Winter Meditation



It has been a long time since I’ve been a fan of winter. Here in northern Indiana, winter is a series of dim gray days and snowstorms, with only occasional bursts of blue skies and sunshine.

After a heavy snowfall, I wiggled into two layers of pants, a long-sleeved tee and sweater before topping it with my down jacket. I wrapped a ruffled brown scarf around my head, tied it under my chin and then topped it with a knit cap. The previous night’s snowfall covered the driveway—again—and the city’s snowplows had pushed the snow to the curb, blocking my driveway from the street, making a quick exit impossible.

Grabbing the shovel from the garage, I began the slow process of pushing snow to the side of the driveway. Push, scoop, then toss. I hoisted the shovel to throw the snow on the growing pile, which was already three feet high. Push, scoop and toss, each time making sure that I did not gather so much snow that it was too heavy to lift.

I smile when I think of my brother’s teasing, “For someone who claims to hate cold weather, it’s funny how you keep heading further north every time you move.” He’s right; every move to a warmer climate seems to be followed by a move to one that is much colder.

There have been times when winter was fun, when I could appreciate the season despite its chilly nip at my bones. I recall making angels in the snow and snowmen with my brothers. There were days when we took out the silver saucer and rode it down the hill or dragged each other around. Those are good memories. In college, before I had to drive in the snow often, the first snowfall always occurred in October. My university was not that far from Lake Michigan and when the snow travelled eastward, it picked up more and more moisture, dumping it on northern Indiana and Michigan. I did not complain; back then it was fun. With the first snow, the kids from cities down south or the west coast were the most excited. The flurries would beckon them, luring them outside. Looking through the windows at the falling snow, they tossed on their light jackets, maybe gloves and a hat, and ran outside. They tried to make snow balls, not yet understanding that they needed to wait until there was a blanket of snow, otherwise the balls would be a mix of snow, dry leaves and blades of grass. It was better if it had snowed during the night, so that by morning the landscape had shifted from green and brown to white.

That was many years ago and by the end of February, I usually have had enough of cold weather. The best parts seem to be over—the food fest that is Thanksgiving, the holiday parties, the gathering and giving of Christmas and New Year’s Eve—these events center around time with family and friends, with special food that only comes once a year. I decorate for the holidays, going a bit more rustic and golden for Thanksgiving, and then changing into reds and greens for December.

When it is this cold I feel trapped, isolated from the world. It is too cold to walk outside and sometimes the streets are too icy and slushy to make driving safe. Winter requires slowing down, and I am forced to pay attention and move without hurrying.

Looking outside I see my neighbors’ rooftops, the ones usually hidden by tree limbs, leaves and shrubbery during the rest of the year. I think I really should learn the names of these bushes. One is tinged red at the topmost branches, where the growth is newer from last summer. Not a dogwood, I decide. The large viburnum near the dining room window has lost nearly all of its fragrance and leaves; the ones remaining hang like brown, desiccated bats, sleeping upside down among barren branches.

I see one red roof, with a stripe of snow that has not melted. The sky is gray and cloudy, so the sun has not done its work.

I hear the chimes clanging outside. I purchased them for their pleasant sound, and when I got home I took them outside to the sunset room, the small screened-in porch that is just off of the dining room.

When it is windy in the winter I hear the chimes more often than I do when the weather is warmer; perhaps it is because there are fewer outside distractions in winter and nothing to buffer the sound. The landscape is white, sometimes so white that when it is windy that it is the only thing I see—whiteness, like a blank canvas, ready for whatever the artist chooses to place on it. The trees, except for the conifers and one resilient bush, are brown and bare. The only sounds I hear are the occasional clicks of the furnace kicking back on and the scratch of my pen against paper. Maybe that is why I hear the chimes more frequently—the world, inside and out, is still.

There go my chimes again, reminding me that there is life and movement outdoors.

I called a friend and told her I was feeling low for no apparent reason, trapped like a snow prisoner.

“What was your intention for this winter?” she asked, “ I remember talking to you about this a couple of months ago.”

Like a fierce wind, the memory rushed back.

“I said that this winter was going to be different. Instead of complaining about the cold, I’ll be grateful for the opportunity for restoration that comes with this season.”

Just as nature needs to rest and shore up energy for the promise and renewal of spring, so do I. Now I am learning how to be in flow with nature, not fighting against it.

The chiming has stopped, waiting for the next burst of wind.


Yard Work is Meditation

spring grass in sun light and defocused sky

As I get older, I am becoming more like my grandfather.  I needed a break after writing and went out for a walk when my true inclination is to get ice cream. It is hot today, in the 90s, and my day started early, probably in the same manner that my grandfather would have started a sweltering summer day — early, and in the garden.

Like a farmer or gardener who has learned to become familiar with rain forecasts and the path of the sun as the day passes, I know that if I want to work in the lower part of my backyard, the section filled with daisies, hosta, violets and peony leaves, I need to be out there early, before the sun has swept over the tall trees and the neighbor’s fence. Today’s project was simple — weed the flowerbeds, yank up the vine with its slender tendrils that thicken and choke the less resilient plants. I had chopped some limbs off a bush a few days ago, but left the shorn branches in the yard, so those need to be carried off to the yard waste bin.

On days like this I recall my grandfather’s yard, his backyard in particular. The lawn, though small, was always neatly trimmed, the geraniums and petunias spilled out of pots and whirly-gigs spun around at the slightest of breezes. He had summer parties there until the year before he passed away. He was always busy in that yard, tending to a plant, painting a chair that needed a refresh, working a little bit every day. If I happened to stop by, he would offer me a drink of something cool and there were always nuts or candy in the dish on the cocktail table in the living room.

Always a fine dresser, on those days I would catch him in his work clothes, a pair of old chinos, a tee shirt, worn but never raggedy. I wonder if working in the yard was as meditative for him as yard work has become for me.

I could call what I do gardening, but I prefer the phrase yard work; it captures the honor of simple labor and tending to nature. Every time I go outside, I feel a deeper connection to the earth, and to God. When I was little I played outside but never got really dirty; childhood allergies and asthma gave me a pass from outside labor.

But now I love the work, the dirt under my nails, the recognition of what is plant and what is called weed, the sharp tools, each one designed for a purpose. I like my three pairs of gloves, red, yellow and gray, and know that on some days I will be so immersed in my work that two pairs might get soaked from working in a dewy patch or digging in the moist soil. No bother, I simply set them out to dry in the sun and grab the third pair.

I am learning to accept the bugs, bees, and butterflies that coexist to make my little patch thrive. I laugh when I remember how I jumped the first time I saw a toad sitting in a cool spot near the back fence, too sluggish to move away, but seeming to say, this is my home too.

After a morning in my backyard, as the sun rises to the point where the shade is no more and the rays are making me sweat, I decide that I have done enough for one day and it is best to stop before I get too hot, too tired, or the work becomes a chore and the element of calm dissipates. I have learned that this translates to other areas of my life, learning when I have done enough, and can stop to rest.

I take a shower, have a light breakfast and then I am ready to work some more, only this time at my desk. I can write now. And when I am done with the day’s writing, I will walk again. When I think of my yard work and walking, that is when I feel connected to my grandfather. He never owned a car, preferring to take the bus, walk, or when he was older, had his children drive him to the grocery store or run errands.

Tomorrow I will start my morning in the front flowerbed, picking out the plants that will otherwise overtake the others, watering the roses, sniffing the basil that is in a small container on my front step. I will fuss over the two pots of ornamental grass that I rescued from the twenty-five cent rack at the garden store, and look for a small sign that they are recovering from a lack of water and too much sun.

I will be grateful for this small connection to the earth, remember my grandfather and begin the day’s work.