On a recent trip to Calgary we drove through a magnificent patterned world of kaleidoscopic whites, intensified by blue-grey shadows. Earlier in the morning, fog had filled the valleys. Now just enough sunlight filtered through clouds to clothe every twig and wire with diamonds. The very grasses along the edge of the highway stood taller in their ice-crystal sheaths. In the ditches, snow drifts swooped upward into curled edges, sharply defined, austere. A sculptor could not have shaped cleaner lines or lovelier arcs.
The sky presented itself in softer versions of blue and white with subtle mauve and coral shadings in wispy layers of cirrus clouds. It was not a dreary day, despite the absence of direct sunlight. For eyes that were willing to rest in the quality of distance, the wide-open landscape spoke a quiet welcome. The slight roll of the hills lifted gently into the horizon. On a winter morning it’s hard to tell where land leaves off and sky begins. Unless there are fences to follow the curvature of the earth. Inside that all-surrounding dome of grey and white and blue, warmed here and there with tinctures of pale yellow and orange, each tree matters. So does the occasional raptor poised on the top of a telephone pole, or the single coyote, paused in his purposeful lope across the field.
I have lived in the prairies for all of my three-score-and-ten years (and counting); the muted tones of this winter beauty are hardly new, though each day manifests its own perfection. Once again the silence of the scene quieted my soul.
Reflection is of a different order in winter. Perhaps not indoors where we control our climate, cultivate exotic houseplants, and talk about escapist vacations in places where flowers are dramatic and birds are loudly colourful. Outdoors, the air widens our nostrils, dries our skin, and reminds us of our smallness, our dependencies. Poet William Stafford noted: “It is people at the edge who say / things at the edge: winter is toward knowing.”
Usually we sidestep such knowing through sheer activity. Hardened prairie denizens brag of skating parties, endless hockey games on outdoor rinks or down on the river ice, tobogganing parties, long afternoons of cross-country skiing — all of which are, I agree, entirely delightful. For children especially, snow is the ultimate construction material, just right for anything from forbidden snowballs to ubiquitous snow-people and including snow forts, tunnels in the snow, and quinzhees.
But that’s not what comes to mind as I now remember the drift lines in the ditches and the snow-laden evergreens casting long shadows across the land. What remains always, as a backdrop to my at-home-ness in the bleakest winter scene, is the memory of all the hours of my childhood during which I entertained myself walking alone through the woods around our farm home. Stick in hand with which to draw aimless figures in snow banks or just crunch through the crust of March snow, I wandered physically among trees and willows, and emotionally in a mess of sensations not understood, not expressed. As long as I stayed in my hiding places, I could contemplate my real world if I dared or happily imagine fantastical other worlds. The contours of the woods, with their most secret paths, the ever-fascinating plot lines of animal and bird footprints, were as familiar to me as the coldness of our dog’s nose as she pressed up against me for an affectionate pat.
I remember, in a dark time, when a wise friend loaned me his copy of Martin Marty’s The Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. The opening line of Chapter One, “winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season in the weather,” startled me into attention. Yes, of course. But I had not thought of what that might mean in spiritual terms. Marty’s distinction between “summer spirituality,” which maintains that the norm of faith is joyous, hopeful growth, and “winter spirituality,” which knows that not all stories have happy endings, that reality has always included loneliness and loss, was a reassuring revelation. I felt as if I’d been given permission to enter fully and without guilt into my experiences of absence. After all, without the dormancy of winter, spring does not come to usher in new growth.
This is not the place to provide a summary of Marty’s “modern spiritual classic,” but his use of “horizon” as a dominant metaphor is newly relevant as I remember my childhood wanderings among snow-laden trees, from whose shelter I stared out at the wider scene. “Horizon” is both the act of seeing and one’s personal worldview. There are those — the unbelievers, the atheists, and the modern secularists — who “have perhaps excluded God from their horizon.” And there are believers whose suffering and losses have led them also to know profound Absence, but without excluding God. To move through a wintry season toward a horizon that refuses to block out faith requires a stubborn courage to say Yes to possibilities, without denying that barrenness must be lived through, not papered over with sunny posters of optimistic catch-phrases.
My journey has led, more often than not, toward wintery horizons, although I have known sunny seasons as well. The two kinds of spirituality are not mutually exclusive; each has its season and they may overlap. What I know is that there is beauty in the shadows of winter, a beauty that once recognized and accepted as a necessary gift becomes restful in its own way. To say Yes to the presence of God whether I feel it or not, is to feel at home in winter. It is a white and crystal temple filled with equal parts memory and awe.
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.