In January, over twenty women gathered for a Word and World weekend of rest and writing using winter as their guide and teacher. This is the second reflection offered which also gives some writing prompts. May it be company in these longer winter days.
By Joyce Hollyday
Imagine yourself in a harsh winter landscape. Take note of what is present—and what is absent.
You trudge through deep snow in drifts piled high by a strong and biting wind. Your feet begin to ache. Your fingers go numb. The journey feels endless.
You spy a light in a window. You walk toward it, drawn by the hope of warmth. When you reach it, you open a door and walk into a room. You look around and release a deep sigh.
Picture that room. What is there that gives you feelings of comfort and safety? Who is there? What do you do there?
Winter is known as a harsh season, but it also provides an abundance of opportunities to experience coziness, warmth, and beauty. Exactly a year ago, when I was feeling a good bit of despair about the state of the world—particularly the fear and difficulties faced by the immigrant women with whom I work—I wrote these words on my blog:
Yesterday the snow was like a carpet of diamonds. The morning temperature was 10 degrees, with wind chill below zero—unusual in these North Carolina mountains. The snow had fallen overnight in large crystals, and the effect was stunning: a mountainside sparkling with dazzling radiance, as if strewn with precious gems. Bundled up against the weather, I lingered at the scene until my toes began to go numb and I couldn’t resist the call of the fireplace, a warm afghan, and a mug of hot lemon-ginger tea at home.
This morning on my walk, I felt a twinge of disappointment and sadness. The temperature is up, and a bit of melt has shrunk the ice crystals. Although still beautiful, the snow didn’t take my breath away. I followed the tracks of a rabbit for a while through the pasture, and then the footprints of the gorgeous red fox that lives in an underground burrow above the pond. I noted the hieroglyphics left by a couple of wild turkeys by the creek and then headed into the forest, still in awe of the deep silence that drops on the world when it is blanketed in snow.
I was walking up to the final ridge near home when I spied today’s surprise gift. Tiny gleams of blue, green, and purple greeted me on the path up ahead. Sprinkled among them were larger glints of red, orange, and gold. The ice crystals were just the right sizes, and the sunlight was at just the right angle, to present this scattered, glistening rainbow.
I wish I could show you a picture of it. But the only cameras I own are the one in my brain and the one in my early-model, less-than-smart phone. It’s a conscious choice. I know myself well enough to realize that if I owned a real camera, I would spend much of my time trying to capture the perfect picture rather than living into the mystery and beauty of each moment as it comes. So instead I will say “Go and see for yourself.” Keep your eyes open to the magic that surrounds you.
Two observations stay with me from these recent treks in the snow. First, I discovered that the most astounding and resplendent beauty comes from variety—different colors, sizes, shapes, and angles working together—to brighten the forest floor as well as the corners in our world where despair threatens to take up residence. Second, when I approached to look more closely at the rainbow, it disappeared from where I first saw it and moved out ahead of me. No matter where I stood, it was always a few feet closer to the sun. Always pointing a way forward, paving the path with the light of hope and the promise of change.
While we were preparing for this retreat, Kate introduced me to the concept of hygge, which apparently is a thing now (cultural trends tend to pass me by). The Collins English Dictionary named hygge the runner-up for “word of the year” in 2016—second only to Brexit. Hygge is a Danish word meaning “a mood of coziness, with feelings of wellness and contentment.” It refers to “an experience of safety, equality, personal wholeness, and a spontaneous social flow.”
In Denmark, hygge has a lot to do with light. Danes use a lot of candles. In fact, every Dane burns an average of 13 pounds of candlewax per year. This is contrasted with the fact that they eat only six and a half pounds of bacon—half their consumption of candles.
Interestingly, we have no equivalent word in English. Coziness comes closest, but it misses a key element of hygge: No one gets to be cozy at the expense of others. Danes pay some of the highest taxes in the world. But as one Dane explained, “We are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society, turning collective wealth into shared well-being.” Danes are considered the happiest people in Europe. They’re the ones who get together most often with family and friends. They’re known to be calm and peaceful. They have reduced their risk, uncertainty, and anxiety by living committed to the common good.
More than 20 years ago, I made a decision that meant losing my community, my work, my marriage, and my home. I left a 15-year ministry focused on social justice activism, writing, and speaking with Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C. I moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina feeling broken in heart and spirit, wrestling a powerful emotional undertow of grief and self-doubt. On my first night there, this dream visited me:
I’m standing in a room. Light streams in from all angles, flooding every pocket of space with a dancing radiance and embracing warmth. On three sides, the walls are nothing but glass. I stand alone in the center. From a corner a man and woman approach. He holds a large burlap bag, of the sort that contains seeds or grain. “Will you carry this sack across the river for us?” he asks, smiling. I hesitate. He drapes the sack across my arms.
I turn and walk through the door that opens before me in the glass. I discover that the room I am leaving is perched against a sheer rock face. Far below is the river, rushing through a deep gorge. But the only path, a narrow ledge, leads up.
Near the top, I see that it ends at a waterfall that plummets into the gorge. Just above the waterfall, spaced far apart and surrounded by churning water, are stepping stones that lead to the other side. I breathe deeply and step out precariously. The stones wobble, and I have to drop the sack to avoid losing my balance and plunging over the waterfall. I watch the sack fall far below me and disappear.
I inch my way back to the house, rehearsing my apology as I go, relieved when once again I am enveloped by the warmth and security of the sun-flooded room. I open my mouth to speak, but the man tenderly motions for me to keep silent. The woman steps toward me. She holds a large bowl. It is handmade pottery, rich in glazes and colors—deep shades of blue and burgundy with veins of turquoise and accents of gold—an exquisite work of art.
“Will you carry this bowl across the river for us?” she asks. Before I can refuse, she places it in my arms, and I am back at the top of the waterfall. Once more I falter, and I watch with horror as the bowl smashes apart on the rocks and falls in pieces down to the river and out of sight. I feel shame, and then anger at having been asked to repeat my failure.
Back in the room, the man and woman once again gently deflect my apologies. They walk together toward me. The man is cradling something small, wrapped in a blanket. “Will you carry our baby across the river for us?” he asks. From somewhere deep within me a whisper of protest begins to build to a plea, but before I can voice it, the woman says tenderly, “Joyce, take the baby.” The man, smiling warmly, places the baby into my outstretched arms.
I experienced the dream as a reminder about grace, about being given second chances—and third, and fourth. In it I was entrusted with ever more precious gifts, and the most precious was life itself. I was having mine handed back to me.
A few years later, I mentioned the dream during a week-long summer teaching series on a college campus. At the end of the week, all the participants gathered at the door of the chapel for a service of commissioning. The planner of the event took my hands in hers and led me wordlessly to a corner bathed in candlelight. “It’s here,” she whispered, her eyes wide with awe. Before us was a large bowl filled with anointing water for our commissioning, glimmering in the light of the candles. It was a piece of exquisite pottery, made of deep shades of blue and burgundy with veins of turquoise and accents of gold. As she placed my hands into the clear, warm water, I had the feeling that my healing was complete.
We live amid a constant interplay between harshness and coziness, between safety and storm. You have to leave the room. That’s one of the lessons I take from the dream. We can’t just stay embraced in the coziness. But we also have to return to the room. No one can live forever buffeted by the storms without relief. We need to nestle in, shore up, and open our eyes and hearts to mystery and grace.
- Put on paper and expand what came to you during the guided imagery—or a dream that has stayed with you.
- Write about a memory, about a time and place when you felt comfort and safety amid a storm—either an actual storm or a situation that felt like one.
- Reflect on ways that your personal safety and comfort are connected to the common good.