Pinpricks and Seedlings

It is dark when Mark heads out to work in the morning; when he comes stomping in at the end of the day, it is, again, dark. And yesterday the snow fell, focused and steady, all day long.

I miss our walks. (It will not be long now; very soon I can lace up my regular old shoes and retire the surgical boot, and then, if the day is nice and the sidewalks aren’t icy, I can head out. I miss moving and stretching; I miss seeing neighbors and friends who are also walkers; and I miss the fresh air and the pale winter sunshine.)

It’s easy to understand why people fall prey to seasonal affective disorder when their only glimpse of the daylight is out the window of their workplace.

If their workplace has a window.

It is winter. It is dark. And that seems like a metaphor in so many ways.

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I am reading a lovely book called Wintering : the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. May turns forty, and her husband is stricken with a sudden, very serious, illness. Their young son decides he doesn’t want to go to school; it is an unexpected but violent preference. And, as her husband slowly heals, May herself grows sick—so ill she walks doubled-over, and she spends much of her time in bed, sleeping.

It’s a winter time in her life, May writes, and she divides the book into winter sections: October, when the darkness comes creeping closer; November, when the cold settles in. The deep of December. The magic of the lights of the aurora borealis that flit through January’s darkness. February and the snow.  March, and she balances industry and rest.

And then the blooming begins, and the dark season wanes, as she knew it would.

But some seasons are longer than others (think Game of Thrones) and some darkness is hard to penetrate with battery-powered flashlights, lights carried with the cringing hope that the batteries are fresh enough not to flicker and fail.

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I know what May means about winter seasons in life; sometimes, loss and grief, illness and disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of mis-belonging settle in deep. Sometimes, we just have to hunker down and see it through, drowse by the fire, escape into a book with no literary value—candy for the mind. Start no new projects. Place a moratorium on making energetic plans. In the winter times (the dark times) it is, often, enough to endure.

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The pandemic, of course, is part of the darkness. We’re thankful, now, that my brother Sean, sister-in-law Nora, and two of their children are on the mend.

Four or five months ago, we sat in the middle of a series of concentric circles. Way out there, far off on the outer ring fringes, were some people who were sick. We didn’t know them personally, so much, but we knew someone who knew someone.

Then there was a slow creep. The virus jumped to the next circle, still comfortably far away, but now we KNEW that person.

And then we had to quarantine because the virus was staining our safe little no-man’s land, creeping, seeping closer.

Now the disease bubbles madly in the circle right next to ours. We pull our masks up tight, wield hand sanitizer like a weapon, like a torch. We stand back-to-back in our tight little space, hoping to ward off the enemy with our tiny stash of lights.

We worry about the people we know who are affected. A friend’s elderly mother can’t have visitors in her nursing home isolation, and struggles with the illness and the loneliness. A niece mourns her husband’s mother and brother, both gone so quickly.

Schools close. People argue about masks and gatherings and curfews and lockdowns—bitter and angry arguments. There’s a brooding, simmering discontent.

It is a dark time, a dark, dark time.

And then the vaccination arrives, a tiny pinprick of light, a wee small sigh of hope whispered on a horizon.

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And dark politics roil up, too,–vicious, contentious simmering…dangerous and threatening. Helpless, we watch from the sidelines. Voting done, there is no action to take but to pray that law prevails.

It is a wintertime, as May writes so eloquently. It would be a wintertime even if the sun shone close to the earth and the temperature soared to a hundred and four. These are days when sometimes the best I can do is light a fire in the fireplace and reread a book that’s like an old friend…words so well-worn they require no mental effort, no new thoughts.

We plod along, getting ready for the holiday. We mail off cards and packages to people we would rather see in person, to people we haven’t seen (or hugged) in far too long.

This winter has been a really long one.

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One morning, de-cluttering for Christmas, I reach into a drawer and pull out a baggie. Seeds! Terry’s family’s heirloom tomato seeds! I had rejoiced to get them, and then I had put them aside, and, in the hustle and bustle of life, I never planted the precious things.

Instead Mark went out in the late spring and bought five little tomato plants; he put them in our kitchen sink garden on the patio, and he nurtured them.

They flourished and bloomed, and then heavy little tomatoes appeared, green and hard.

Mark watched them eagerly.

“Tomorrow,” he’d say, “that one should be ready.”

And tomorrow would dawn, and that one would be gone: a raccoon’s snack, a deer’s hors d’oeuvre. Not a single tomato made it to our plates last summer. We had to buy our ripened fruits at the farmer’s market.

Now I wonder if we could grow some tomatoes inside. I wonder if I have left these seeds too long, and if they’ve lost the will to sprout.

But we have a paper egg carton with 18 egg-crannies, and we have a bagful of seed starter, and here are the seeds. I am afraid I’ve wasted this potential, but I think, “Why not? What will it hurt to try?”

We fill the egg-crannies with the good rich dirt, and we sprinkle the seeds. I put the carton on a tray and nestle it on the old treadle sewing machine, next to the front window.

Every morning I water the dirt gently.

In a week there are two sprouts.

I am excited out of all proportion. I wait for more to emerge. The two tender seedlings soldier along, but nothing else seems to happen.

Maybe, I think, the light is wrong. I move the tray next to the Advent wreath, onto the cabinet in the bay window, where the pale winter sun sighs through the sheers from 8 until five. I water them in the morning.

When I come home, there are seven brave green shoots, bowing toward the light.

We light the Advent candles at night, and the seedlings seem to stand up straighter, reaching toward the flames.

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Jim suggests that, as a nod to Christmases past, we re-watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies in the evenings. For three years, we made seeing the films a part of our Christmas day. Mark and I had both discovered the books in high school, and we both re-read them at least once a decade. And Jim fell wholeheartedly into the films, immersed and fascinated.

So for three Christmases we eagerly awaited the latest film. When the series was complete, we bought the boxed sets and re-watched them at home, and we waited for Jackson to film The Hobbit trilogy so we could start another Christmas movie habit.

Now, at first, Mark and I go along with the suggestion to humor Jim. We watch half a film a night; we’re energized by Jim’s delight.

And quickly, of course, the well-wrought stories draw us in.

I am getting ready for bed one night when the word valor falls firmly onto the bony floor of my mind. We had just watched a scene where Legolas, fearing there was no way to win the battle, told Aragorn he would follow him anyway.

What is valor but the decision to hope when hope seems like the least possible path?

Last night we watched the final film in the series, The Return of the King. The landscape, in many scenes, was beyond desolate. The enemy’s army was a horde. And yet, in that bleakness, there was honor, there was courage, and there were deep, abiding friendships. There was hope simmering beneath dread.

I think of this quote, from the movie and the book:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

We live in a time of pandemic, of violence, of climate catastrophe.

And yet.

These are the times that are given us. What can we do with this time?

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After the seeds started sprouting, I started looking around. When Jim was four, Mark had a kidney surgery, and his officemates sent him a plant. We have repotted and separated it time and again, and here, in this house, we have two of its descendants. They were growing long and tangled.

I cut the longest tendrils and stuck them in glasses of water on the kitchen windowsill. And: magic. Roots sprouted.

This week, I filled pots with dirt and started three new plants. Three plants from a 26-year-old, well-traveled, mama! The rooted shoots took a day or two to think about the dirt they were stuck in, and then they decided to thrive. Their leaves are glossy; they are turning toward the light. They drink up all the water I can offer.

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Our sweet neighbor Deirdre left a tiny plant on my front steps last spring; its pot was maybe an inch in diameter, and the little plant was loaded with tiny flowers. It put it, too, on the windowsill by the sink, and I pretty much forgot about it.

The flowers faded; when I thought to water the tiny thing, they came back. And then their season must have passed, but the sturdy little plant hung in there, green and paused, and grateful for what little attention I offered.

And now, I had the potting soil out; I had an extra pot. So I repotted the tiny plant, and it caromed swiftly into a growth spurt. It’s sitting on top of the bread box in the big kitchen window, its healthy leaves reaching four and five inches into the air.

It may be dark winter, but things are growing, and not stealthily, either. This is raucous, joyful clamor.

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Deirdre, in fact, texted me this morning. She attached a cell phone photo of our house; it looked like a holiday postcard in the untrammeled snow that flatters everything. The Christmas tree lights shone from the front window onto the lawn.

“I love your tree!” she wrote. “I love looking outside and seeing your lights.”

I think that it is possible, in simple cheerful ways, to share light with others during dark days.

And tonight, Theresa, a former student, called to touch base. As she was signing off, she said, “Have you read about the Christmas star? Be sure to look up on the 21st!”

I looked the star phenomenon up online to find that Jupiter and Saturn will align, and a star will shine as it hasn’t shone for 2o years—a great and unusual conjunction. And maybe, a symbol we need right at the time when we need it.

(https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2020/12/16/what-this-weeks-impossibly-rare-christmas-star-on-the-solstice-tells-us-about-the-origin-of-the-star-of-bethlehem/?sh=517ee7f32f93)

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Last night I woke at 3 a.m., and the room was brightened. I pushed the curtain aside; moonlight reflected off the pristine snow. The glow enticed and allured; I could not close my eyes. I sat up and turned on the lamp, and I read into the even wee-er hours, buoyed by the light.

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In the week to come, we’ll celebrate a feast of light during the darkest days of the year.

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Winter comes, bringing darkness and cold and sometimes, a thick layer of snow. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to hunker down, to stay close, to brew the coffee, to pull the blanket up, and to drowse by a flickering fire.

Sometimes the darkness and the cold seem pervasive, and it’s hard to imagine any kind of miracle.

But seeds sprouts, and lights flicker, then grow strong. In the clear dark night, a baby cries, and his parents comfort him with work-hardened, loving hands.

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I may not have chosen this time, but I can choose how to live within it.

I may need to winter a while, but I know there is growth, and warmth, and light.

Hope abides in this dark if I just have the valor to believe.

9 thoughts on “Pinpricks and Seedlings

  1. I liked reading your post and i was pleasantly surprised to find you talking about ring in Tolkien’s book as i came here immediately after publishing one post which had some discussion about the same. Have a nice Christmas Pam. My best wishes to you and your family and friends 🙂

  2. Kim Allen

    I love the imagery of plants thinking about the dirt they are in! I have too many plants but I love bringing in the green. Still have the 3 plants I took to college 47 years ago. Keep up updated on your tomato’s! There have been many dark nights of the soul this year. When I was troubled my morning walks through out this time, now curtailed by the cold, the rising sun, the circle of life that is nature, brought me comfort and showed me the way to be with what is, knowing all is always in movement. All the blessings of the season to you and your family.

    1. I have never had a green thumb, but I am cautiously optimistic about these sprouts. I will definitely share updates!

      I love that you have plants from your college days, Kim. And I agree…morning walks are healing! I think I am going to try somechair yoga while waiting to get back into my sneakers, hoping for the same effect…

      I hope your holidays are warm and wonderful, even if small and quiet, this year!

  3. We just started an amaryllis and I brought my herbs in for the year (first time as I have a grow light now) so it’s fun to watch them grow. Helps with the winter darkness for sure.

  4. Barbara Lehnen

    Pam, your words always put me in a comfortable place and I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading them. Now that our fireplace is useable, I think I’ll soon settle in and read a good book or two. Thank you for the great reads and best wishes for 2021…

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