“To Preserve a Vital Warmth”

“St. Francis” by folk artist Timothy Gasper

Winter’s Delicate Solitude

by Matthew McDonough

This is the closing-in time of the year:
The weary earth rests, leans back and retires;
Pine-quilted hills guard the brink of the world,
Horizons now strangely attainable.
The sky yawns, heavy-lidded and colored
With sleep, and lowers on the lazy creek.
As wind chimes silence their icy tingle,
The streets gather closer; the village curls,
Like a mouse, into itself to preserve
A vital warmth in a long night so still
With cold, so brittle, an unkind word or
A wayward careless thought could shatter it.

From Birchsong: Volume II.
The Blueline Press, 2018.

Winter is a time to turn inward, to follow nature’s invitation to let go of what we no longer need and embrace the months of quiet dormancy. Mouse-like, we “curl” into ourselves to guard the inner spark that feels so easily lost at this time of year, when our culture pressures us into parties and celebrations that offer little more than false warmth and distraction. This also contradicts the call of the soul to pause and rest like that yawning, “heavy-lidded sky” that “lowers on the lazy creek.” If you’re anything like me, at first you resist the desolation of “the weary earth,” and push against the silence that draws us closer to all the emotions that we run from during the rush of summer and the busyness of autumn. I often resent the time change too, the theft of that hour of light from the day that brings on night so much sooner. Yet as the psychologist Sheryl Paul has written: “When we breathe in the darkness instead of running from it, we remember there is nothing to fear. When we meet it, we transform emptiness into fullness and turn what could be a moment of anxiety into a moment of gold.”

Matthew McDonough alludes to this potential anxiety when he gracefully describes the “long night” of winter as being so fragile and delicate, “an unkind word or/ A wayward careless thought could shatter it.” Breathing in the darkness of this time of year means accepting the season as it comes, both outwardly and inwardly, and it means honoring what it brings up for each of us. For me, when gusts of cold air begin to blow through and strip the trees of their sheltering leaves, I instantly think of my father who passed away almost twenty years ago, just a few days before Christmas. I have had to learn over the years not to push away the grief during the holidays, not to tell myself that I should be “over it” by now. I’ve learned to recognize the transition into winter as a very raw time for me, and I’ve adopted a few small rituals which not only allow me to mourn the loss, but also let me grieve the passing of another year. Perhaps this poem invites us to see that winter can be a fraught time for all of us in our own ways. When the snow begins to fly, when frost-flowers gather on the windows, maybe we can remember, for the next few months, that we will need all the careful thoughts and kind words we can get to access the “vital warmth” of our tenderness for each other.

Invitation for Writing and Reflection: How does winter’s fragile and “delicate solitude” show up for you each year? What are the sights and sounds in the natural world that mean the season’s turned over, and what are the signposts in your inner world that let you know the “closing-in time” has come again? How do you preserve your own “vital warmth” during the long and chilly nights?

—James Crews