Turn of Winter

“Do you have half of your wood left?” our neighbor who lived down the road and up the adjacent hill asked as he pulled out of our snow-dusted driveway.  “There’s still a way to go this winter.”   He and his wife were among the first people we met when we bought our house.  Being from suburban New Jersey, we had no real idea how to manage Vermont winters.  But kind people like our neighbor were generous with advice, which generally came at unexpected times – like that night, when we were driving to a choral rehearsal.

“It’s the Turn of Winter,” he told me.

Turn of Winter is January 26.  It’s the day that marks the half-way point in the Vermont heating season.  Meteorologically, it’s also the coldest point in the year: it’s the day with the lowest average temperature.  From here on, the days get warmer (on average).

Last week we passed Turn of Winter.  This week we’ve celebrated Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day, Groundhog Day, and Imbolc, all of which fall on February 2.

Something deep in the collective human psyche prompts us to mark this time of year.  It might be a spiritual observance like Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc that we mark by lighting fires or candles. Or it might be a light-hearted community observance like Groundhog Day, marked by bringing a creature that lives in burrows underground out into the light of day.  Or it might be a more practical exercise of taking stock of the woodpile.

As I write this, we’re experiencing the coldest day (by far) of this winter.  Yet our ancient collective wisdom assures us that this is all about to change. In fact, we can see it happening. Even though we can count on more snow and frigid temperatures to come, slowly and surely the hours of sunlight continue to grow each day. And judging by Facebook posts I’m seeing, lambing season has begun.

I’m always struck by the ways that the cycles and seasons and the cycles and seasons of our lives mirror each other.  There are periods of new life and growth, as well as periods of decay and death.  There are fallow times and productive times.

Just as the earth needs to cycle through these periods again and again, so do humans.

There is no shortage of cultural messages urging us toward unlimited growth and productivity.  Yet this is unsustainable, and sooner or later we will learn that – often by burning out and hitting the wall.  Just like the earth, we need fallow times, times of extended rest, to sustain our more productive times.

And even more difficult for us, there will be times of loss, of death, or of simply letting go of what no longer has any life left.  We would not choose these experiences, but loss, and the ensuing grief, is part of life.  Some of our losses open spaces for growth.  Others may leave empty spaces that will always need a tender touch.

So, no matter in what cycle of life we’re in today, our current seasonal cycle assures us that a cycle of easier days is on the horizon.  Though the north country is in the grip of winter, that grip is beginning to loosen.