Winter Dreams and Waiting

Woods filled with snow.

L.M. Montgmery hated winter. In Looking for Anne of Green Gables, Irene Gammel, one of the leading scholars of Montgomery’s work, points out that Anne of Green Gables has many delightful scenes of spring, summer, and fall, but almost no scenes of winter beauty except for Christmas and the morning after Anne saves Diana’s sister’s life (147-48). Gammel also tell us that Montgomery dreamed up the luxurious gardens of the book during the winter of 1905, reading flower seed catalogs by the fire when she was snowbound in a cold house with her grandmother (65).

I read L.M. Montgomery’s journals through late winter and early spring of 2017. I felt a curious connection with her, especially when I reached 1898, when she is 23 years old. I was 22. She stopped teaching and moved home to take care of her aging grandmother and try to make a living as a writer. I also lived at home, supported by my parents as I applied to every writing or editing job within a 50-mile radius.

Montgmery’s grandmother wouldn’t let her have a fire in her room during Prince Edward Island’s frigid winters, so she sacrificed privacy for warmth and worked in the kitchen. She lived that life for 13 years. She read, wrote, went to concerts, prayer meetings, literary societies, and parties, weathered winters and enjoyed summers until her grandmother died and she married Ewen Macdonald in 1911. By then, she had published Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and become internationally famous. It wasn’t a perfect happy ending – she experienced marital turbulence, legal battles, and the world-rending of the Great War – but that long season of waiting stood out for me.

I was blessed with a much shorter time of waiting. I found a job within a few months, continued to research L.M. Montgomery’s life and work, and explored the questions of young adulthood: after securing a place to live and a job, what do you live for? How do you build community and fill your time? What is your purpose? 

Of all seasons, winter feels most like the time of waiting; at first, we wait for Christmas, and then through February and March, for the relief of spring. We wait for plows to carry away the snow and spread sand and salt so we can drive to work; for our defrosters to melt the ice on our windshields; for sunrise to creep back and sunset to glide forward. 

And in that waiting, we rejoice. We hang golden Christmas lights and kindle cozy hearth fires, watch snow soften the silent world, wonder at the blue-light mornings and blazing sunsets, and sip hot chocolate with frozen fingers. We ski or snowshoe through the white-smothered woods, or skate across glass-paved ponds. 

In the midst of the early snow in these first weeks of December, I finished the book of Isaiah after studying it since August. As the days darkened and cold settled in, I was awed by the book’s summer-storm beauty: harsh blasts of judgement on idolatry, injustice, and disobedience, followed by the rumblings of forgiveness and warm shower of grace. 

Reading Isaiah after the fulfillment of many of its prophecies is a delight. The book gleams with foretellings of the hovering Holy Spirit, the restoration and gathering of the nations, the child Immanuel, the righteous Savior to come, the suffering Servant and triumphant King. The Jewish people waited and wondered for the Messiah for centuries before He came.

Even now, some of the greatest prophecies of Isaiah – the gathering and peace on the holy mountain of the Lord, and the new heavens and the new earth – are still unfulfilled. We are still waiting.

This winter, I hope I can rejoice in the waiting. I want to love the sun glittering on the snow, even in those last days when the drifts are slushy and dirt-encrusted. I want to notice how the lack of leaves lets you see the azure clarity of the sky, and your misty breaths make you feel dragonish. I want to dream up stories that help other people see the enchantment of this frozen world, as well as wait for crocus shoots and thawing breezes, through this time of stillness.

Jayber Crow, Green Spaces, and a Remnant

The oak leaves outside my window are fading from deep green to silver-green, fragile and papery. And I’ve discovered that my $8.99 sunglasses are magic: when I wear them, I can see tints of russet in the trees or purple in the long grass that almost disappear when I take them off.

I’m still working through Isaiah in fits and starts. My own quick study before I rush out the door in the morning isn’t as deep as a group Bible study, but even so, I’m discovering patterns of justice and grace I never saw before. The theme I wrote about a few weeks ago, the mountain of the LORD, is only one of the leitmotifs of this book. Isaiah weaves prophecy and oracle, poetry and prose with the imagery of fire, the branch of the LORD, the vineyard of the LORD, and the sign of Immanuel to call God’s people to repentance.

I’m also finding green spaces, little paradises of lichen-covered trees and fields of long grass hidden among the highways and neighborhoods. Last week, I found a patch of conservation woods with vine-tangled trees, chattering streams, green moss, Queen Anne’s lace, and a pond with a dark-tinted reflection of the sky. 

Yesterday, I found a forest trail that led to a huge meadow of long grass, bright goldenrod, and purple and white flowers. It was quiet apart from the wind rustling the aspen trees and the murmur of crickets. The afternoon sunlight had that radiance that calls up the rich, full, living beauty of every green thing.

I had just finished Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. I read it because I’ve heard Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter especially recommended among his fiction. 

(Spoiler warning) 

Hannah Coulter was a powerful meditation of one woman’s experience of living in an agrarian community that dwindled over the course of the twentieth century. The young people moved away and the old farmers died out, and the good, peaceful way of life slipped away – but that book ends with hope. Jayber Crow follows the same trajectory, but one grief leads only to another, and another, and another, until the death blow at the end. I finished the book with frustration, and grief, and the feeling that all familiar, good things – tradition, family, community, quiet, the beauty of the earth – were dying, and being replaced by the ugliness of modernity.

But yesterday, I walked in a green space of thriving oak trees and still vernal pools in the shadows. And I spent Labor Day weekend swimming in a blue lake and hiking a mountain with my family – grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles who worked hard for the good life (in the Lord) and young people who are trying to build our lives wisely. 

Thirty-five years after the story of Jayber Crow ended, war, technology, consumerism, and loss of faith have darkened this world. And yet…nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Isaiah wrote through the reign of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. I’ve spent several mornings flipping back and forth from Isaiah to 2 Chronicles 26-32 and found that:

  • Uzziah was a good king until he tried to burn incense unlawfully and became a leper.
  • Jotham was a good king, but in his time the people followed corrupt practices.
  • Ahaz was an evil king, an idolater, defeated by Assyria and Israel.
  • Hezekiah was a good king whom God delivered.

Evil leads to ruin; repentance leads to redemption. Isaiah’s hope was never in any of these four human kings. He prophesied the coming of Immanuel, the child born who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. And in his time, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them.” 

I wish Wendell Berry had captured the hope of eternity in Jayber Crow as well as he did in Hannah Coulter. In Jayber Crow, the remnant of old farmers is dying, with no heirs for their farms; in Isaiah, the remnant of Israel will survive until they return to conquer their enemies. There is always a remnant.

In the meantime, we have our green spaces, cozy Thanksgivings and Christmases with family, good stories that nurture our joy – and the Spirit of God, the Comforter.

Moving, Mountains, and High Places

Three weeks after moving farther south in New England, from a land of lobsters and lighthouses to a region of reservoirs and shopping centers, I’m feeling the ground steady under me again. I’m beginning to realize why some people rarely move: the paperwork, phone calls, and sheer mass of identification you need is significant. But again, the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.

In some ways, in moving south, I feel like Jill in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair when she leaves the high mountain to begin her quest in Narnia. Aslan warns her that the air on the mountain is clear, and her mind is clear; but the air in Narnia is thicker. He warns her to be careful to not let it confuse her mind.

But she had to go, and so did I. Northern New England, with its green fields and farms, sprawling forests, mountains and blue lakes, feels like an escape, but a lonely one. Southern New England with its little villages, winding rivers, neighborhoods of colonial mansions or cottages is fertile with opportunities for work and community.

I miss the north, and I wish I was closer to the mountains. But I’ve found a different kind of summit as I’ve reinvested in morning quiet times:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it… (Isaiah 2:2, ESV)

For ten years, classes, homework, and commuting filled up my mornings. I knew that cursory readings or listening to Scripture on my ESV podcast wasn’t as rich as actual study: mining the treasures of the text through notes, questions, outlining, and researching. In this new chapter of life, I’ve started using the extra minutes in my morning to read through Isaiah. 

Isaiah is a symphony of contrasts: blood and wine, burned rubble and blooming vineyards, mountains and valleys, rivers and fires. God proclaims judgement on the wicked, and then promises redemption and blessings on the righteousness. The paradox of His justice and grace is terrifyingly, beautifully clear.

In Isaiah 2, the prophet proclaims peace, prosperity, abundance, and joy on the mountain of the LORD when people are in loving obedience to Him. When God is lifted high, the land is fruitful.

But in Isaiah’s time, the Lord is not lifted high by the people of Jerusalem and Judah; instead, the people raise themselves up. 

The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
For the LORD of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low…” (Isaiah 2:11-12)

This past Sunday, the worship leader at a church I visited said something I’ve never heard before. “You know in Psalm 121 when the psalmist says ‘I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come. My help comes from the LORD’?” he said. “So in Palestine, when you lifted your eyes up to the hills, you would see altars to false gods. The psalmist is denying those false gods and choosing to trust in the true God.” 

Sacrifices in the high places and under every green tree…I remembered warnings from Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, and on through the Old Testament. Mountaintops: lonely heights where Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and others worshiped the true God, but also high places where people sacrificed to false gods.

I miss the north, and I wish I was closer to the mountains. But these passages remind me that the summit I really long for is that joyful obedience of a right relationship with God, not the mountains of New England, and not the idols I raise for myself. 

So now in these green lowlands, among the woods tangled in bittersweet vines and golf courses that hum with crickets each morning, I pursue purpose and community. And I long for His mountain.