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.  


so can relate. were you at our company castle there? :) I spent a 4 mo season there just prior to when I was dx'd with cancer which changed my trajectory forever. so appreciate and love reading your posts. keep on keeping on with outside AND inside work ;).