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Snow Day Redux

It’s a snowy day, the first of the season. I was up early, doing my morning pages and watching the snow and wondering if I’d venture out for my usual Wednesday morning men’s group session. And then I remembered another snowy day, almost 18 years ago. I dug out what I’d written that day. So much changes over two decades, but then again, not much.

Snow Day

At 5 am, the rain is laced with sleet.  On a normal day, I treasure the stillness and solitude of 5 am.  I’ve been known to choke the pendulum on the Regulator clock into silence and pull the plug on our tabletop fountain, their tick, tock, drip, and splash too garish in the early morning calm; I’ve strained to hear tranquil rain above the hum of refrigerator in the next room and jetliner six miles up.  Today, with the weather on the fence, curiosity outweighs my need for solitude, and I admit muted TV weather watchers into my journaling and prayer time.  I watch the growing list of school closings and let Doppler images compete with Nehemiah, fasting in captivity, mourning his beloved Jerusalem.  I contemplate how I will spend the day, if the weather breaks my way.

By 6:30, rain and sleet give way to snow, and white accumulates on lawn and street.  Local schools are closed, and I intercept my teenage son on his way to the shower.  I go back to bed.  Snow is a gift, not least for the chance of extra sleep.

At 8, I wake again.  The world is white—every trunk and branch and twig.  My youngest is awake.  He turns four today and already has two unplanned presents: a snow day, and a big brother to share it with.  If he were older and self-entertaining, my love and I might stay in bed till noon.  I fantasize, but not for long.

How will I spend this snow day?  I could brave the slippery streets and clump around the office in hiking boots and jeans and bulky sweater, one of the male majority who consider ourselves essential to the economy and our driving skills well above average.  I could stay home and chafe at the inconvenience, trapped in childcare and domesticity.  I’ve done both.

Or I can accept this day as a gift, six-pointed grace.  I call the office and say I’m staying home.  “Call if you need me.”  They won’t, and I won’t mind.

In all honesty, I should confess that I’m underemployed right now and would have had to take a day or so off anyway.  But I’d stay home even if it were a busy week.

The snow took out a pine tree, laid it neatly on the path that switchbacks down to the kids’ fort.  Most of the pines in my oak woods lean and droop on a good day, and this giant’s snow heavy top got the better of its roots.  An oak, itself an affront to gravity leaning 40 degrees off plumb, snagged the top 15 feet off the pine on its way down.  That lethal widowmaker hangs 30 feet in the air, its 8” diameter butt-end a jagged warning flag of yellow against black bark, green needles, and gray sky.  Come spring, we’ll have to build a new stretch of trail through the poison ivy, briars, and deadfall.  Come spring, we’ll have muddy shoes and pants to clean as the four-year-old climbs the newly formed mountain of roots and explores the crater they once occupied.

The snow makes disappointing sledding.  We tromp through the woods to explore the downed tree, bombarded by soggy tufts of slush from the canopy.  Wet cold hands soon bring us inside.  We make cake and cookies for the birthday celebration.  I do a workout, some writing, some housework, enjoying the slow pace of a snow day.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past two years, though few with real snow.  Leave without pay.  Not enough work.  Days when I stayed home and played with my son or took him to the zoo.  Days when I painted the house.  Days when I wrote.  A long Gulf Coast vacation.

Those days are joy; I relish the re-creating freedom and opportunity.  Loss of income is a serious downside, to be sure.  But the nights of waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding fear of unemployment have been rare.  I more often feel on the threshold of something exciting.

Chronologically, I’m on the threshold of Modern Maturity, which will be arriving in my mailbox any day now.  But my snow days are not about withdrawal and winding down.  They are days of discovery—that I have creative gifts, healing gifts, spiritual gifts to be nurtured and used.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says of his fellow bus travelers, “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities, but of impossibilities.”  That is the face I see in the mirror that scares and haunts me.  Gaunt, tight, sunken cheeked, steeled against the world, seeing only today and an endless string of todays.  

More than most, I’ve resisted change and run from risk.  Once I wore a mustache for 21 years; having grown it to spite my father, I forgot what I looked like underneath and couldn’t make the leap to rediscover myself or him.  I count my life as two decades of childhood, two of stagnation, and one of belated climbing out of ruts.  Snow days are for climbing out of ruts.

And what of my next decade?  Where will it take me?  Patching up my dis-integrated life is a priority.  I am tired of this piecemeal life in which the way I earn a living interferes with the way I find fulfillment.  With Frost, “My goal in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation…”  To write, to serve and heal hurt children, to love, to worship and pray—that is the description of my dream vocation.  Snow days are experiments and practice for my next career, whose outlines I barely discern and whose details I have not yet imagined.

The next day, streets are clear, schools open, and life back to routine.  In separate casual conversations, two people I barely know ask if I made it in to work the day before.  The first seems shocked and dismayed when I say I could have, but didn’t; with the precision of a practiced commuter, she details for me her route, the road conditions, and just how many extra minutes her trip had taken.  The other, like me, had voluntarily stayed home and enjoyed every minute.  Her face is all smile as she recounts telling her husband she might just quit work and stay home for good.  Yeah!

A Reading Fast

For a variety of reasons, I have an uncommonly high stack of books and magazines waiting to be read. All recent acquisitions, all personal choices I look forward to savoring. And it’s the perfect time of year to spend days in a good book. Weather is iffy, garden is sleeping, and holidays are for kicking back.

What timing, then, to be assigned a week of no reading! No books, no magazines, no morning paper. No NPR. No books on tape or listening to the news.

“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” So says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had been following her program for a few weeks, and came onto this assignment just as Christmas preparation was settling down enough for me to tackle my book pile.

Why reading deprivation? “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.” Or, I would add, you will run out of excuses not to write and be forced to “show up at the page.” Play, dream, refill the creative well from which you draw. And then show up at the page, or the canvas, or the forge.

Reading deprivation is a form of fasting. I recall that Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God) describes a reading fast assigned to her one Lent. Six weeks is a long time; surely I can do a week.

On Sunday, Deacon John came down from the pulpit during his sermon on gratitude and wandered the aisle to give parishioners the opportunity to express their gratitudes. Grandchildren, children, spouses, the church community or particular members of it. As I listened to, and seconded, these and others, I was trying to articulate another thought. Only later did I get the words in place. One of the post-eucharistic prayers has the clause, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” I am grateful for that work, in all its many forms.

I will not try to explain the “how” of The Artist’s Way (TAW). I must try, however, to explain the “why.” Because if you go to the website, you will come away with the mistaken impression that TAW is another self-help program—a formula for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps of will and determination. But if you read the book carefully, you will see that the program and its disciplines are founded not on will but on submission; on a belief that creativity is an ongoing act by the Creator, and that we are, once the blocks are cleared away, participants in this creative process. The disciplines—morning pages and artist dates and reading deprivation—like any spiritual disciplines, help to place us in the way of grace so that we can recognize and respond to it. They open us up so that we become channels for God’s creativity to flow through us.

And with that understanding of creativity, we see that it is not limited to “the creative arts.” This creative energy flows through all “the work you have given us to do.” Through my gardening and singing and child care. Through playing with my grandchildren, selecting Christmas gifts for my children, caring for an elderly parent. Through attending to the needs of my family and myself. Through housework and the work of being in relationship. Through improving this website and writing this blog.

So, how was my week of reading deprivation? I am happy to report that I only cheated a tiny bit; I took a few brief internet research excursions and glanced at a few headlines, but left my reading pile untouched and my news feeds unread. I did play; discovering some lovely music by local singer-songwriter, Jennifer Niceley. And I did “show up at the page” more often.  One prayer in the book goes, Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.

Ordinary Time

In addition to our travels outlined in that last post, we’ve had separate trips involving our parents. But we’re home for a while now; back in ordinary time. Ordinary time in the conventional sense, and somewhat in the liturgical sense as well.

The calendar of the Christian church is dominated by the two great feasts, Christmas and Easter. Advent (four weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Christmastide (12 days). Later, Lent (six weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Eastertide (50 days). [Note that Christmas and Easter are not single days in the church calendar. After spending four—or six—weeks in preparation for a feast, we make that feast last. Only in the secular world do we sweep out the Easter grass and go back to work the next day.]

That still leaves three-fifths of the year. The season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and the longer season between Pentecost and Advent, are in some traditions called Ordinary Time.

Liturgical Calendar
Liturgical Calendar

In the children’s program of instruction called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the church year is simplified as a circle of six segments; two triplets labeled Before the Feast, During the Feast, and After the Feast. Their liturgical colors are purple (before), white (during), and green (after). One triplet represents the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmastide, and the season after Epiphany); the other, the Easter cycle (Lent, Eastertide, and the season after Pentecost). Ordinary time comes after the feast.

In the popular conception, Mondays and other post-holidays are depressing days. We dread the end of the weekend, the end of the holiday. We dread going back to work or school, and we apply a pejorative label: back to the rat race, back to the salt mine. The end of the feast is the end of all that is good. I’ve had some of those days.

And yet, a serious post-feast let-down would not be an indictment of post-feast time itself, but a symptom of a pathology in my life. Ordinary Time is not boring time, not drudgery time. Its liturgical color is green, not gray. Ordinary Time is the season in which we engage productively with the world. Ordinary Time is when we live our lives in gratitude for the feast.

How am I spending my Ordinary Time? Here is a sample:

  • A trip to the going-out-of-business sale at the local used bookstore, through which I discovered the fiction of Richard Marius (definitely worth further reading), and picked up the books on which two favorite movies were based (Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate)
  • Fall gardening tasks: digging, dividing, reshaping, mulching, and adding some hardscaping
  • Simple shop tasks for Nancy to support her painting and music
  • Almost daily long walks with the dog
  • Naps

I have been especially attentive to autumn leaves this fall, not through any virtue of mine but because Nancy has been collecting and pressing/preserving them for her art work. In past years, the fall leaf show was mostly observed from a moving car at highway speed. Peak color season lasted just a few days. How different when collecting on daily walks! I am newly aware that the season lasts months, not weeks or days. Even within a species, leaves may turn color weeks apart, depending on sun exposure and other factors. This past weekend, I was treated to views of still brilliant reds and yellows while, in the background, the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville were covered in hoarfrost. Ordinary time indeed!

Our trip to grandkids and to Berkeley Springs was a feast, grace on grace, blessing on blessing. Weeks later, I still savor the feast even while going about my day-to-day. But, frankly, too much feast is too much. I am glad to be home. Yes, some things are not so much fun. There are dishes to wash, floors to mop, toilets to clean. But there are also books to read, gardens to tend, music to make, paintings to paint, autumn leaves in their astonishing variety and glory to enjoy even while raking. And photos of grandchildren to savor.

Gardening

My parents were born into large depression-era farm families. Growing a substantial portion of their food was an economic necessity and a way of life. “The garden” was the place where you grew potatoes and tomatoes, corn and beans and squash and a dozen other vegetables. Enough to feed ten people. All winter long. A place of hard work.

When they married and raised their own family, my parents brought that way of life with them, if not the necessity. In my childhood, “the garden” was still the place where hard work was converted into foodstuffs. In early adulthood, I went through a back-to-the-land phase and my own large vegetable gardens.

That phase ended. Lack of need, lack of interest (burnout perhaps?), and a series of houses that lacked adequate space and sunlight left my gardening days behind me.

Ascending, Nancy's garden
Ascending, Nancy’s garden

Enter Nancy. Over the past decade or so, she has put her artist’s eye toward creating places of beauty outside our home. Using largely native plants, tons of native stone, some clever hardscaping, a small pond, and, yes, lots of hard work, she has transformed a blah yard into a garden of beauty. In the process, that word, “garden,” has come to signify for me the ornamental, not the vegetable kind.

Sure, my childhood home had ornamental trees and shrubs. My mother grew flowers. But in “beds.” The word, “garden,” was reserved for food. This shift in what gardening means to me has been subtle and largely unconscious, but nearly total. When I say I am a gardener, I never think of tomatoes, although many of my listeners probably do.

I’ve lately become aware of another subtle shift, this time in my relationship to the act of gardening. “Our” ornamental garden has been, and largely still is, “Nancy’s” garden. Her desire, her vision, her initiative. I was the, mostly willing, assistant—the muscle, her sherpa.

Then, a year ago, shortly after my (second) retirement, I took on the chairmanship of the committee that cares for the Memorial Garden at my church, the place where the ashes of deceased members are buried or scattered. And I took on this role at a time when the need for change had come due. It was time to expand burial space, remove some overgrown trees and shrubs, repair some damage. Unlike “Nancy’s” garden, which is in a maintenance phase with its basic form established, the Memorial Garden is in a process of moderate to major redefinition. And I find myself actively engaged in that definition, in helping to create the vision and carry it out. I have taken ownership of the process of gardening in a way that I still have not done with our garden at home.

Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy's garden
Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy’s garden

When I was a child, I was a garden helper. As a young adult, raising my own cantaloupe and sweet potatoes and peas, I was a gardener. And then I was neither. In middle age, when Nancy began her garden, I reverted to garden helper. Now, I am a gardener again. With that title, I claim, or reclaim, an avocation. But the title goes deeper for me now. I find that in accepting the title, I also accept stewardship of something that is not mine. The plants, the infrastructure, the aesthetic, the soil itself are to be husbanded, cared for, nurtured. And I find that sense of stewardship creeping into my labor in Nancy’s garden as well. I am pulling weeds not for me, not even for Nancy, but for the garden itself. Interesting changes I did not seek and would never have predicted.