of our life, tilting us one way or another. Even the silly things that don’t seem like they should matter — like cheering when the ball drops in Times Square.
What I’m getting at is that human life is eccentric and that those eccentricities may in fact be part of the definition of both “human” and “life”. We shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the strange things people do just because we’ve come up with a convenient explanation. “Normal” and “Natural” in our quixotic existence don’t have reliable meanings. It may make perfect sense to make yourself a sandwich when you start to feel angry or sing carols and arrange a cheese plate when you start to feel sad. It may in fact be the only sensible thing.
If C.S. Lewis is right in describing joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” then the deepest dark of winter may well be the most joyful time of year, when all the hopes we have for the upcoming months have yet to be realized. Planting the seed is often as joyful as the flower.
The ground is still frozen and buried, but it will thaw.
The snow is heavy and growing heavier, but it will melt.
The various forms of life — plant, animal, and human — are as curled up and secluded as the little bear hibernating in our woodlot, but they will unfurl like a sail as the days lengthen.
“But if your strife strikes at your sleep Remember spring swaps snow for leaves You’ll be happy and wholesome again When the city clears and sun ascends” — Winter Winds, Mumford and Sons
Spring will come just as it always does and always will and with it new possibilities for new life in all its forms.
Every Spring is like this. Every Spring is a rebirth of the world and all the silliness of New Year’s confetti, toasts, and resolutions are but an acknowledgement.
There is, I think, yet another reason for joy at the end of December. It is that the past year is hopelessly and irrevocably erased. Whatever hopes you had for it, whatever plans you made in it, whatever you gained or lost from it, it’s all gone, and you can’t get it back.
You may sense already in reading the last few lines why this too should be the cause of hope. While there remains some slight possibility of action or reaction, there remains too some instinct of fight or flight — to resist the loss, fight the injustice, bring back the object of your love.
But if all hope is lost, then it can be laid down. And if it can be laid down, then it can be reborn in new places and in new forms. If somehow all our old sorrows and grievances and shortcomings could be covered so deeply as to be forgiven and forgotten, then we might have a chance.
There are, of course, hurts which persist through the Winter without abatement and some struggles which grow deeper and more gnarled with each year like rings on a tree — broken relationships, hardships, sicknesses which grow more burdensome and unbearable with every year through every season.
This, however, is the smaller of the two cycles, embedded in the larger pattern of death and rebirth which even the planet’s orbit adheres to. And because it is secondary, there is hope that even the accumulated sorrows of many years may one day be laid to rest and planted deep before a long overdue Springtime.
I’ve thought of this often with the passing of Rebecca’s father Malcom this last summer. For years he struggled in painful yet happy resolution against a slowly losing battle. Then the battle was lost for good. And yet.
As far as the scriptures tell us, Malcom’s loss is not final. His Spirit lives on in renewed form.
As far as the scientists tell us, matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed. This would indicate that to the extent that Malcolm’s life — not merely his body — is linked to the material world that it cannot cease to exist. (This, by the way, has long seemed to me to be a loophole in a materialistic view of biological life — that if life too is matter, then it must be eternal).
By whatever path we take, we arrive back at the same pattern of Winter and Spring.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. It is in all cases where we started.
I would like to reserve the right to object to the shallowness of continuous shopping, self-help, and the swelling scores of manipulated movie moments.
And yet even these cheap imitations are moulded from a hope that dives deep into the darkness of winter, under the frozen mountains of snow right down into the crystallized soil and waits for the moment still months away when the light overhead grows strong enough to break the spell.
I feel more hopeful when Christmas comes and feel a sense of anticipation with the arrival of the New Year.
I believe that these intuitions cannot be explained away — that they come from a true sense of the true nature of ourselves and our world with all its darkness and all its hope.
When I look around me at the white world, I see the possibility of a new beginning that is more true for being buried.