Finding light and life in the midst of January stillness and cold

My January column for the Catholic Free Press

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The long Christmas break (along with the mild weather) is over and reality comes back with a thud. The prospect of a long winter ahead is daunting especially with memories of the epic snowfall amounts of last year still haunting many of us.

I once anticipated January with dread. Winter can be dark, oppressive and confining: the arctic air and biting winds… the deep snows burying the landscape … ice covering the streets and sidewalks … darkness that greets us when we rise and meets us at the end of each work day.

January is a quiet month. Birds don’t come to the feeder; their songs no longer greet me in the morning. Crickets and locusts have gone silent at night.

January was a month without life.

outermost-houseThen I read Henry Beston’s classic, The Outermost House. Beston chronicles a year of his life spent in solitude in an isolated one bedroom cottage which he built and christened the Fo’castle. Built in 1925, the 20 ft. x 16 ft. cottage was located at the edge of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham (now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore). Named a National Literary Landmark in 1964, it was washed out to sea by the Blizzard of ’78.

Originally planning to spent two weeks at the cottage, Beston was so taken with the “beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea … that [he] could not go.” During that year he wrote of the change of seasons and its effect upon his surroundings: the birds, animals, and insects; vegetation; the sand and the waves; the stars in the night sky. His prose is poetic, painting vivid pictures of color and texture. He describes the chaos and despair aroused by a devastating blizzard which nearly washed away his cottage, putting his life in peril. Yet even in the bleakest of settings, Beston’s writing inspires wonder and awe.

The Outermost House changed my perception of January because of Beston’s descriptions of arctic birds migrating down from the north, resting on the beach in the dead of winter. That description lifted me out of my own small circumstance and reminded me that life still goes on around me.

Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons
Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons

There was not only life, but light in the darkness: “Light came slowly into the world, coming not so much from the east as from some vague, general nowhere – a light that did not grow brighter but only increased in quantity.” It reminded me that by the end of January, the sky becomes pink again by the time I leave the office. The days are growing longer and the light, brighter.

January is not unlike time spent in the womb, waiting to be born. The caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly within the confines of the cocoon and breaks through into the sunlight. The baby, its delicate features forming nine months inside the dark, protective womb of its mother, emerges into the light at birth.

We just celebrated the coming of such a baby who brought his eternal Light into the world. His Light pierces the darkness and brings new life.

Ivan Saracino Christ's nativity, Flickr Creative Commons
Ivan Saracino Christ’s nativity, Flickr Creative Commons

So, rather than give in to the melancholy that can come with the conclusion of Christmas and the reality of winter, I seek instead to embrace this Light. It may be cold, snowy and dark outside but within, that Light will increase in brightness and quantity as I take advantage of the quiet of January to bask in it.

The arctic birds are returning to the Outer Cape. The days are growing longer. In the repose of January it is time to partake of the Light of Christ.

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Opening my eyes to winter

I used to hate the winter.

The cold (and the subsequent heavy clothes). The darkness. The snow. The ice. The silence. And how difficult it can be to get around.

I used to hate winter.

Until I read The Outermost House by Henry Beston.

For now I will just elude to it because I am reading it for a second time and taking copious notes, some of which I promise to share in future posts.

I simply want to share that Beston’s observations about the arctic bird migrations observed on the outer shores of Cape Cod in the middle of cold and dark January were enough to inspire me to give winter another chance.

Life does go on, even in the cold and darkness.

Silence does not necessarily mean an absence of life.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know of my lunchtime walks. I work in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a town with the vision to set aside beautiful walking trails in the heart of the town center. I have been walking regularly since the spring and still find new places to go.

My favorite trail is the Brook Path. The town cleared the path of snow and I was able to enjoy a gorgeous and crisp winter’s day walking past the brook. And I realized it’s just as beautiful in its own way in the cold of winter as it is in the warmth of summer.

winter summer 3

The sun, of course, is in a much lower position during the winter and with the absence of leaves on the trees, dances on the water in a most delightful way.

summer winter

There is a greater force in the flow of the water because of the melting snow. At times it nearly rushes despite the small size of the brook.

summer winter2

There are wonderful sensations in the winter. That crunching sound under your feet as you walk. The glistening snow. And the sweet silence.

Walking introduced me to all these things and Henry Beston’s book gave me the impetus to give winter a try. The cold no longer bothers me; movement takes care of that.

I am so grateful that I can find beauty in winter. It’s very different from the carefree summer breezes, fluttering leaves and the air filled with singing birds. It’s quiet and stark, the lines somehow clearer.

Winter is a beautiful thing.

This quote from Henry David Thoreau says it all:

“It has been a glorious winter day, its elements so simple,—the sharp clear air, the white snow everywhere covering the earth, and the polished ice. Cold as it is, the sun seems warmer on my back even than in summer, as if its rays met with less obstruction. And then the air is so beautifully still; there is not an insect in the air, and hardly a leaf to rustle.” Henry David Thoreau

And when I finish  The Outermost House, I will share some of the most beautiful and poetic writing about the natural world that I have ever encountered.

Stay tuned …

Click to Tweet & Share: Opening my eyes to winter, thanks to The Outermost House by Henry Beston

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