By Dennis Stamper
There is an old song my mother used to sing to me around this time of year. I didn’t know all the words but I could always join her on the chorus. “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long” we would sing. “Summer’s almost gone, yes, winter’s coming on”.
Mothers and other wise people always know these kinds of things. Like it or not, winters do just keep coming around. Days of cut-off jeans and bare feet inevitably come to an end. Eventually we will need to put our boots on and bundle up.
Although my mother has passed on now, the truth she sang into me is still present today. As the grass and plants I have tended and mowed since April turn more brown than green now and as the chill that arrives the moment the sun sinks below the tree line shoos me inside before I am quite ready, I know that summer is indeed almost gone and before long, once again, winter’s coming on.
I’ve been thinking about the approach of winter a great deal lately and frankly I’m not sure I am ready for it. It’s not that I haven’t been through a winter before. This will be my seventy third such occasion. But this one will be different. This will be the first winter of my “retirement”.
Up until now, winter involved little more than wearing a sweater over my dress shirt when I went to work and remembering to grab my coat from the coat rack as I went out the door. And of course, there was the deep-felt gratitude for the spiritual blessing of heated seats, or as we call them in our family, bun warmers. But when I was working, the activities and structure of my days remained much the same no matter the season.
This first summer of retirement was also the first in our new home in the country. I have loved clearing the brush from the periwinkle under the old walnut and cedar trees, planting flowers and bushes in the beds around the house, planting the first real vegetable garden I’ve had since I was a kid and harvesting the surprising first year abundance, especially the home-grown tomatoes. I have had much to do and it has kept me joyfully occupied. I have been as happy as a clam, as they say, or in the more local vernacular, “happy as a pig in slop”.
But now I find myself a bit more ambivalent as winter approaches. There is a part of me that welcomes the thought of ample time for rest and reflection, time to write and create in my new office/retreat that I finally took possession of when our youngest daughter moved into her own apartment last month. (Did I mention that this will also be the first winter in 43 years that I did not have a child at home?)
But I also carry a bit of trepidation that sometimes borders on dread. What will I do with so much open time on my hands? What if the creative juices refuse to flow or dry up by late November? If I dig too deep, will I find monsters down there? What if I start believing the cultural images of old age and begin to accept the label of irrelevant and useless? What if I just get bored? So it seems that my developmental task de jour is to learn how to best winter. Perhaps it is with you as well.
But of course, wintering is not just a matter of the cycles of the year but also the cycles of life. Times of warmth and cold, growth and dormancy, bloom and fallow are inevitable in our lives. Serious illness or the death of someone we love can bring on winter. Loss of a job or a relationship is winter too. Winter is anytime that things start to fall away leaving tender spots where the leaves used to be.
Some winters arrive suddenly and without warning like a thunderclap. Others come on slowly and we hardly notice until we find ourselves standing on a street corner with clenched teeth, our whole body shivering in the cold. We like to think that if we are smart and strong and determined enough we can live in an eternal summer. Life rarely turns out that way though.
Writer Katherine May in her lovely book Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times says:
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
A crucible, as you may know, is a container in which metals or other substances may be melted, reducing them to their basic essence or combining them to create something new. A crucible is the tool of the alchemist. Dare we hope for such a thing this winter: a bit of alchemy, a bit of magic.
May goes on to say:
“Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”
So perhaps that is where we need to start. Stop wishing the summer would last forever and start looking for the sparkle. Take time to reflect, recuperate, replenish, find ways to put our house a bit more in order.
In our Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats, we each spent a day out on the land in silence and reflection. Before we venture out, we are each asked; “What is the question you carry with you?” It is a good question to as ourselves today. What is the question you carry with you as you enter this liminal time of winter? How can you winter well and how would you like to be changed by the experience?
May reminds us that the tree is not coming back to life when the winter is over, it has been alive all along. But in the spring, she says, “It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.” What do you hope your own new coat will look like and how will it fit?
“I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long. Summer’s almost gone and winter’s coming on” my mom and I sang. The song went on, “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long, and I feel like I gotta travel on”. Yes, ready or not, travel on we must, so travel on we will into this season of winter.
Dennis Stamper co-leads Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats. He is also a certified Sage-ing Leader. He has worked as a Clinical Social Worker and hospital chaplain for many years.