Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017 - No comments

Snow Days in Spring (Sabbatical Part 2)

It wasn’t more than a week after my arrival in Scotland that I spotted The First Snowdrops.    
They were huddled in a clump on the banks of the creek below where I was staying.  Now, for years I’ve wished I lived somewhere that snowdrops grew.  They’ve long been a symbol of “defiant hope” to me - their delicate-yet-powerful white heads forcing their way up through the snow, refusing to let winter win and promising the advent of spring.  There’s a town about two hours away, up in the mountains, that is famous for them, but down here on the Mediterranean coast, we don’t exactly get snow, let alone flowers that poke their heads up through it.  So the prospect of spending February in a place where I could witness their awakening ought to have thrilled my heart.

Except it didn’t.

Snowdrops are all about defying winter.  But I hadn’t come for spring’s “waking up” - I’d come for winter’s “hunkering down”.  And suddenly my favourite little white flowers felt like a threat - an announcement that things were about to get all alive when all I craved was stillness.  And the thing is, I know myself.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist their message of hope.  I’d want to be out there drinking it in, photographing it, reveling in it....  But I couldn’t see how that spirit could jive with the “dormancy” I’d come in search of.  Winter was ending before it had even started, and it had my heart all jumbled.

The thing is, though, spring is kind of irresistible.  It’s seriously hard to resent daffodils and tulips.  Like them, we were made to come alive in the spring.  And as those persistent snowdrops started to take over the glen, and every little walled garden on the way into town, I was won over in spite of myself.  With the appearance of every new patch of flowers (and those crocuses come out early in Scotland!) something woke up inside of me:  a longing to blossom and bloom.

And that’s when the Gardener reminded me why I’d come in search of winter in the first place.  Dormancy was never an end in and of itself.  Bare branches and slow sap flow and the relief of not having to sustain all those leaves was never the goal;  it was only the means by which my tree would get the rest it needed in order to then be healthy and produce fruit.  Winter was as unto spring.  And that’s where the wild Scottish weather was the perfect companion for me - the appearance of flowers didn’t stop the freezing wind from blowing, and I still needed long johns under my jeans for those long walks on the beach.  It was very clearly still winter.  My days were still all about quiet and the work going on deep inside.  I didn’t have to embrace the activities of spring just yet - but I desperately needed the hope it carried.

It was a relief not to have to close my heart to the snowdrops, fearing that they would steal my rest.  They were the assurance that all that “ruthless stillness” had a purpose.  Mine was not a season of rest marked by plain old depletedness.  It was rest infused with the hope of rejuvenation.  Sap would again flow through my veins.  There would yet be blossoms and blooms on my branches.

But even as I was sinking blissfully into my season of hibernation, events were in motion within my closest circle of relationships back in Turkey that made it pretty clear that I’d need to head back sooner than hoped to be a part of some crucial transitions, endings, and new beginnings.  No matter the state of your heart, some things just have to be walked through together.  As I weighed the decision about my return, I struggled, knowing that I hadn’t had nearly enough winter and was so not ready for spring.  Suddenly all those flowers weren’t feeling like friends.  Cutting my still-fragile tree’s dormancy short sounded like being yanked out of the safety of my blanket of snow into the glaring sunlight of spring.   I knew I’d need to participate with my whole heart, and that the season would require me to use the “fully formed fruit” of all the rest and clarity and healing that was still so very half-baked and in process.  I knew it was “the right thing to do.”  But it sounded like a recipe for disaster.  And I was terrified.

I took my confusion to the Gardener.  

I asked Him about my “wintering tree”.  Everything I’d read told me it was dangerous to the life of a plant to force it out of dormancy too soon.  Had winter done its full work?  Would I be ready to bear fruit come spring if I hadn’t gotten all I needed out of the previous season?  Wouldn’t this pre-mature re-entry into my usual world send me straight back to burnout, worse off than when I started?

His answer came on a walk into town.  He drew my eyes to the purple crocuses and bright yellow daffodils scattered on hillsides and adorning every garden.  He pointed out the budding branches, the pink and white blossoms appearing on every twig.  “This is your heart,” He said.  “You’re already in spring.”  

This took me by surprise.  I didn’t feel strong.  I didn’t feel ready.  But as He walked me back through my weeks there on the North Ayrshire coast, I saw that He was right.  No, I hadn’t read “enough” novels, or done all the writing I wanted, or climbed every hill I’d wanted to explore.  But what I had done was the hard work of letting my heart be transformed.  I’d surrendered my heart to the Gardener’s shears, allowing Him to prune and bind up and heal.  “Coming away into winter was right at the time,” He told me.  “But it’s not time to fight to stay dormant any longer.  See all those buds on your branches?  It’s time to let them open up and bloom.  They’re still tender, they’re not fully formed, but they’re buds nonetheless.  Now is the time to ask Me to protect them so they can mature.  To keep them safe from biting winds and late frosts that would snap them off or snuff out their life in their infant stage.  To ask for favourable conditions so they can flower and flourish and bear much fruit.”

He promised that He wouldn’t abandon the work of His hands.  That He was ready and able to shepherd my tree out of winter and into spring.  He was fully aware that the work wasn’t done yet, but He asked me to trust Him with the care and nurturing of my branches - to believe Him when He said that He was going to accomplish in the context of community what I thought could only be accomplished in solitude.  That what I thought could only happen on the rainy coast of Scotland was indeed going to come to fruition under the hot Mediterranean sun.  

And then, in the middle of a brief but magical snowfall that tickled the daffodils and crocuses with white, He spoke the most reassuring promise:  “I will still give you snow days in spring.”  Those words dispelled the last of my anxiety about my return home.  “Snow days” conjure up images of staying home from school in cozy pajamas, of hot chocolate and Hardy Boys books and card games and generally getting to hit pause on normal life, just for a bit.  It was the assurance that I didn’t have to leave all my “winter’s work” behind in Scotland - that there would be time, even in the bright sunlight of the new season, to step out for an hour or a day and continue to let the stillness do its work.  

I could trust the One who holds the seasons in His hands to bring mine to completion.

And you know what?  He has been so true to His word.  I came home to one of the most emotionally intense, relationally trying seasons of my life.  But there’s been so much grace.    And what I feared would happen - that my fragile little buds would crumple under the weight of so much upheaval and transition - hasn’t happened at all.  Quite the opposite.  In the midst of - and I dare say because of - new configurations in my closest community and the major transition of moving from my home of ten years in the village to a brand new world in the city, the work that was happening deep inside me was accelerated.  It’s been complemented and completed, rather than stolen from or aborted.  The intensity of this spring has solidified what began in the stillness of winter, and in rising to the occasion, I’ve been able to walk out into the newness of what’s happened inside of me.  Those buds have become full-on flowers.  

Now that the boxes are more or less unpacked in my new home and most of the relational puzzle pieces that were thrown up in the air a few months ago have settled snugly into their new configurations, I’ve been able to enjoy a few more “snow days” in recent weeks.  I’ve spent time reading through journal entries from the past year, making paintings and photographs to immortalize the gems of the season, and trying to bring some closure to it all before I head home to Canada for the summer.  But I’ve been finding that, more than “finishing up heart-work that still needed to be done”, these snow days have been times of recognizing and celebrating the incredible work that has come to completion without me even really realizing it.  

He who holds the seasons in His hands truly knows how to bring out the fullness of each one, even when they overlap or seem to come out of order.  I’m no longer looking longingly back at winter, wishing it could last just a little longer.  I’ve run headlong into the “new life” of spring, and am ready to embrace all the joy that summer promises.

(Right on time, too, cuz it’s 32 degrees out and I’ve got friends coming to town for a birthday celebration next week.  And I am so not wearing my winter coat to the beach!)  ;)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday, June 09, 2017 - 1 comment

Winter's Work (Sabbatical Part 1)

There’s a famous story told around these parts involving me, a plant with pretty purple flowers, and a pair of scissors.  One late summer’s day, many moons ago, my roommate told me it would be a good time to harvest the basil from the plant out on the balcony.  So with visions of pesto and a well-sprinkled salad dancing in my head, I grabbed the scissors and went outside.  A few minutes later, my roommate came into the kitchen and gasped in horror as she saw me rinsing a colander-full of leaves from the one plant the gardener hadn’t killed while we were gone over the summer.  The basil, with its slightly lighter purple flowers (and, I now know, rather different-shaped leaves) was still sitting happily in one piece in its pot on the balcony.  And all I wanted to know was, “Can I still use these leaves in the salad?”

My point?  I am not a gardener.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  

And yet, despite my uncanny ability - by overactive scissors or watering cans-  to kill green things, pretty much alllll the revelations I’ve had in the last year have involved plants.  Well, trees, mostly. Roots and leaves and rings and sap.  Buds and blossoms, too.  So I’ve taken to reading articles about pruning and photosynthesis and forest growth just to understand what’s being spoken to my own heart.

Last year was a rough year, to put it mildly.  An extended summer at home due to wanting to be with my mom through a difficult season of health problems had allowed for a degree of rest, but as I prepared to return to Turkey in November, I felt like I was returning having only “come up to zero.”  The thought of trying to jump back into life and somehow muster up vision and energy was a tiring one.  I felt about like this pathetic little branch - desperately wanting to bear fruit, but lacking any sort of life in my empty hands.

It was then - through some conversations with some wise friends - that I started to sense a call to dormancy.  To winter.  To a season where this little tree could hunker down, cease all activity, and rest as unto coming back to life.  

Dormancy, I learned, is when trees shed their leaves and use all the energy they would have spent “feeding them” for what’s happening inside and underground.  “It’s similar to hibernation, since most animals who hibernate store food as fat, and then use it to run their essential systems during the winter, rather than grow any more.  The tree’s metabolism also slows down during dormancy...  Since it has to conserve the food it has stored, it’s best if the tree uses it up slowly, and only for essential functions.”

One article talked about the danger of forcing a plant to “skip its period of dormancy” by controlling the temperature and light in its environment.  But this dramatically shortens its lifespan and is bad for the overall health of the plant.  I realized that by not giving myself the chance to rest and refuel that I so desperately needed, I was doing something that might seem “productive” in the immediate future, but would seriously hinder my ability to make it over the long haul.

So I started to make plans for a sabbatical.

In the time between getting the “invitation” to come away for winter and actually leaving for my sabbatical in Scotland, I would notice bare, leafless trees whose branches had been cut back to stubs and think, “I can’t wait to be just like you.”  While winter often sounds “bleak and depressing”, I craved its ruthless stillness.

In its portrayal of the seasons our souls go through, Mark Buchanan’s book “Spiritual Rhythm” perfectly captured what I was after:

“Pruning is another winter’s work.  A tree’s dormancy strips the thing to bony nakedness, fruitless, leafless, ugly.  A tree in winter is useless and unsightly.  But it has this one advantage:  you can cut the wood deep, right back to its trunk if you must, and the tree will survive.  If it’s done right, the tree will be better for it come springtime:  stronger, shaplier, more vigorous.  Above all, more fruitful.”

“Pruning strengthens our core.  It takes energy that is dissipated over a wide span, branching every which way, and distills it into the trunk and a few solid arms.  That means spring will find you lean and strong, ready to bear much fruit.”

“Winter is when you submit to the vinedresser’s pruning shears.  Winter’s not for adding things, but for cutting things.  It’s the best season - the safest one, actually - to look closely at all the tangled branches of your life - the travel, the committee work, the various projects, the hobbies that have become burdens or obsessions, the trivial pursuits, the diversions; or the ingrown snarl of things, the lists in your head of people and situations to worry about, the proliferation of responsibilities that aren’t really yours - and ask honestly if  those are bearing fruit or just sapping energy.  And then, without apology or even caution, cut to nothing all that gives nothing.”

That was my goal.

The end of January was the beginning of my “winter season.”  It found me in Scotland, on the wind-whipped, rain-drenched, and occasionally (if only for five minutes) snow-graced Ayrshire coast.  My spacious, bookshelf-lined room was the perfect introvert’s haven, and the bare trees in the glen just a few steps outside my door were the ideal backdrop to my season of being “cut back to nothing.”  Things might have looked bleak on the surface...but I knew that a deep work was going on underground.

My winter was one of long, bundled-up tromps on the beach, pounding my questions out over miles of dark sand and receiving the peace that came with each wave that lapped at my Wellies.  It was strolls through the glen, feeling a sense of kinship with the wintering trees, seeing my own heart in their stripped-bare branches.  It was steaming mugs of coffee and rain streaming down window panes and page upon page of untwisting my heart and mind in my journal.  It was a table covered in pencil shaving and eraser bits, brush pens and a watercolour palette as I explored new creative ways of expressing what was going on inside of me.  It was times of going deep with people who were like assistant gardeners, aiding the Vinedresser as He chopped and pruned, extracting unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs, and getting rid of dead branches so the living ones had space to flourish.  It was breathing deeply of fresh, clean air and feeling the tingle of sap flowing through my veins once again.  

It was a long stretch of dormancy as unto coming back to life.