Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Burning bright

Last Sunday I served as Worship Associate at USSB and shared this reflection in the service titled, Dark of Winter. I didn't know what the reflection was going to be about when I started writing...I was thinking about winter and cold and darkness and how they resonate for me. Sometimes just writing triggers memories to work through; one of the benefits of having this space to blog.

Welcome 2016. Here's to winter and writing and having community to support you.


I grew up in Michigan, and during my preteen years, in Northern Michigan. Because of where I was raised, I have very particular mental references for what constitutes winter. Snow, of course. Lots and lots of snow. Cold. Burn your nose and ears and fingers cold. The kind of cold that creeps into your clothes and takes a while to shake off once you’re indoors. Blinding whiteness. Everything white and shiny and bright. Glittering whiteness. But the thing I miss most is the quiet.

When it’s so cold and snowy in the heart of winter in northern Michigan, you spend a lot of time indoors. Everyone does. Fireplaces crackle and blankets and slippers are the preferred fashion of the season. Indoors is loud and cozy and bustling with life as you stick close with family and friends to stay warm. In my house, there was a lot of laughter. A lot of reading. My sister and I put on shows for each other. There was safety and love in my house.

That wasn’t true for everyone. Winter in Northern Michigan for some meant being trapped. The winter I was in 7th grade, I went over to a friend’s house after school. You know that feeling, when you walk into an environment and immediately feel like you need to leave? I knew something bad was happening in that house. I could feel the suffocation all around me. I could sense my friend didn’t want me to leave. Her sister clung to me. I could feel the tension from their dad, asking when I was getting picked up. It felt like he wanted me out of there.

When my mom finally did pick me up, I didn’t know how to describe to her what I felt. The days were short then, so even though it was only 5 o’clock, it was already dark as night. When we got home, I went outside to think.

There’s nothing like the dark silence of winter. When heavy snow has fallen, there’s nothing to make noise: no crickets, no birds, just the occasional sound of branches breaking under the weight of heavy snow. Sometimes, when there’s no moisture in the cold air, the snow itself can creak, an icy, low-pitched crunch as the snow gives way underneath you.  I remember sitting in my backyard, thinking about my friend. The cold air hurt to breathe in, but I kinda liked it. It made me feel alive.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless. Maybe that was the first day I really understood what empathy was, knowing that my friend and her sister wanted me, needed me maybe? to help them, but not knowing why or how. I could just feel it. The only thing that made me feel better was sitting in the dark, feeling the cold, and surrounding myself in the deep silence of the winter night.

Eventually, my mom came out to get me, made me brush off the snow in our vestibule, and then brought me in to sit by the fire. She knew I was upset, and she knew that neither one of us could fix it. Sitting in our warm, glowing family room that night felt wrong to me. I wondered what my friend was doing. In the era before junior high kids had cell phones, wondering was all I could really do.

A few weeks later, my friend handed me a note in class. It was a suicide note. I was only 11 years old, but I knew that I couldn’t let me friend hurt herself, even though she had written in the note that if I told anyone, she would never talk to me again. I took the note to my school counselor and there was a huge hubbub. My friend was whisked off to meet with counselors and administrators. Calls were made. I knew big important things were happening, but I didn’t know what. I knew my friend was safe, though...I knew that she had a chance to tell people she could trust what was going on in her life. I still don’t know what those things were. She was true to her word for a long time...she didn’t talk to me, and even when she did, our friendship was never the same.

The rest of that winter, I would go sit outside at night. I would let the air burn my lungs and my toes start to tingle as my boots couldn’t keep out all of the cold after awhile. I would sit in the silence of the heavy, snowy night and think. Did I do the right thing? Was my friend going to be ok? How could I enjoy being inside with the warmth and love of my family when other people were sad, in need, and in pain? 

I still like to sit out in the dark and think, although winter nights are not quite the same in Carpinteria as they are in northern Michigan. There’s no snow to muffle the noise, and no cold air to burn my lungs. But I can remember those feelings, and those nights, thinking about gratitude and fairness and empathy and helplessness. And I can still capture that clarity of vision in the dark that somehow is so elusive in the light.

No comments:

Post a Comment