We May Be Done with Winter…but Winter Is Not Done with Us

Yesterday after church, the Rev. and the boy and I watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again.

It seemed somehow appropriate to our current situation.

Stuck in what feels like an unending winter.

Encased in ice.

Under a flat gray sky.

We’re halfway through April, if you can believe it.

These poor quince buds have been waiting and waiting to bloom.

The trees have been waiting to sprout new growth.

Even the evergreens seem tired of it all.

We wait eagerly for the next season.

And comfort ourselves with what we hope is one last fire.

Goodbye, February

It’s twelve degrees warmer this morning in mid-Michigan than it is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, we’ve had a string of unseasonably warm days. Last week we had a rapid melt of over a foot of snow, plus two days of steady rain, causing the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers to flood. There were small-scale evacuations in neighborhoods near the rivers. And then we had three days in a row that felt like early May.

We’ll be back down in the 40s for the first couple weeks of March, which is more appropriate for this time of year, and there are still some snow showers in the forecast, but not much. I understand that groundhog saw his shadow way back at the beginning of the month, but I guess marmots are not the best prognosticators of global weather patterns.

I’m always happy to see February drift away in the rear view mirror. This year I have spent most of the month on moving rooms around in my house. A small, enclosed staircase with a right angle is part of the reason it took so long. The crazy weather is another. The stairs mean large items must go in/out an exterior door on the second floor that leads out to the roof of the smoke room, and up and down a ladder propped against it. Which, of course, you can’t safely do in a foot of snow and ice, nor in a deluge.

Everything big is safe and sound in its new room. Finally. After all, I’ve been planning for this move since July of last year, drawing schematics and making lists of the order in which things would have to be moved.

Now we’re down to the little stuff:

  • our son’s old karate belts, which we’ve been meaning to get into a display case
  • a small file cabinet that is mostly filled with things that could be stored in the attic or tossed
  • the light we removed from the old office/new bedroom that we’re going to put up in the living room
  • a random assortment of items that belong somewhere in my son’s new room, but we’re not just sure where yet

I could probably get it all done in a day, but since every spare moment of February has been spent on this project, I actually need to pause and spend some concentrated time on my other big project: first edits on my debut novel, which are due to my editor in twelve days. (Psst, if you missed it because you’re not on my newsletter mailing list, the new title is We Hope for Better Things.)

Hopefully soon we’ll have the last bits of our lives put back together and I can take some pictures to share with you. I’m happy with how well it’s turning out.

And I’m thrilled that, like February, it’s almost done.

 

Blessings in the Midst of Burdens

During the long weekend, my little family piled into the car and headed for Tennessee to visit dear friends at their new house. Somehow we didn’t get the news that a massive winter storm would be sweeping over our entire nearly 700-mile trip down on Friday, or that another winter storm would be sweeping over much of our nearly 700-mile return trip Monday. I guess being rather more disconnected from social media has its disadvantages.

Fortunately, we grew up driving in Michigan.

Unfortunately, most of the other drivers we encountered did not.

And apparently the Tennessee Department of Transportation doesn’t understand how to properly salt their roads. Or, you know, salt them at all.

We were so grateful not to have been stuck on I-40 West, which was closed for hours and hours due to a crash that involved 16 semi trucks, and on which some people were stuck in their cars overnight. (There were still stranded and overturned semis on the highway when we left three days later.) We had gotten off that highway early on and taken a dark, winding, icy state highway that was mostly empty, rolling into the Jackson, Tennessee, area around 9pm. We should have gotten there by 4pm, had it not been for the weather and traffic snarls.

But we did get there. In one piece. And that is a blessing.

We had a delightful couple days hanging out, eating good food, smoking cigars, watching movies, and marveling at how an entire state can be so unprepared for winter weather events, even though apparently it does snow occasionally and, sometimes, intensely. (The lady at Wal-Mart had never heard of using salt to melt ice, and while the store was well-stocked with gardening gloves and grass seed, there was not a snow shovel to be found.)

The trip home was rather uneventful and far less stressful, though the roads were still sloppy part of the way. We were happy to be reunited with our newest family member, who I introduced in my latest email newsletter. (Aside, if you’d like to get on that mailing list for future monthly newsletters, you can sign up here.)

Then this morning when my husband was taking my son to school, my car got a flat tire. And I felt grateful all over again that it didn’t happen on an already long and taxing multi-state drive down treacherous highways.

Sometimes we have to look past our inconveniences to see our blessings.

We had a terrible drive — but not as terrible as some.

We visited the South on the one weekend in years that it was experiencing the kind of winter weather we always experience and, by January, are usually pretty tired of — but it meant that we spent all of our time in the house with our friends, and that’s what we wanted to do down there anyway.

We got a flat tire — but in the scheme of things, that’s not really that big of a deal.

Storms sweep through our lives — but in the midst of them, we can still praise the God who brings us through.

And next time we visit our friends, we’ll be flying down.

Loosening the Facebook Noose and Rediscovering the Natural World

Two days ago, we got about five inches of snow. Yesterday was clear and cold, six degrees in the morning, warming to about twenty. My son spent his snow day largely out in the snow despite the temperatures. Between bouts his snow gear tumbled around in the dryer to get it ready for the next session.

Today it is snowing again and my yard is filled with birds munching seeds from dead flower heads and from the feeders which I’ve moved to the north side of the house so we can watch them from the kitchen and the dining room table. The neighbor’s garage acts as a windbreak for them.

We’ve seen dozens of goldfinches in their dull winter coats all vying for a place on the feeder with the thistle seed in it. House finches prefer the sunflower seeds in the tube feeder. Juncos pick up the scraps that fall to the ground. A woodpecker has been carving away at the seed cylinder that is laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels off it. Sparrows and nuthatches and cardinals and chickadees and the occasional blue jay round out the company.

“It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m reading for the first time. Winter is a good time for reading anything, but especially nature writing.

I find myself jealous of all that is right outside of Annie’s door in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and I recall how much time I used to spend outside, especially in winter, when I lived in Grand Rapids and volunteered at Blandford Nature Center. Winter and early spring hikes around the property were always far better than those taken in summer. The world holding its breath all winter and then finally releasing it. Each spring hike a wonder as new things came alive. The wonder of spring only made possible by the icy grip of winter.

I think I love winter more every year.

My friend Cindy Crosby writes in the tradition of Annie Dillard, though she is in the great wide prairie lands rather than the mountains. If you enjoy nature writing, you may like her blog or her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Here’s the description from Amazon:

More than a region on a map, North America’s vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

 

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby’s Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby’s engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge of tallgrass landscapes, and she acquaints readers with the native plants they’ll discover there. She demystifies botanic plant names and offers engaging mnemonic tips for mastering Latin names with verve and confidence. Visitors to the prairie will learn to identify native plants using the five senses to discover what makes each plant unique or memorable. In the summer, for example, the unusual square stem of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, sets it apart from its neighbors. And its distinctive leaf cups water after the rain.

 

A gifted raconteur, Crosby tells stories about how humankind has adopted the prairie as a grocery, an apothecary, and even as a shop for love charms. Rounding out this exceptional introduction are suggestions for experiencing the American prairie, including journaling techniques and sensory experiences, tips for preparing for a hike in tallgrass landscapes, ways to integrate native prairie plants into home landscapes (without upsetting the neighbors), and a wealth of resources for further exploration.

 

An instant classic in the tradition of American naturalist writing, The Tallgrass Prairie will delight not only scholars and policy makers, but guests to tallgrass prairie preserves, outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, and readers interested in American ecosystems and native plants.

Earlier this week, two red-tailed hawks took a brief respite in a maple tree in my back yard then went on hunting. I felt lucky to see them. And I feel lucky that I live in a place that gets a real winter, which always feels like my own respite. A Sabbath season.

I’m winding down my year of reading A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Today’s selection includes this observation: “When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated.” Lewis is talking not just of chastity versus promiscuity in this selection, but of the desire to be part of the Inner Circle of mankind. To be in the know. An early 20th century version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I never used to care about being at one with the Zeitgeist. I was comfortably on the outside, not even looking in, because I was spending my time looking at the same kinds of things Annie Dillard and Cindy Crosby were looking at. And I felt with certainty that was the one in the know, in the inner circle. I noticed the things that mattered while everyone else was whirling about trying to be current. I was the insider and they were all outside, not even looking in, because they were too busy for the slow, constant, predictable motion of the natural world.

Sometime in the late 2000s, that changed, and I’ve spent a decade far more engaged with the tumult of mankind than I could ever have imagined I’d be. It’s probably 100% due to my entrance into social media by joining Facebook in 2007. And honestly, I’m not happy about it.

There are things that have to be said, wounds that have to be opened, policies that need to change, and power structures that should probably be toppled. It’s certainly unclear if social media is the most effective place to do this. It certainly is clear that social media makes people feel less understood, less connected, and more anxious and depressed than they would otherwise be. It is the ultimate irony of our times.

The history of mankind and the history of everything else in the world run on parallel tracks, one frenetic and anxious and bumpy, the other timeless and deliberate and while not unchanging certainly changing slower and for more logical reasons sometimes.

Maybe its too early for resolutions, but this has been on my mind. This desire to jump back over to that other track for a while and remember that the weight of the world’s problems are not a burden I need to carry. I can’t carry it.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” And to the Romans he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is hard to do in a democracy. It is made all the more difficult when media and social media seem designed to stir up anger, fear, dissension, and self-righteousness.

When I first joined Facebook, it was fun. It was a waste of time, no doubt, but it was fun. Now it’s mostly not. I’m not dumping it entirely for 2018, but I’m taking a step back. I’m unfollowing A LOT of people. I’m limiting my time on it, and eliminating it entirely on weekends. I’m going to go quiet. Take a Sabbath rest. Rediscover my blog, which I’ve let go quiet this fall.

I’m really looking forward to 2018. A time to start fresh. A pure white blanket of fresh-fallen snow. A year of possibilities. A year to buckle down and work on what pleases me. A year to lead a quieter life, at peace with those around me.

I’m not worried about missing out. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Today’s Painting: Spring Is Coming

Today I painted snowy mountains. It was a relaxing afternoon after two days of intensive learning, coaching, and teaching at Write on the Red Cedar 2017 (which was awesome, BTW). I did manage this time to remember to take pictures after each major stage, so here’s how this painting came together…

You start with the bottom covered with black gesso (let dry completely) then cover the whole thing with a thin coat of liquid clear. Then you put some black oil paint at the bottom as well.

The sky is next: prussian blue, a bit of black, and a bit of alizarin crimson, then fluffy white clouds with tinges of pink and yellow ochre.

Mountains are next, put in with the knife.

Highlight and shadow colors are mixed and laid on with the knife, and then comes the snow. Keeping the angles making sense took a lot of brainpower for me.

Then I added in a couple closer, shorter protrusions, which push the big mountain back a bit.

Next come distant pine trees and more snow.

Each layer pushes the last one back in your perception, and the fields of snow between help to keep them separated.

Next come Bob Ross’s happy trees. These are a little fuller than I wanted to make them, but I’m still getting the hang of it.

Add in snow beneath the trees, then pull it down with a dry 2-inch brush to make reflections. Voila! Instant water.

I ended up adding some bare trunks to make the trees less full, plus a couple more rock outcroppings because I thought there was just too much white snow all in the middle of the painting.

This one was definitely challenging, but fun!

Winter through a Warm Filter

I think when winter settles in, lots of people immediately put on their grumpy glasses. Everything about winter irritates them — the cold temperatures, the snow, the driving — and they are miserable until April. They see life in winter through a cold filter, like this:

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

Others put on a different pair of glasses. They see winter as a chance to be cozy at home, a chance to do winter sports, or even just a welcome blank space in their social calendar (post-Christmas, at least). They see beauty and artistry. They see life in winter through a warm filter, like this:

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

No matter what our station in life or what the season, our enjoyment of life is directly correlated to how we choose to see it. If we see adversity and enemies and obstacles everywhere we look, if we see everything as an inconvenience to us, then that’s what we’ll get. But if we can see that winter is merely a wondrous part of the yearly cycle of nature in a temperate zone, maybe we’ll enjoy it a little more.

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

After all, we’re all experiencing the same winter if we’re in the same area of the country. If you hate it and your friend loves it, the difference isn’t in winter, it’s in you. It’s in how you’re choosing to experience the exact same circumstances as your friend. Maybe if we stop complaining, we won’t feel so put upon by winter (which really isn’t out to get you — it doesn’t even know you’re there).

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

I have a friend who is experimenting with liking winter this year. She hates it, but she’s decided not to complain about it. And you know what she realized for the first time? Just how much other people were complaining about it. The experiment is ongoing, and I’m not sure if she’ll last until spring finally comes, but for right now, I’m really proud of her. If you’re normally wearing your grumpy glasses all winter, I encourage you to try it out, even if just for a week or two.

Winter at Fenner Nature Center

Besides, if you just can’t hack it, I’m sure Florida will take you.

Frigid Photography

It’s cold, cold, cold and snowy in Michigan lately, which suits me just fine. I stopped off at Fenner Nature Center today to take a few pictures on the way to pick up my son from school. I trudged in snow drifts nearly up to my knees and it was still coming down.

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

 

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

Snowy Day at Fenner Nature Center, December 2016

I wish I’d had more time and my snow pants on. After only about ten or fifteen minutes I had to be on my way.

My Personal Retreat Up North

One of my birthday gifts back in January was a three day mini personal writing retreat up at the Grand Traverse Resort — alone time for me to revise my WIP, eat room service BBQ pizza, and ramble in the great outdoors a while.

My room was lovely…

My work space was comfortable…

And I did get a phenomenal amount of research and revision done. I even got to have breakfast with my sister while I was there.

After checking out on Friday, I swung by Hartwick Pines near Grayling to take a walk through old growth white pines.

Hartwick Pines, MI

I was the only one there, following someone else’s cross country ski tracks from earlier in the day, listening to the birds and the squirrels and the swooshing of my snow pants.

At Hartwick Pines

It was beautiful.

And it was exactly what I needed after two straight days of sitting, sitting, sitting.

Little Ghost Tree

Being out in the woods alone, with no sound even of distant traffic, is something I really wish I could do more often. It’s as necessary to my mental and emotional well-being as good food and exercise are to my physical well-being.

When it comes to gifts, nothing beats a little alone time in God’s country. Do my guys know me or what?

Portrait of a Landscape

Last month I shared a photo from an excursion to Fenner Nature Center and mentioned I’d like to paint it. Yesterday afternoon, I did.

January at Fenner Nature Center

I did it partly as an avoidance tactic (the couple-day warm up has made me think I really ought to clean out the garage) and partly because I’m stuck on manuscript revisions (until I can get a call with a criminal attorney who is out of town) and partly because this is a big reason I quit a bunch of stuff (unscheduled time for creative endeavors).

This time around I didn’t take pictures between each step because I was mostly working wet-on-wet and you have to work fast without letting things dry between washes. But I do have a side-by-side comparison for you.

FennerPaintingComp

I wasn’t trying to reproduce the photo, just to use it as a reference, especially for the low horizon and big sky you get with the portrait orientation. Taking all photos in a landscape orientation (even when you’re taking photos of people, traditionally called portraits) is an easy trap to fall into when you have a traditional camera in your hands. It’s how they’re oriented — buttons, hand holds, etc. — and it’s especially easy to only take landscape photos of…well, landscape. But turning the camera in your hands can give you a far different perspective on your subject.

Looking at the side-by-side, I’m thinking I could have tried to keep the light bits of the sky a little brighter yet. I could re-wet the sky and lay in some darker clouds to make the contrast greater, but, as I said before, there’s always the risk of overdoing it.

I think I’ll let well enough alone.