Winter morning © 2013 Julia Mason Wickes.
by John O’Donohue
If it could say itself January
Might brighten its syllables on the frost
Of these first New Year days whose cold is blue.
Meanwhile in this corner of its silence
A weak winter sun lowers down behind
The moor that rises away from the lake.
Beyond reach of light, the shadowed water
Succumbs to this darkening of spirit
That would deny the bog today’s twilight.
All of a sudden something else breaks through
To appear at the far end of the lake
In two diagrams of white, uneven light.
I have never seen white so absolute
And alone, glistening in awkward form
Dreaming across the water a bright path.
As it stirs and changes I see what it is:
Two swans have found the mirror in the lake
Where a V of horizon lets light through
To make them light-source and light-shape in one.
Now they swim and fade through windows of reed
And disrobe the lake of apparition.
I look and look into their vanishing
See nothing. Departing that perfect ground
I knew I had been hungry for a blessing.
* * *
In the last few days I was corresponding a little bit with a friend from our time in DC who is Serbian and is currently living in Serbia. He was telling me that mid-December to the end of January in Serbia is basically a non-stop celebration. First there is St. Nicholas Day on December 19; then Christmas and New Year; then Old Style Christmas and New Year (celebrated by Orthodox); then Theophany with St. John’s Day; then it all ends with St. Sava of Serbia’s Feast Day on January 27. He said that it is wonderful unless he is trying to be productive during that time because it is difficult to get any serious work done. His email presented me with an image of people getting together constantly, feasting and relaxing, and just enjoying one another’s company, eschewing computer screens and to-do lists in favor of wine, chocolate, salami, and smiling.
Like so many old world ways, real or imaginary, this version of January, as described by this friend, makes me feel a sense of envy and loss. Even if, in my imagination, it might be just slightly idealized, it still makes so much more sense to me than the way we celebrate Christmas in America, in which all the anticipation and festivities are front-loaded before December 25, and then seem to fall off a cliff into a void, abandoning January like a pebble on the beach of winter–smooth, cold, and grey. I know many will respond that celebrating Advent in the traditional, more somber way, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas, also in the traditional way, are an option for any family if they choose. And that is true, and I know many families who do that, of course, being Orthodox. But to me it is still a bummer that when I look around my neighborhood no one else is doing it this way, when lights and trees are promptly torn down within days after the 25th. Our culture does not do Christmas this way–overwhelmingly so.
But here I interrupt my whining because I know that America is not going to change the way it celebrates Christmas in this lifetime and there is no point in endlessly complaining about the crushing and overpowering river that is mainstream American culture. Too many times I have whistled into that particular wind and was rewarded with a bruised ego and swollen glands. There may be nothing I find more personally wearying than the self-imposed siren song which constantly draws me to the Counter-cultural Lifestyle. For some people I know that being counter-cultural is energizing, but for me it is draining, and it is better for my own well-being if I let myself off the hook in a number of areas. In the words of Little Orphan Annie, “Once a day don’t you wanna throw the towel in / It’s easier than puttin’ up a fight.”
It’s a hard knock life, after all.
But going back to January–this January, my January: It is what it is. And the one thing I have learned is that a void is also a space that is waiting for– even requires– invention. I know that the void demands something of me. Part of my job at the church where I work is to format their weekly worship bulletin. Today my boss handed it back to me with corrections and said I needed to re-word one of the announcements about the food pantry, which requires volunteers once a month to drive their donation. I wrote, “Please consider signing up…..” She said that in her years of experience she has learned to avoid words like “consider,” because people will go home and “consider,” and then never do it. So I changed it to: “The sign up sheet for the food pantry is on the bulletin board. Sign up to drive in 2013.” Maybe this is what January is like–the wizened pastor who is not asking me to merely “consider” what I am going to make of life this month. I could consider myself into quite a depression, and have probably done so in the past, to be sure.
I got an email from a British clothing company called Boden, whose clothes I sometimes like to ogle at, which was advertising a contest. They wanted customers to submit their suggestions for how they beat the post-holiday blues. The top five funniest ideas would merit a gift certificate. The British can be awfully quirky– upon seeing this I felt affirmed in my American experience of the post-holiday blues, but could not quite make the leap into why ideas for dealing with the blues needed to be funny. I can only imagine that they are looking for submissions that will resemble lots of off-color Monty Python-esque remarks involving sex and alcohol. For my part, I appreciate the challenge of being creative in the post-holiday void, but nothing I can come up with is even remotely uproarious, so I will probably just keep them to non-British self.
I think about the duller, more ordinary days, and realize that they do provide a space for greater creativity and thoughtfulness. And after the crush of Christmas busyness, I do appreciate that. I woke up the other morning and noticed this strange pattern of light coming in our window (that was formerly blocked by our Christmas tree) which looked almost like a staircase, and felt drawn to take a picture. I was pleased with the picture that I took, and with the return of that feeling of making something out of not-much. I have to admit that these little spaces that open up and invite creativity are really very rare during the hectic times of the holidays, when there is not much time for reflection or invention because so many people and things are already filling up that space. January, even in America, does have its own kind of possibility and blessing.