Here. But not yet. A TJP Advent-ure: Week 5
Did you miss weeks 1-4? Check out the rest of our seasonal series here.
“God speaks to us through the seasons” my friend prayed at the start of a community Mass last week. The first South Dakota snow had just fallen, the temperature swings were flattening, and our heaters were clang-banging in our ancient house. God was speaking, alright. Winter is coming, and even though it keeps me indoors with its early sunsets and freezing winds, I welcome it gladly. I do every year.
Winter is very different from its sister seasons: spring and summer are catapults for travel and sirens for late nights. As April turns long winters into spring, with breaking suns and melting snows, I invariably catch an itch to move, to explore, to fly away before someone notices I’m gone. This happens just as Lent flips into Easter, as the Easter Vigil’s darkness bursts into bright, organ-playing light and Alleluias, and as the children are turned loose onto a muddy yard to find eggs tucked in pockets of remaining snow. Spring then flips into summer and school doors burst open on that last day into the adventurous expanses of June, July and the fireworks high in the sky, never to bed on time. Come September and October, however, things start to slow down, and come November, come December, our energies completely shift and we’re ‘tucked in’ for long nights with blankets of snow. God speaks to us in the seasons, and we’re told to quiet down.
Winter has always been cozy in the Gundlach home. I cherish the memory of childhood nights robed in long pajamas, reading by the quiet glow of tree lights in the living room, our home cloaked in the dark of night and the silence of snow. All there was to hear was the stirring of brothers taking their turns in the shower and the faint hum of our moving ornaments and Santa figurines. Sometimes the wind howled and caught itself, spinning, in the chimney. After all the showers and after family prayer, I would sneak out of my bed with a blanket to ball up beside the heater vents on the floor. Snow-blind mornings would come, but they were never as good as the nights.
Ranchers have horses, dogs and rope to gather the animals after a time of pasturing; they circle and circle bringing them closer and closer together. Winter has its snows, winds and early nights, and they circle and circle, bringing us closer and closer to one another in our homes in the quiet evenings. As I watch this happen again in my 28th midwestern winter, my nostalgia for quiet nights in my childhood living room returns. I am going to my Wisconsin home for Christmas soon, and that nostalgic warmth draws me. But it’s not as simple to find as it once was.
Ever since I began calling multiple places home, since I moved away and started coming “back” for Christmas, I’ve sought that childhood warmth in each short visit home. I wait until night, I light the fireplace, I read by the light of the tree. I listen for the same humming Winnie-the-Pooh ornaments and Santa figurine, and I see it, I hear it all. But I don’t feel it. The warmth is empty. Winter’s adjourned school, Christmas has brought me home, and the winds and snows and early-setting sun have brought us all closer inside, but it’s still not there. There’s something still missing. I’m home, but not home yet.
A few years ago, we faced an odd moment in the family. Half of us had moved away, but all of us had come back home. A little disoriented, we had to claim a new sense of ‘home.’ Just as we did for nightly family prayer growing up, we sat in a circle by tree-light and firelight. We set candles on the coffee table before us. We lit them, one-by-one, as we each shared stories from the year. We told of our highs and lows, stories from our new jobs and new challenges, sharing laughter with emerging hopes and tears from healing heartbreaks. We went on for hours. Each candle burnt low, bringing us deeper, bringing us closer. We began a new tradition, one that we will repeat again this year.
Coming home today doesn’t reclaim yesterday’s nostalgia – I need some help to do that. The seasons speak, and in my experience, winter is calling us together. We can hang all the lights we want, light all the candles and fireplaces we think we need, but the warmth that I seek when I come home isn’t in any of these things. Back then, as now, it’s love that makes it home. Love for us children was as simple as security, once upon a time, but now, as my parents, brothers and I grow older, love means digging deeper, coming even closer, choosing an intimacy that won’t come on its own – no matter how many days we’re snowed in together.