the weather ski

It is not winter anymore, but I think this essay is more about hope and heart than snow, and maybe even in June we have things to learn about the cold.

When I was in high school, my family went on a ski trip to a town a few hours drive east of our home. It was a once-each-winter trip. Most years we’d drive there in the morning and drive home after they closed, unpacking the ski boots and snow pants on sore feet at midnight. This year, some friends who lived nearer the slopes were out of town, and offered us the use of their home. We accepted gladly.

In the morning, when we were cooking a big breakfast and slowly stretching out our legs, we noticed a single cross country ski standing straight up out of a drift in front of the kitchen window. It was blowing slightly in the wind. Mom chuckles at the kitchen sink, and points it out to Dad when he joins her. They laugh together, and the sound draws all five of us kids, pushing and crowding around their shoulders. 

“Maybe it’s a Weather Ski,” Dad jokes, and puts on a radio announcer voice, “Yes, the weather ski is bent at just a ten degree angle, so light winds today. Keep a watch out for black ice.”

My brother chimes in: “Friends, the weather ski is at a forty-five degree angle; looks like a real blizzard out there!” We laughed together companionably and then scattered again, leaving Mom still washing dishes and the curved, colorful ski bobbing in the intermittent breeze.

Now it is springtime in 2020. I never planned to check the weather as part of my morning routine. Usually I just dress for whatever the day might bring. Jeans, a t-shirt, a jacket, a down vest over it all if it’s cold. But this year, almost the entire nation is under a quarantine. We’re fighting a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. And since I’m not getting dressed in a hurry to take my toddler to play dates and library programs, I’m slowing down to check the weather. That single app on my phone with its prediction of sunshine and temperatures is the indicator of whether we’ll even get outside. My mood seems to rise and fall with the weekly highs and lows. 

Some weeks are warm and sunny. The highs reach for the 70’s for days in a row. I put on shorts and dig out 3T shorts for a toddler who still calls them pants and we find sun hats for him and his sister. We wrangle out the double stroller and head for the grassy spaces in the park. The weather has smiled on us. In weather ski talk, maybe the ski is fading and peeling in the heat – a warm one today folks! 

But intermittently, cold days come. Back in Minnesota, the ski is probably bobbing lightly in the wind while its snowdrift takes on a new layer of white. Here, our red-brick patio slowly disappears under a steady film of flakes. So does my energy. The two-year-old runs from one part of our tiny home to another until he feels the cooped atmosphere too. Then he lags and droops like a wind-bent ski-tip, clinging to me when I let him and sliding to the floor in despondency when I try to get up, do the dishes, finish the laundry – anything to spur us into motion. 

Sometimes it is cold for so many days that I stop checking. I don’t open the curtains in the morning. There doesn’t seem to be much point. Who wants to look at the tired, frozen pile of snow on the patio anyway? The little blue toddler truck that he pushes with his feet is as deeply buried as the real vehicles that we’re not using – that’s what happens when you stay at home for a full month I suppose. I take one look at the picket fence and see the snow in delicate heaps on its ridged top, and I lose hope for the day. The sudden mischief of a black squirrel brushing snow off in bursts, left and right, as he scampers along the rails is lost on me. I’ve already turned back inside to wonder what will become of our day, stretched long and white until the distant evening.

I forced myself out for a walk one cold day. “Won’t I need a coat?” I wondered out loud. “No, just a vest,” my husband reassured me. He gave me a searching look, as if he knew I’d already resigned myself to all the warm layers I’d wear to fend off the cold. “Well then I’m wearing a hat,” I replied in defiance of his optimism. 

I felt like a stranger to the sunshine, walking down the sidewalk towards the park. The air was cool, but not as cold as I had anticipated. The snow had stopped. The sun was lowering towards dusk but miraculously still held some warmth. I let myself take big breaths of the air I hadn’t smelled in days. It was cold and unscented in the dust and impossibly fresh. It tasted like morning air, spring air. My soul seemed to tiptoe forward with cupped hands and shining eyes, like a shy child. I smiled at the masked strangers as we gave each other wide berths – walking off the sidewalk around each other when we passed. 

I have never been the first one out into the snow on a cold day. Not when I lived in Minnesota and adored the “snow globe” days of large flakes coming down slow in the still world. Not when the pines were lightly adorned with picture-worthy white on their branches. Not when the neighbor plowed the drifts from our driveway into one large, snow-fort-worthy heap. But I was once more resilient. I remembered how to see past the cold to the beauty. Snow may be frozen but it sparkles in the light. Winter may be cold but laughter in the outdoors is warm. The weather ski anchored in a drift outside the kitchen window may be bending and dipping in the wind but it’s not waving a frantic warning – it’s just an indicator, like the snow on the patio tells me nothing more than that it is snowy outside. Snow can’t tell me if I’ll find joy when I go out, or whether the work of bundling two children two-and-under into thick snow pants for a short walk will be worth it or not. The weather can only tell me if I need a vest or a coat, not if I’ll find hope in the too-bright sun and air that’s still somehow fresh as a mountain morning. 

It turns out we DO have fun outside, even if some days it’s just poking our heads out to see how cold it really feels. But at least I’m learning not to rely on how far out of the shade the patio snow drift is lying. The weather ski has been reduced again to just that – an old, slightly faded cross country ski nodding along to the wind and the drifted snow – not a needle on the gauge of hope that bends closer to zero as the wind speed increases. I check the app on my phone and plan which part of the day is best for a walk – when will the wind die down, when will the stroller find the least resistance in the snow? When can we get outside in the cool air and carve hope out of the sunshine? I check the weather and I think of the old weather ski, and I smile. 

dandelion moments

I was standing down by the lake-edge, blinking back tears of goodbye and wishing this rich green Minnesota environment could be mine all the time. And then I turned and saw my toddler blowing a dandelion that had gone to seed, the magic of it as much in his eyes as in the wish he doesn’t know how to make yet. The almost-physical ache I had felt faded soft as the lapping lake water. I could be ok, with moments like this that slip in with unexpected happiness. I chased the boy around with my camera, instructing him to blow. Mom even grabbed him a new dandelion when the first one was out of seeds. I went inside with thoughts of dandelion hope echoing through the punchy grief of my goodbyes.

I have a tendency to let moments like this disappear into the humdrum of my days. When I curl up on the couch in the evening and my husband asks how my day was, these aren’t the things I think of first. My automatic response is to describe the lakeshore, the tears, the goodbyes, the ache I didn’t want to feel. And then I look forward to the next hard thing: I say words like, “And now we’re home and he’ll have to get used to not being the center of attention all the time; he’ll cry and hang on my legs, and ask for special treats like Larabars and his pacifier.” I forget the dandelion wishes until the very end: “There were a few good moments. Erik was so cute, blowing a dandelion with his lips all full and pursed. But I don’t know if I got any good pictures.”

I’d like to think we color our perspectives beginning with the best and happiest memories, but I don’t think it’s true. I felt joy just as strongly as pain but I focused on what was hard and hurtful instead of what was beautiful. It’s easy to do, honestly. Hard moments do make a strong impression on us. Hurt is real. Goodbyes suck. And just like that, the rain clouds that lasted for half-an-hour are all we can remember of our sunny days. It’s like a trick we help our own memories play. Like the movie Inside Out; let Sadness touch one memory and it all turns blue. No amount of scolding from Joy can stop the infectious touch spreading across a myriad of dandelion moments.

It feels like that’s an inevitable truth; the memories that sit strongest with you will color your whole day – maybe eventually your whole life. And what if your whole life, day by day, turns blue? But I don’t think that’s the whole picture, not quite.

I think we have a say in the process. I think we have a voice in the way these memories shape us – we give them some of their power and we can take some of it away. And maybe we’ll never be able to erase the hurting parts of our days. Goodbyes will always be painful, won’t they? But we don’t need to erase pain to feel joy. We just need to feel it, to really see it and honor it and give it the place it should have. And that might take some fighting.

I think we can turn our lives bright again in small but meaningful ways if we really pay attention. The deep, the real and the magnificent exist for each of us if we are willing to notice it and hold on. I can’t tell you how you will do this. There isn’t a prescription for joy because no two lives or circumstances are the same. No two people feel and capture and remember emotions the same way. Your dandelion wishes will look different from mine, even if you have a dandelion-blowing toddler trundling across the dewy grass, enchanting his aunts and grandma all together. But that said, I do have a few ideas.

  1. Write it down. Sit with your thoughts and memories at the end of a day or early the next morning and just scribble a few notes of the things that made you smile. Dandelion blowing. The airplane ride with a toddler that actually went really well. Dewy grass on my feet for one last morning, before we returned to dry Colorado. Let these things grow into a habit and you will begin to find the permeating ability of joy.
  2. Take pictures. Maybe only one in one hundred will be instagram worthy and honestly, isn’t that ok? Taking a photograph can help you remember. It may pop up in your memories, or maybe Google photos will throw it into a video for you. Or your mother will ask you for those photographs and years later you’ll find them tucked in a box or an album somewhere, and you’ll remember.
  3. Ponder. When you have those quiet seconds, the waiting seconds when you could pick up a phone and scroll, just review your own hours. Look for the beautiful things. It’s there, it’s waiting – just hunt through your own memories and dig them up. Color your days in the in-between seconds. And maybe when you find yourself lying in bed at night, you’ll realize that even with the goodbyes and the long travel and the way he cried all the long drive back from the airport, it was a day of dandelion moments.

songbirds

It can be hard to figure out what to write in this space some days. I’m not always a thinker of deep thoughts, a studious philosopher-type.

Some days I just take long walks with the wind a little too cold on my ears and the stroller bumping against my palms and I look for reasons to be grateful. These days the reasons come in the form of songbirds. They sing brazenly from the tops of pines, invisible but vibrantly present. They warm me to my core, ears and all, somehow. I think maybe it’s not even just the birds; maybe it’s the reminder that the long migration of winter will end.

I hear the songbirds and I think of blooming crabapple trees, of smelly Bradford Pears that look like white mist. I think of flowers; some bloom in orderly beds and some grow riotously beyond their own borders and some just pop up wild, like the pink wild roses in tangled hedges at camp. I think of sunshine that feels warm on bare skin. I think of the hours we spend with friends, finally outside again after months of playing indoors, meeting in coffee shops or bundling up for short walks to the park.

Summer feels like freedom until it’s here and then it brings the same regularity of discipline and cultivated habits that I’ve had all year. It’s a strange life to see summers as free time all our growing up years until one day we’re grown up and summers are still work time. But in the middle of the work time that used to be free, I realize again and again that moments of free-heartedness never really left. Because there were songbirds singing here in the middle of winter.

There are belly-laughs in the longest days of parenting. There are breakthroughs in the most drudging hours of writing. The sun breaks through the sky for a sunset glow on the gloomiest cloudy days. There’s always something.

So hang in there. Raise your eyes above the snow drifts and look at the wild blue sky. Even on the darkest night, the stars are still shining above the clouds. Remember the songbirds, because they remember you.

advent

I do not feel excited about advent. I didn’t last year either. My instinct is to ask What is wrong with me?

Anticipation and preparation are the two words most used the last week, talking about advent. Instagram is going wild with it. We’re doing a series in church, and even most of my favorite podcasters are talking about it. But I don’t anticipate advent. I picture myself sitting hushed with glowing eyes while we light the first advent candle and whisper eternal promises to Erik out of an old Bible with gilded edges. And when I see that picture I experience no feelings. Hope doesn’t thrill out of the magic-infused candle that is supposed to remind us of hope. I just see a purple candle.  

And preparation? I scarcely prepare dinner for us three at night, much less seasonal fairy lights, Christmas wreaths, a tree that Little E will pull ornaments off. No, I haven’t prepared for advent.

Really I just feel lonely. Like somehow my cell phone to God is out of range. I could dial and wait for him to pick up, but he won’t because I don’t have any reception. I could talk but it’d be pointless. I know it’s not true but sometimes the untrue things feel so very, very true it’s hard to see clearly what they are.  

Perhaps this is my own advent. A season of quiet. Anticipating. Waiting to give gifts. Waiting to receive gifts. Waiting for the feeling of cold December air and warm December hearts to thaw my frosted-over edges.  

Maybe I don’t need to remember the 400 years of silence that Israel experienced; maybe what I need to know that even after 400 years that seemed to never end, God still spoke. God still came. The Time That Felt Like Forever was over with the birthed babe sleeping in soft straw. My own times that feel like forever will be over too. I can cling to the advent promise even when the cheerful advent heart eludes me. I can watch the flickering Hope-candle that doesn’t go out because maybe it will flicker my own hope back to life.  

Advent, this year, is less the remembrance and more the reminder. God is coming. God is coming. God is coming. It is less the lighted preparation and more the steady looking forward. The silence will end. The ache will end. The loneliness will end.  

It will. I will light a candle and remember; the silence breaks, in the end. Breaks into bright scattered fragments made beautiful when the light shines on them.  

bird’s-eye view

My first memory of a valley was a deep, lush place near the home I was born in. We lived there until I was seven. I never knew when the route to our destination would take us through the valley; the rising walls of trees around us always came as a surprise, and always took my breath away.

This valley was a river valley. We wound down between the hills on one side and passed a tiny yellow house that was significant for some reason Mom can remember and I cannot. When I read about Anne Shirley’s visit to the home she was born in, that is the house I picture. As we slipped down towards this otherworldly place, Mom would sing Down in the valley, valley so low…  We crossed a small bridge in the middle. I twisted around in my seat to watch while we wound up the other side. The first valley I met was magical.

I recently read Come Matter Here by Hannah Brencher. Chapter five is titled Walk in the Valley. Valley days are ordinary days. They are the opposite of mountaintop days. They’re days where you can’t see out the sides of where you’re headed. You just follow the running water up, up, trying to enjoy the beauty while you set your feet and heart towards the end of it all.

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I loved my little valley growing up. I love the valley I can see now; I know exactly when I’ll drive through it. I look over the edge of the range and see it while I’m raising a trail of dust on the washboard-gravel roads.

I came through a season of metaphorical valley-days lately, just like the ones Hannah Brencher talks about. Somehow I’m living physically and spiritually and emotionally with a bird’s-eye view. When I look down past the grassy range towards the spread-out city in the valley below, I think of the openness of space I occupy, the openness of heart I experience, the open-handedness of God I see. It is helpful to see things from above once in a while.

My old journals give me hope. I’m not where I was those years in the valley. For years now I’ve been writing down the almost-insignificant things I’m grateful for. They’ve given me the hope and help I needed to trust God when I couldn’t see out the lush, green hills that were walls, no matter how pretty. I understand valleys differently now. Sometimes they’re just a place you drive through unexpectedly on your way somewhere else. Sometimes they’re places you live, in a little house woven about with dreams and stories you can’t remember.

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I know those days will come again in a different way. I won’t be walking in the clouds forever. But looking down from above gives me courage. Mountaintops have their place too. Valleys – everyday ordinariness – can be lovely. Maybe it just takes a bird’s eye view to see it sometimes. Perhaps it takes the gradual descent through the hills singing all the while, the slow climbing on the other side, to recognize the beauty that the valley holds.

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