“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.”
It was 13 years ago, in February of 2008, that I met Parker Palmer at a presentation he made at the Kalamazoo Central High School Auditorium. The Fetzer institute was the sponsor of the evening’s presentation, entitled “The Soul’s Imperative: Reclaiming Integrity and Courage in Professional and Public Life.” Rebecca and I had driven over from South Haven on a cold winter night to participate in that evening’s gathering.
We had first heard Parker Palmer speak in the spring of 2002 when he served as a keynote speaker at a conference on spirituality in a time of crisis (post 9/11) at Trinity Church, a couple of blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. A few years later, he authored Courage to Teach; Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life and Parker Palmer emerged as a highly influential voice in the field of education. Palmer’s “Center for Courage and Renewal” had likewise become influential in other disciplines as he challenged those in “heartless institutions” to reclaim the integrity of the heart as critical in the workplace and in the service of others. We had high expectations that evening in Kalamazoo and Palmer’s presentation on “the soul’s imperative” did not disappoint.
I will share more on Palmer Parker’s important work through the Center for Courage and Renewal in a future congregational writing. Today, I would like to share an excerpt from an essay he penned for the Fetzer Institute’s retreat center, “Seasons: A Center for Renewal.” From “THERE IS A SEASON: A Meditation on the Cycles of Our Inner Lives,” the excerpt below is his short essay “Winter.” A couple of weeks since the Winter Solstice, with most of the season still before us, perhaps you will resonate with Palmer’s insight in his reflection on winter.
The little deaths of autumn are mild precursors to the rigor mortis of winter. The southern humorist Roy Blount has opined that in the Upper Midwest, where I live, what we get in winter is not weather but divine retribution. He believes that someone here once did something very, very bad, and we are still paying the price for that transgression!
Winter here is a demanding season—and not everyone appreciates the discipline. It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy. And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts.
One gift is beauty, different from that of autumn but perhaps more beautiful still. I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow. Another gift is the reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things. Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter—it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring. Winter is a time when we are somewhat inclined to do the same for ourselves.
But, for me, winter has an even greater gift to give. It comes when the sky is clear, the sun brilliant, the trees bare, and the first snow yet to come. It is the gift of utter clarity. In winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground that they are rooted in.
A few months ago, my father died. He was more than a good man, and these months have been a long, hard winter for me. But in the midst of the ice and loss, I have found a certain clarity that I lacked when he was alive. I see now what was concealed when the greenness of his love surrounded me— how I counted on him to help me cushion life’s harsher blows. He cannot do that for me now, and at first I thought, “I must do it for myself.” But as time has gone on, I have seen something deeper still: it never was my father absorbing those blows but a larger and deeper grace that he taught me to rely on.
When my father was alive, I confused the teaching with the teacher. Now my teacher is gone, but the grace is still there, and my clarity about that fact has allowed his teaching to take deeper root in me. Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.
In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here, people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long frozen months. If you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.
Our inward winters take many forms—failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them—protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance—we can learn what they have to teach us. Then, we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.
“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” This past year of pandemic, economic instability and society upheaval has been, on some level, a long winter of the soul. Perhaps we can discern the clarity of the grace that Palmer describes if we figuratively bundle up and encounter our winter souls, fortifying our spirits by boldly entering into ‘the very heart of the season we fear.’ Perceiving the grace that undergirds life, a true gift of God, we can join arms (at a distance for now) and go forth together into a new season on life’s journey.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity, on this Day of Epiphany, January 6. Today we begin a new season in the church year, a season of revelations and manifestations of Christ Jesus as the one sent to reveal the depths of God’s grace in the world. Even in the early days of a long winter, we proclaim a holy hope.
May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom