winter: abide with me
Since we moved to Maryland in 2008, every winter I struggle with honoring the season. Winter is about death, about letting go, about lying fallow. But every year around this time, I feel overwhelmed with loss and grief and giving up on cherished hopes. Every year, I yearn for spring: new growth, new beginnings, new hopes. And yet, the time is not right for any of that.
In fact, before any of that can happen, first I need to embody winter. Ereshkigal is my patron; you’d think I’d be used to her purview by now.
In preparation for Samhain 2011, I developed a list of personal connections and relationships that were already moribund, and that I needed to release, so they could die all the way. It was surprisingly long. At that time, though, caught up in the holy season, my feelings about the demise of those relationships were muted, resigned. But now here, in January, I feel grief.
Around Samhain, circumstances arose that gave me new hope about three of these (doomed) relationships. Just a few days ago I realized those hopes were not realized. So instead of calmly saying goodbye to something long dead, I have to work through hopes being raised, then dashed, again.
There are so many relationships where what I imagined, and what I hoped for based mostly on those imaginings, were much more colorful, and lively, nourishing and joyful, than any relationships I ever had a chance of having with these people in the real world. Every winter I am reminded of that. And it’s hard.
I am an optimist, but I’m also pragmatic. I will work away on my hopes for these cherished (ideas of) relationships, for years and years. And then, what feels like suddenly (but really has been a slow accumulation), I will come to perceive that those hopes are misplaced. That energy could be, needs to be, put to better use.
And at that point, for me the relationship ends irrevocably. Before then, if the other person had made any sort of heartfelt overture, I would have accepted it joyously, and moved forward into a new future with them. Instead, we were here, at the dock, but I have sailed away. Together we approached the chasm; alone, I crossed the bridge, then cut the ropes and let them fall.
It doesn’t get easier to do it, because each relationship speaks to different parts of me. I know what the process is, so I know I’ll survive it, one way or another. But I don’t know, I can’t know, who I will be once I’ve crossed over. Only that I won’t be the person who hoped for so long.
As part of the same letting go of the past process, two days ago I threw away my high school yearbooks. I’m working on forgetting the names and what snippets of their personal histories I still recall of all of my classmates and ex-childhood friends in Illinois, and anywhere else.
Winter asks me to be here now. To look critically over my current life, and decide: What activities and thoughts have become parasites? What energies can be redirected? Where can space be cleared, for whatever comes next?
If I told someone I know now the name of my high school and what year I graduated, they would not know anything more about me except my age. And I’m not hiding that – I’m 45. Back in high school, I wanted to become a famous biologist, and discover a new organism that would be named after me. Or I wanted to become a famous artist. Or I wanted to be a translator at the United Nations. None of those things have come close to happening. But so what?
There wasn’t any subject that we studied in my Catholic college prep high school that I cared about passionately. There were no art classes whatsoever. As a senior, I was allowed to take one semester of humanities, which was essentially Western art history. So I wrote papers about motifs I found in Fra Angelico’s frescoes, but I never got to create my own paintings. We did a unit on poetry in English one year, but outside of that, I don’t remember any ‘creative writing’. Mr. Kane, my English teacher junior year(?) made us memorize all the monarchs of England, beginning with William the Conqueror. I never could figure out what that had to do with literature. I did enjoy 3-1/2 years of high school Spanish, but I would’ve enjoyed even more studying Spanish art and culture. It was in junior year Spanish that I wrote a paper on Islamic (Moorish) architecture in Spain, which sparked a lifelong interest in cultural mixing zones generally, and Islamic architecture specifically. I took senior year Physics (even though I wasn’t in advanced math) as an elective because I was interested in quantum physics, optics, and fluid dynamics — and then we didn’t cover any of those topics. All the same, I’ve read all sorts of books over the years on quantum physics, chaos theory, nonlinear dynamics. Really, I’ll read about any branch of science, especially those that deal with biology and/or the environment. But also philosophy, which no one ever mentioned in high school.
I became a Pagan post-high school. And, in a lot of ways, that’s when my life really began.
There are plenty of people I knew before 1986 who will not in any way acknowledge that I am now a Pagan, and that this change is deeply meaningful to me; that my life since then cannot really be understood without that salient metamorphosis.
So far, I have not found it possible to sustain satisfying relationships with these people. Perhaps becoming a Pagan first allowed me to realize how much more I could be asking of my relationships than I had been previously. Maybe that change in worldview was the first time I crossed a bridge alone?
I am reminded of a passage I read in late November by Bernard Rollin, who wrote in Animal Rights and Human Morality, 3rd edition:
…the moral gestalt shift that is a necessary prerequisite to any genuine and enduring change in conduct. No one can be argued into morality…. But argument can prepare the ground and plant the seeds that may grow into new moral viewpoints and show anomalies in one’s ordinary perspective that ready us for the possibility of a new, revolutionary shift in attitude. (p. 108; boldness mine).
I had not previously considered that my Paganism might have directly impacted the relationships that have foundered lately.
I did realize that my current Great Work has been taking me further and further away from my previous quotidian concerns. That friends who don’t share my environmental and philosophical concerns are people with whom I can think of fewer and fewer topics to discuss, happenings to share.
Just this morning I read Alice Walker’s words:
The writer — like the musician or painter — must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed (by everyone) to be known. This means, very often, finding oneself considered ‘unacceptable’ by masses of people who think that the writer’s obligation is not to explore or to challenge, but to second the masses’ motions, whatever they are. Yet the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account. (p. 264, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens)
I’m leaving behind everything that once was familiar. Sometimes I want to hurry the process along. I want to quickly slip back into familiarity, being comfortable, knowing anything at all.
But Winter asks me to abide, and I’m trying.