Friday, September 25, 2009

Coping with winter

This morning in Anam Cara I am reading about the seasons of the heart. John O'Donohue begins this section of the book with some wonderful advice about winter:

"When it is wintertime in your life, you are going through pain, difficulty, or turbulence. At such times it is wise to follow the instinct of nature and withdraw into yourself. When it is winter in your soul, it is unwise to pursue any new endeavors. You have to lie low and shelter until this bleak, emptying time passes on. This is nature's remedy. It minds itself in hibernation. When there is great pain in your life, you, too, need sanctuary in the shelter of your own soul."*

So when this image -- of an elderly couple helping each other up the last few steps from the beach at Kalaloch -- sang to me this morning, I wasn't quite sure why. The colors are a bit wintry, but the light toward which they climb is clear and inviting. It's a bit of a lonely landscape, and surely winter is a lonely time in the life of any soul, but these people are clearly not alone: they have each other.

And then I realized it was making me think of what has long been my favorite Shakespeare sonnet -- or at least, the only one I ever partly memorized:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I don't happen to believe that old age necessarily needs to equate with winter, though I agree with Shakespeare that that's what other people see when they look upon heads that are gray, or bald; see shaking hands, or hear a quavering voice. I think, instead, of glowing fires, and light: both the light within that still ignites our eyes with that spark of life, and the light beyond toward which we climb, assisted by what love we've found, in whatever form it takes.

And perhaps that's the message of winter -- that dark night of the soul -- and of this poem as well: that the way to move toward spring is the way of love. It's a call to be gentle and tender with yourself when the road gets rough or the climb gets steep. It's a call to celebrate what love you've found, even if it's no longer here; to rejoice in and re-awaken the memories of what went before, and, if you're lucky enough to have love in your life in this wintry period, to love it well, knowing it -- or you -- may soon be passing on.

I think winter has a way of reducing us to the bare essentials. And I believe that one of those essentials is love -- even if the lack or loss of it is what triggered the winter in the first place. So if we cannot have or achieve the love we've longed for or once had, how much more we need to learn to give that love to ourselves, to be compassionate and understanding with ourselves as we struggle through the dark seasons; to allow the hurt and anger to speak out, if only within us, and then to love and hold, cherish and reassure that which speaks, and help it climb out into the light.

*This quotation is from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O'Donohue. For more about John O'Donohue and his work, visit

1 comment:

Maureen said...

What a gorgeous post today, Diane. It all just "works".

I gave you a nod in my "All Art Friday" feature in my blog today. Hope you don't mind.
~ Maureen