Walking In Winter

Blog Post

Madeleine Hagan: The Salt Compass Blog

By MADELEINE HAGAN

When I first started writing this, I had been avoiding this space for over a month, partly because I haven’t known what to say and because each time I hit “Publish” I feel like I’ve submitted an essay with lots of incomplete thoughts and typos scattered around like cracker crumbs to a hungry dragon for grading. The other part is a lack of effort. The past several weeks have been in the heart of a wintery retreat. Mornings are cold and dark, and I have huddled by the hearth with book after book for every minute I can steal before I have to venture out into the grey, wintery world for work. There’s a deep sense of survival that seeps into the bones during winter.

There’s this look in peoples’ eyes that says: I’m not actually here. I’m hidden away, waiting for the spring thaw.

I’m no exception most days. I’m not actually here. I’m hidden away. Somewhere warm and away from the wind.

But I’ve realized that if this feeling persists, I start to feel disconnected from God. Not necessarily distant. I feel like we are each doing our thing, and the days are clicking by, and maybe we’ve talked about each other, but perhaps there has been some lack in direct one-on-one conversation. It’s easy to think that He has been the problem. That it’s not my self-inflicted isolation and lethargic rut that has contributed to my frustration and restlessness.

But then, from my cozy spot on the couch at 7:15am I read this:

In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here, people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long frozen months. If you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.


Our inward winters take many forms—failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them—protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance—we can learn what they have to teach us. Then, we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.


-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

The library plastic wrapping around the book crinkles as I shift the book in my hands and read it all over again. My inner self nods vigorously, pointing at the page in triumph.

That. That is what has happened.

The idea seems sound, and the daily 10-second walk from my car to the building I work in doesn’t seem to be what this guy is talking about. I need to muster up the energy, and just go.

Naturally, I will put it off for a few weeks first, pushing every possible reminder to the back of my brain where it isn’t quite so noisy. But eventually, I cave, because I also remember a wise, old man in a pointy, grey hat once saying, “The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.” I wrap a scarf around my neck and fasten each button of my coat before emerging, groggy and grumbling with what I’ve already decided is overexposure to inconvenience, and I step outside, blinking against the chill of the afternoon.

The collar of my coat brushes against my cheeks and the tip of my nose starts turning red with cold before my front door is even closed. But I need to do this. I know it. I need to walk my feet along this stretch of earth, to push out into the tide of grey like an explorer (which is a much more fun metaphor to think of when you really feel like a grouchy, tired, bubble-wrapped potato).

It’s grounding. It reminds me that I am indeed here, on this planet. I think about that quote.

Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives.

What is it I have been afraid of?

 

I tend to get a little lost if I’m not careful, floating listlessly in a cloud of endless hypothetical scenarios and situations that are all very grand sounding but tend to be entirely unhelpful when it comes to this whole living life thing.

But what if I’ve already wasted an entire month of this new year?

What if I’m supposed to be doing something but I can’t because I have yet to discover what that is?

What if I am wasting the time I’ve been given?

I bury my hands further into my coat pockets and find a crumpled square of paper with a note in my handwriting for my current novel-in-progress. This reminds me that it is still a novel-in-progress rather than a novel-that-is-finished, and that I wrote this note months ago and still haven’t managed to do anything with it. I think about how I shouldn’t be out here walking when I should really be back at home working on that. Working on something.

I sigh.

I think about cosmos from chaos that Madeleine L’Engle talks about in her book Walking On Water. Those words have stuck with me long after I closed the book, and now whenever I am faced with these swirling whirlwinds that set me adrift in doubts that feel like chaos, I know that I haven’t gone outside and been on the earth in a while. I haven’t sunk my hand into a bag of fresh potting soil. I haven’t walked barefoot on crinkly, green grass. There’s so much cosmos I could be noticing, the brilliant design, goodness, intention, and purpose that is woven into the fabric of the world and can be found if I look hard enough. And there’s something about being out among it, breathing it in, that is more grounding than peering out from a window.

I continue walking down the road to let nature do its work.

I look at the trees that have shed all of their leaves and stand bare and exposed in the frost, and that sense of groundedness slowly returns. It is just Saturday after all. The entire year isn’t gone, and this past month has not been wasted.

The chaos feeling recedes in the unfiltered presence of cosmos.

 

Coincidentally, the week I started writing this, I picked up a book about the anonymous years of Jesus’ life on the earth before his three years of public ministry. Seemingly unrelated topic right? Except that I flipped open the cover and thumbed to the first page and read, “In Winter…”

She talks about how winter strips away the pomp and plenty of summer, so that structure is exposed. While plants might appear dead, no longer producing color or fruit, they have actually just turned their priorities inward, growing beneath the surface and tending to their roots.

What lessons this has to teach us. We are right to look inward, to inspect what has been holding us up and keeping us going these last few months. How are we doing on the inside? Is everything as it should be? When the blur of buzzing bees and busy-ness of summer and harvest is over, and all is still and quiet, what needs mending, strengthening, resting inside of me that I haven’t taken the time to face properly? What dead things need to be trimmed away that were hiding before but are now exposed?

The misguided impression that presses on the back of my mind, insisting that I be producing, — creating, bearing glossy fruit in full harvest mode round the clock and calendar — is silenced by the example of these trees. They have not failed. They are not dead. They know that if they strive to produce fruits or flowers year round to suit my whim, they will wither and die. I can see the dead limb for what it is and decide if I’m going to let it rot there or trim it away.

But in the midst of this introspection, I have to resist laziness and the tendency to stay within my warm, hot chocolate-filled comfort zone. Because there, I’m just waiting for abundant, meaningful, purposeful life to show up at my front door with apologies for being late. It’s so passive, that it runs the risk of not actually living.

The winters here will drive you crazy, unless you go out walking in them.

 

I think about the movie Prince Caspian that I rewatched recently, when the Narnians (good guys) have been forced into hiding in their own country by the Telmarines (bad guys) who have invaded and wiped out most of the Narnians. The Telmarines even figure out where the last Narnians are hiding and march their army over there. Up until this point, the Narnians have hidden in their shelter, waiting for Aslan (their King) to roar in and save the day. It doesn’t occur to them until it’s almost too late, that rather than get fenced in and stuck, they should send someone who knows what He looks like to go out in the woods and find Him. They send out Lucy, the little girl who has always spotted Him first, and she finds Him almost immediately.

I wonder if that’s what I’m doing out here. If the “stuck” feeling has finally gotten threatening enough to run out into the woods in search of the One who can make it unstuck. And there I remember that it is promised that those who seek will find.

At some point as I walk I imagine Him walking next to me, like a friend I never actually misplaced even though I was afraid I had. We walk in silence for a while, and I appreciate it so much. There’s no rush of “catching up” that usually happens when friends haven’t spoken to each other in a while. There’s just enjoying each other’s company, like He’s saying, “Just because you haven’t spoken to me doesn’t mean I wasn’t here.”

I keep my eyes focused on the sleeping trees, the icy creek that trickles along like glass, and I shiver more as I think of stepping anywhere near it. I think of that line in the chorus of a song by The Grey Havens that says, “There is water there that can quench your thirsty bones and make you well.” It’s a good kind of shiver. Things that are alive shiver sometimes in pure celebration of not being numb.

What is it you have been afraid of?

I decide to tell Him as we walk in curving, parallel lines down the road, and He listens patiently, nodding along for me to continue whenever I pause, until I’m finished with everything I can think of right then. They all tumbled out, wrinkly and pale onto the road in front of us, and I watch them skitter about, exposed for what they are under His gaze and the wintery world around us. Somehow their heaviness lessens. Perhaps sometimes I just need to bring such things out, into big, wide-open air for me to realize they are figureoutable. I haven’t done the figuring out part yet, but the possibility is there now at least. While they had felt so smothering and big indoors, they waft away into frosty air like my breath does when I breathe out, and there are no tremors. The trees still sleep.

I wish I could tell you He answered all of them, that He spoke of them at all, but a part of me guesses He didn’t really need to. It’s not that they don’t matter, or that He doesn’t care. But I think they are forced to shrink back to their unbloated size in His presence, and that’s the part that I needed right then.

I return to my house once my fingers start to ache, and as I thaw them out in front of the fireplace I am glad that I went. I stirred, took an active step in the right direction today rather than staying passive. I took my restlessness, my fears, my disappointments, out of the box I keep them in and let them see how big the world around them actually is, cutting them back down to size. I let Him look at them, careening over one another in the middle of the road all tangled and messy, and the burden became less. I’ve remembered that the world is bigger than the four walls I return to, and that I am still here on the earth and not some greying alternate dimension.

So consider this your wintery reminder to step outside your front door. To resist the lull of that spot on the couch that is so comfy but isolated. To go out walking in winter, mentally and physically, actively seeking out everything winter has to teach you. To take a break from focusing on fruit and focus instead on the growth that happens under the surface where no one sees. To unbox fears you have not faced properly in the presence of the One who can shrink them back to their rightful size, or wave them away until they dissipate into the cold air altogether.

Happy walking, friends.

The Salt Compass Blog by Madeleine Hagan

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