The Magic of Late Winter, Part I: Guest Post by Kimberly Margaret Miller

Mug in a bright window.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I posted about last year, late February through March are usually the hardest time of year for me: the glitter of the holidays is long gone, the snow turns to slush, and New England is a mess of gray fog and ice storms. Crocuses and warm winds take a long time to arrive.

This year, however, my own writing and engagement on The Habit (an online writing community) have reminded that me that I live in a world of wonders created by an almighty God, and my art gives me the power to perceive and create beauty in the grayest places.

Some of my favorite writers have already done the work of re-enchanting this season, transforming it from depressing to mysteriously beautiful: Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights, James Hogg in Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Seamus Heaney in “Glanmore Sonnets,” and others.

So I want to approach this late winter season with a spirit of joy and wonder. This blog series will explore the magic of late winter and very early spring: pearl-gray skies, silver-white ice on the dark surface of ponds, rain-speckled snow, damp winds that spread the smell of wet soil, rain-speckled snow, birdsong on misty mornings.

For this project, I’m partnering with some wonderful writer-friends from The Habit, as I did last Thanksgiving. First, Kimberly Margaret Miller graciously let me repost this exquisite poem from her blog, a meditation on winter sunlight. Kim lives in the deep South, which doesn’t usually receive heavy snows, but can be gloomy with “short days, barren trees, and overcast skies.” 

This poem originally appeared on Kimberly’s blog.

Winter Sun

Your beams stretch,
            Arms beckoning,
a final embrace as you bid adieu.
Reaching, leaning, tilting
                        You scatter color
across the bleak horizon.
Then you are gone.
            Longing fills.
                        Cold darkness envelopes.
                                    I forget.

My alarm pulses.
            Shuffling through routine with half open eyes,
                        Morning tea in hand,
I pull back the curtain.
I wasn’t looking for you,
                        But there you are.
                                    Waiting for me to behold.
                                                Your quiet grandeur
whispered in hues of pink and purple.
                        I stand and listen with rapt attention.                                   
And suddenly, I awake.

Leash in hand, I walk Curiosity—
            The chase is on.
                        Weaving through bare trees
you pursue,
                                    Streaming brilliance.
        Stopping in my tracks,
I think of night.
                                  And already I miss you.

Your arms stretch,
            Across beams,
no final embrace as you bid adieu.
Reaching, leaning, tilting
            You scatter crimson
across bleakness within.
Then night comes.
            Longing fills.
                        Cold darkness envelopes.
                                    I forget.

My hunger craves.
            I shuffle through my days with half-open eyes.
You pull back the curtain.
I am not looking for you,
                                    But there you are,
                                                Waiting for me to behold.
                                                            Your quiet grandeur
whispers in hues of love and peace.
                I stand and listen with rapt attention.
                              And suddenly, I awaken.

The Day is at hand, I walk forward.
            The chase is on.
                        Weaving through barren places
you pursue,
                                                Streaming brilliance.
            Stopping in my tracks,
I think of night.
                                    And already I know
You will never leave.

Picture of Kimberly Margaret Miller

Kimberly M. Miller is a writer, wife of 28 years, mother to four children, and granna to one amazing little boy. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1991 from Mississippi University for Women where she served as editor of The Spectator for two years. Kim’s writing has ranged from advertising copy and press releases to short stories and essays. Since retiring from 24 years as a homeschool mom, she’s devoted her time to honing the craft of fiction writing. Her current work-in-progress is a historical novel set in Mississippi in 1834.

Nora LeFurgey Campbell: A Friend Like Fire

Candles in the dark.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Friendship, like natural beauty and books, was one of the joys of L.M. Montgomery’s life. Fictional friendships like Anne and Diana’s, Pat and Bess’s, Emily and Ilse’s grew out of real-life friendships with her cousin Penzie, childhood friends Nate Lockhart, Will and Laura Pritchard, and later, her cousin Frede Campbell. In the winter of 1903, as she tried to navigate her aging grandmother’s stormy moods, family troubles, loneliness, and uncertainty, one friendship warmed the icy days. She had Nora.

Montgomery wrote about that winter in April 1903: “dark moods,” frustrations with her grandmother’s rigid rules, and anger over the injustice of her Uncle John and his sons (who had inherited the house they lived in and wanted her grandmother to move out so her cousin Prescott could have it) (Selected Journals I 286-87). But Nora LeFurgey, who was teaching school in Cavendish that year, became her roommate and companion in January. 

Nora was “a positive God-send” when Montgomery met her in the fall of 1902 (Selected Journals I 283). Her intelligence, love for literature, and sense of humor suited Montgomery “exactly” (283). As Mary Henley Rubio puts it, “Nora possessed a strong and irrepressibly positive life force, and she energized those around her – just what Maud needed” (Gift of Wings 111).

In the pages of her journal, where she recorded her tears and dreams, Montgomery slipped a different diary, one that she and Nora wrote together, one “of the burlesque order” (Selected Journals I 287). She said “we set out to make it just as laughable as possible. I think we have succeeded.” This diary is full of laughter, teasing accusations (“I didn’t take your yellow garter!”), details of their social lives and the souvenirs they “scrounged” from them, and mocking each other about young men. Jennifer H. Litster has an entire chapter on this co-diary in The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery.

Nora was a candle in that long, dark winter – part of what I think was a winter period in Montgomery’s life, 13 years in which she was single and lived with her grandmother. A few years later, Nora married Edmund Ernest Campbell in 1911, left the Island, and didn’t see Montgomery for 24 years.

And then they met again, in September 1928.

They had both suffered. Montgomery was anguished by the destruction of World War I, the death of her best friend, Frede, and a madness that convinced her husband he was “damned to hell.” Nora lost one son at birth and a daughter to polio. In 1929, she lost a third son to a canoeing accident and had only one, Ebbie, left. But the Nora we meet in the pages of Montgomery’s journal reacted to her hardships differently than Montgomery. Rubio calls her “unfailingly upbeat” and “as vital a life-force as ever” (382). Montgomery said that the “relief” of having a friend like Nora was “tremendous . . . I feel as if I had been smothered and were now drinking in great gulps of clear gay mountain air” (Selected Journals III 378).

Mary Beth Cavert researched “voices” or people described in Montgomery’s diaries, including Nora’s. Through interviews with Nora’s family, she found that Nora never complained about her sufferings, but “most often assumed the position of adviser and was a tower of strength in times of trouble” (114).

After her sufferings, Nora still had a spirit of hearthfire joy, the ability to laugh and listen to her friend’s troubles. She never showed envy or intimidation at L.M. Montgomery’s successful writing career (she had been world famous since 1908) even though Nora herself wrote a novel she was never able to publish (Cavert 107).

In middle age, they had times of fun and laughter as sweet as when they were single young adults together. In 1933, when Nora came for a visit, Montgomery wrote to her literary correspondent G.B. MacMillian: “Every night we went on a voyage to some magic shore beyond the world’s rim.” After supper, they walked miles under a “harvest moon” as “every particle of our middle aged care and worry seemed to be wiped out of our minds and souls as if by magic.” They walked in silence or talked, discussing “every subject on earth…When we had exhausted earth we adventured the heavens, to the remotest secrets of ‘island universes.’” They had adventures that left them “drunken with laughter.” (My Dear Mr. M 164-66)

Radiance of joy…when I read about Nora in Rubio’s The Gift of Wings, she became one of my heroes. She isn’t famous for a public legacy of writing books or political success. But she weathered pain and loss and disappointment without letting them drown her.

I have had friends like Nora. In high school, a girl in my class and I and shared fantasy books and laughter at field hockey practices. At summer camp, a girl with sunshine in her soul helped me remain cheerful even when we hauled heavy cots up the steep hills on hot days. In college, one of my friends and I didn’t like dancing, so we would dress up for the galas, attend just long enough to collect plates of brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and cheesecake bites, and then smuggle them back to our dorm to watch TV.

A friend who has that kind of joyful strength, an inextinguishable light, is rare. I hope I can tell stories that people enjoy as much as they enjoy Montgomery’s. But as an individual and a friend, I want a spirit like Nora’s, a fire that never dies out.

Works Cited

Cavert, Mary Beth. “Nora, Maud, and Isobel: Summon Voices in Diaries and Memories.” The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, edited by Irene Gammel, University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 88-105.

Litster, Jennifer H. “The ‘Secret’ Diary of Maud Montgomery, Aged 28 1/4.” The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery, edited by Irene Gammel, University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 106-126.

Montgomery, L.M. My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G.B. MacMillan from L.M. Montgomery. Edited by Francis W.P. Bolger and Elizabeth Epperly, Oxford UP, 1992.

—. The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume I: 1910-1921. Edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, Oxford UP, 1985.

—. The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume II: 1910-1921. Edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, Oxford UP, 1987.

Rubio, Mary Henley. Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Anchor Canada, 2010.

Christmas: Maturing into Wonder

Gold Bell On Top Of Brown Table from https://www.pexels.com/photo/gold-bell-on-top-of-brown-table-754711/

I was eight when I lost my first love for Christmas. It was December, but I wasn’t as excited about it as in previous years. Ever since I could remember, post-Thanksgiving had been a season of burning anticipation, counting down the days, eating Advent-calendar chocolates, and dreaming of presents. 

At eight years old, I was worried when that wild excitement didn’t come. I tried to manufacture the feeling, but you can’t manufacture feelings. 

So I went to my mom (the family expert on feelings). I don’t remember her exact words, but I remember her comforting me that sometimes you lose things like feelings when you get older. And that’s alright – you can enjoy Christmas without that wild joy.

I had to let go of the raw intensity of excitement I had in early childhood. But looking back now, I gained something better: reality-grounded, heaven-centered wonder.

Wonder and joy are supposed to be children’s domain during Christmas, and they are: I remember sensual joys (twinkling golden lights and red ribbons among evergreens, bells jingling, the smells of gingerbread and peppermint, the taste of sugar cookies) and material ones (I really liked getting presents). 

But the real volta came when I learned the true miracle of this feast: why it was so special that Christ was born to a virgin. Though I sang “Silent Night” and read the story about the angel coming to Mary, I didn’t understand this marvel until I learned about ordinary conception. Only then could I start to grasp the weight of this glory.

New wonders followed: I learned from Romans how Christ is the second Adam, the perfect man who defeated temptation and brought life to the human race. I learned how Christ is the seed promised to Eve, who crushed the serpent, the dragon described in Revelation. I learned how Christ is the Messiah who was prefigured and foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament in Joshua and Melchizedek. 

Ironically, it was growing into adulthood and learning more about the world – which usually, in children’s stories like “The Polar Express,” mean a loss of imagination and wonder – that gave me the deepest awe.

Like everyone, I’ve been busy this Christmas season. I’ve actually been a little annoyed at how many festivities we cram into one month: why can’t we allocate some of this beauty and merry-making to when we’ll need it even more, in those last deadening months of winter? I haven’t made enough time to meditate on the joy, the wonder, the thanksgiving of the Incarnation yet.

So I’ll steal a few moments to breathe it in, taste and see the tender, terrifying, awesome grace of the God who was born to a virgin, our Healer and Redeemer and King, to rekindle hope in a dark world.

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.

Gray Days: Finding Joy at Winter’s End

A sheet of broken ice on the ocean. The sky is dark gray until the horizon, which is gold with sunset.

The most difficult time of year for me (emotionally) is revolving back to us again: late February and all of March, winter’s deathbed. The bitter cold or gloomy damp, the gray skies, dirty snow, and slush, the wet bark of leafless trees, and the fierce winds weigh tend to drag my mood down to the depths.

Why is this season harder for me even than the darkest time of year, December 31st? Holidays and “human” seasons (as opposed to the earth’s seasons) have a lot to do with it: November and December are made cozy and warm, exciting and communal by Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. The difference is aesthetic, too: though it’s dark and cold, the fresh bright snow glitters in the sunlight and glows in the moonlight; jewel-toned lights glimmer on porches and trees; fireplaces within and cold without make indoors cozy and inviting. Somehow, actual blackness is easier to romanticize and enjoy than the ambivalent, soulless gray we often face at this time of year.

Certain memories of this time of year also depress me; in the not-so-long-ago school years, March especially was the month farthest away from the relief of vacations, when my motivation to study was running dry. In fourth grade, I read Astrid Lingren’s Pippi in the South Seas and almost cried as I dreamed of escaping my cold, boring, lonely winter days to a tropical paradise of friendship and adventure.

One of my joys as a writer and thinker is the transcendence of dreams. Even as the outside world is drab and colorless, the inside world, literal and figurative, is always under our control. I always turn on the inside lights on overcast days and sometimes light a scented candle, or bring our gas fireplace to roaring cheer. As to the inside world of my mind, I can transform that in two ways: imagination and recognition.

Imagination

I love the flight cliches for the imagination: our imagination jumps, soars, and has wings because it’s transcendent. We tap into the unknown and unseen and create new worlds that not only heal, comfort, and entertain, but when realized with the right amount of action, can manifest themselves in reality.

I can imagine away this winter-sickness by transforming it. For example:

  • Damp: The humidity that hangs heavy in the mornings isn’t the mold-nurturing misery it seems; it’s silver mist heavy with secrets, the fog of mystery and imagination, in which the phantoms of fear and longing take shape.
  • Ugliness: I can survive this time by recreating the loveliness of the other seasons, especially summer. My mind is an infinite landscape of green spaces: zephrys whispering through weeping willow branches, gardens lush with the curling petals of peony blossoms, sunrises like burning roses over rippling lakes. 
  • Boredom: The dull, unchanging days are the persevering striving in the middle of a quest, like Frodo and Sam’s wanderings in the Dead Marshes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, when the heroes are tempted to abandon their quest. 

“The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” said John Milton in Paradise Lost. If our minds can become prisons, they can also become paradises.

Recognition

And yet . . .  “When the Lord puts us in certain circumstances He doesn’t mean for us to imagine them away,” says Marilla wisely in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Imagination is a wonderful escape, but those who accuse dreamers of being of no concrete help make a valid point. I can dream away the ugliness of this late winter season – or I can recognize the beauty underneath it, inside of it, to which my demand for clear skies and natural life blinds me.

  • Humidity: The gray, overcast skies and moist air are nurturing the earth and preparing it for the glories of spring and summer. Secret beauties are growing under the bark of trees and under the sparse grass and mud as the world softens and awakens from winter’s rest.
  • Boredom: Instead of bracing myself for dull months as if I’m helpless, I can use this time to treat myself with some old favorites. With some exceptions, the Bronte sisters seemed to write about landscapes that remind me of March – stormy skies and wild moors. I can read Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, and Shirley in front of a cozy fire with a more empathetic enjoyment than I could on a hot summer day.
  • Ugliness: There are many gray days in this time of year, but the silver-pearl skies reflect serenity as well as gloom. Often a false thaw in February gives way to new, shining snow before winter’s end. The days of sun also have a strange, mystical radiance. In the woods that border the highways, afternoon’s gold illuminates the ash and russet in the bark of leafless trees and the gracefulness of the tangled bittersweet vines.

Even as winter sickens and dies, hope and beauty are eternal; imagination and recognition just open the window.

How can you use imagination and recognition to face this time of year?