In the Bleak Midwinter

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The words of my best-loved dead poet notwithstanding, midwinter is not at Christmas time. Rather, it is now, as the grey days of January ghost into the grey days of February; now, when it’s increasingly hard to remember green and golden days of sunshine, and nearly impossible to imagine that they will come again.

My best-loved living poet understands this season well, and gives me words for the blank emptiness I often feel this time of year. But marvelously, miraculously, he also reminds me that it is a season which will pass, one which I will remember not only for its heaviness, but also for truths laid bare, strength given to hold on, and the tenacity of hope.

Because We Hunkered Down
by Malcolm Guite

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace
when they are memory. In time to come
when we speak truth, then they will have their place,
telling the story of our journey home,
through dark December and stark January
with all its disappointments, through the murk
and dreariness of frozen February,
when even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

Because through all of these we held together,
because we shunned the impulse to let go,
because we hunkered down through our dark weather,
and trusted to the soil beneath the snow,
slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,
Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

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My November Guest

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My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
thinks these dark days of autumn rain
are beautiful as days can be;
she loves the bare, the withered tree;
she walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
she’s glad her simple worsted gray
is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate deserted trees,
the faded earth, the heavy sky,
the beauties she so truly sees,
she thinks I have no eye for these,
and vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
the love of bare November days
before the coming of the snow,
but it were vain to tell her so,
and they are better for her praise.

~ Robert Frost

Tuesday’s Word: ritual

ritual:  an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite; observance of set forms in public worship

Ritual was anathema in the church of my childhood. I can’t recall ever having been instructed as to why it was wrong, but I came to the conclusion that it had something to do with substituting mechanical actions for real true belief; that following any formal ritual was a sort of religion-by-rote for those who had not prayed through to a genuine ecstatic experience of the living God. At the very least, conforming to ritual would surely be limiting, confining, Spirit-quenching.

Please understand that I am not discounting the sincerity of the exuberant saints among whom I grew up; many of them did indeed demonstrate faith that would move mountains and abiding joy in the face of great hardship.

For me, though, the anything-goes-as-long-as-you’re-enthusiastic style of church meeting was detrimental, to say the least. I – the preacher’s oldest kid, no less! – was expected to beam with the barely-veiled glory of God’s wonder-working hand on my life at all times. Good Christian girls didn’t let the devil steal their shine!

My choice: deceit (or at best exaggeration) followed by guilt, or honesty resulting in condemnation.

As I grow older and continue to work through many layers of deep-seated depression, I am learning that ritual, at its heart, is neither robotic nor repressive; it is, in fact, a healing balm for my soul, a means of saving grace. It is a great comfort to lean into time-honored practices when I have no strength to forge a new path, to repeat well-worn words when I can’t manage coherent composition, to relax into the kinship of common custom.

 …ritual and symbol are as necessary to human beings as air and water. They mark us as human and give us identity…Rituals bind a community together, and also bind individuals to a community. ~ Kathleen Norris

Familiar Shadow

image by Rebekah Choat

image by Rebekah Choat

Familiar shadow, in whose company
I travel often in the failing light,
your presence has no terror left for me:
we simply walk, as long companions might,
in silence. We move slowly through the rain
and cold, and even when the sun comes out,
its brightness only serves to make more plain
your shape beside me. You linger about
my campsite, or just up around the bend,
ready to join me as I journey on.
You stay with me, as faithful as a friend,
not always close, but never really gone.

So now as morning breaks in clouds of grey,
we’ll go as fellow-travelers on our way.

~ Rebekah Choat

Tuesday’s Word: remember

remember (v): to bring to mind or think of again; to retain in the memory

“Remembering is hard,” Pastor Preston said in his sermon a few weeks ago. It’s a truth borne out not only by the anecdotes of his own forgetfulness; most of us have at least occasional lapses of memory, brought to our attention by the officer who tickets us for our expired auto registration, or the friend who calls to say she’s been waiting fifteen minutes already at the meeting place we agreed on last Friday. We remember, right after the smoke alarm goes off, that the cookies need to come out of the oven; we’re jolted from near sleep when we realize, as we check off the accomplishments of the day, that we forgot to send our mother-in-law a birthday card.

Ann Voskamp, in One Thousand Gifts, muses that ‘remembering is an act of thanksgiving, a way of thanksgiving, this turn of the heart over time’s shoulder to see all the long way His arms have carried us.’ This is the kind of remembering Preston wanted to direct us toward that Sunday before Thanksgiving; the practice of being mindful, of remembering how many things we forget to say ‘thank you’ for throughout the year, throughout our lives. It is good to be exhorted to recall with gratitude the many blessings we so often fail to count.

But for many people, remembering is hard in a different way, more pronouncedly during the holidays than at other times of year. The problem for them is not that they don’t remember – it’s that they do, in stark, vivid detail. In their minds, images of happy families gathering on the television screen are overwritten with mental home movies of domestic dysfunction; displays of abundance are reminders of lack; cheery music is drowned out by the roar of hurtful words whose echoes never fade.

I’ve spent more than one Christmas season in the depths of depression myself; yet, even with my experience there, I can’t give an authoritative answer to the question of how to help someone for whom this time of year is tough. One size doesn’t fit all.

Going out with friends may be uplifting for one person, while it’s just too much effort for another. ‘Retail therapy’ might feel like a trip directly through Hell for some. Being welcomed to a boisterous Christmas party could revitalize others. The bright, jingly songs that make one feel better may make another want to scream.

Practical assistance is valuable in some cases. Taking someone’s car to get the oil changed could shorten his impossible to-do list enough to give him a little breathing space. An overwhelmed mother might be more grateful than you can imagine if you would take her kids to see Santa along with yours.

Emotional support is sometimes more important. Talking through old hurts with a sympathetic listener is often a necessary step toward healing, as is feeling safe enough with someone to share secret fears and hidden shame. An answering voice on the phone at 2:00 a.m. can be a very real lifeline.

In the end, I think it all comes down to presence. It can probably never be said enough times: the assurance that you are not alone somehow makes just about anything more bearable. If you know someone who is struggling this season, making yourself available – really, truly, physically and emotionally available – to them, in whatever capacity they need, may well be the gift that gets them through.

There Will Be Days Like This

As most of you know, depression has been a part of all my adult life. Some of you also know that I was diagnosed with a chronic illness earlier this year. One of the things that helps most is knowing that I am not alone; that there’s a large community in each camp, many members of both camps. We are drawn together somehow, in ways ranging from deep personal relationships to passing acquaintance to simple silent nods of recognition when we see each other across crowded rooms. We support each other. When we speak, we offer worn-out words that are nonetheless true and meaningful. “I am here with you.” “Hang on.” “Take it one little step at a time.” “There will be days like this.”

What I have to say today is, “There will be days like this.” You’ve heard it before, you’ve said it before, you’ll hear and say it again. And again. But wait. Listen. There will be days like this!

This day, I feel good – almost unbelievably, delightfully good. This day I can do simple tasks without pain and enjoy the home-iness of my home. This day I can take real pleasure in my husband’s excitement about his latest pet project. This day I can share my daughter’s joy in dancing. This day I can look forward to spending an evening with friends without effort. This day I can smile in the sunshine and laugh without faking it.

Never forget. Thanks be to God, there will be days like this.

 

Fog by Rebekah Choat

I wrote this some months ago, out of my own experience of a very difficult time. I post it today in limited understanding and great sadness for Robin Williams.

 

image by Chris Choat

image by Chris Choat

The fog does not come pussy-footing
around a bend in the road.
It does not roll in ominously from the sea;
nor does it cascade in slow motion
down the mountain into my valley.

No.

The fog seeps up from the ground,
from this very earth greening beneath my feet.
It does not puddle about my knees,
nor swirl in terrifying eddies around me.

It simply rises to envelop me in a fine mist,
which I cannot help breathing,
cannot prevent my pores absorbing.

Climbing the tallest tree does not lift me above it.
Bathing in the river does not wash it away.
Walking doggedly on does not carry me beyond it.

Not yet.