It’s extremely winter-like, considering the temperature is barely below freezing and there’s only a couple of inches of snow covering the ground in most places. It’s early afternoon, and a biting wind, gusting in the 30 to 40 mph range, churns foamy whitecaps across the surface of the lake, that’s looking an awful lot like an angry Bering Sea under deeply overcast skies.
And despite the stiffening breeze, a thin layer of ice has crept into the quieter coves, marking mid-December, and an implacable slide toward solstice and the longest night of the year.
Last night’s slush is crunching underfoot, oddly providing better footing since it acquired some texture after freezing. These walks are more contemplative this time of year. The quiet is more pronounced; the summer camps along the shore are vacant; traffic is minimal. I always think of it as the season of waiting: kids, anxious for the holidays; druids and pagans for the celebrations surrounding the return of light; and winter-sports lovers for the first big snow — which dodged us last week, hammering southern Vermont with up to two feet before veering northeast, toward the Canadian Maritimes.
Although I’m profoundly anti-organized religion, I was reminded recently of a more innocent, perhaps less resistant, time in my younger days when the weeks in December comprised Advent, according to Webster, “The arrival of a notable person, thing or event.” In Catholicism, Latin for “coming” and anticipating Christmas and the Nativity: the birth of Christ. Writing in The New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, suggests that “Advent bids us first to pause and look with complete honesty at that darkness,” referring to the Gospel of John, who says the darkness could not be overcome until the light of Jesus’ birth.
But Harrison-Warren, the author of “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” takes the contemporary practice of Advent beyond religion, offering it as a time to “lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find” ... in a world racked with conflict, violence, suffering and, yes, the ever-present darkness. Her observation that the season, unlike the American ideal of one sugar-laced celebration after another, made sense to her on an emotional level with “doleful hymns and quiet beauty” struck a chord in me. It felt like what I was doing on my own, temporal, stumble through the human condition.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t embrace depression by any means, but I do reject as best I can what Harrison Warren calls the “collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny happy and having fun, fun, fun.” She continues, explaining how “the tyranny of relentless, mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier.” Indeed, beyond its facade of festivity, and perhaps because of it, the holidays present their own set of problems. According to many mental-health experts and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a variety of factors can bring on anxiety and depression at this time of year, including financial burdens — cost of travel or hosting; time factors, as in not enough; and high expectations to provide perfect gifts and plan perfect events.
Statistics indicate an overwhelming number of people feel high levels of holiday strain, with 69% reporting a “lack of time” and 51% perceiving a “lack of money,” coupled with undue pressure to give or get gifts. Fully 45% of Americans would be content to skip Christmas altogether according to an NBC News report. It’s no wonder a cottage industry has emerged ostensibly guiding us undamaged through what is theoretically the most festive time of year. As Harrison Warren puts it: “Life is not a Disney cruise.”
But however much I enjoyed her unusually candid assessment of the lead-up to the holidays, years of baggage from too much Catholic education limits my appreciation of Advent in a religious context. Instead, my transition from the NYC metro area to five miles of dirt road more than 30 years ago has infused this annual darkening of late autumn with an almost mystical solitude. On gray days, before the snow, hillsides absorb what light there is, giving us a sense of what the ancients experienced in the weeks before solstice.
Like other Vermonters, we’re focused — like our mammal neighbors — with preparing for the cold winter days to come: we stack cords of wood, cover fragile plants, relocate shovels, flashlights and windshield scrapers to convenient locations, and fill water jugs and the freezer, just in case.
Although we don’t live in a cave, we have few year-round neighbors on our back road which, this time of year, has little human traffic. Our daily walks generally encounter no one, but require equipment such as Yak Tracks and hiking poles. And the older I get, really warm gloves. We’re more apt to see a variety of creatures rather than people, which works fine for me.
On walks like this one, the ever-darkening landscape seems to beckon contemplation, perhaps a review of the year coming to an end or a pondering of the difficult questions we encounter at the various stages of our lives. Though these exercises may become profound and even spiritual, they aren’t religion by any stretch, but they’re as close to religion as I care to come, and they make me feel better than religion ever did.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.