Mar 19, 2014
For three days now my world has been blanketed in white. Not just the ground, but the air itself is dressed in milky-hued organza, layered with an exquisite, colorless confection of frothy ruffles. Wisps of frozen fog waft past the windows like so many tulle veils in search of a bride. I blink and squint, focusing on the trees, which loom large and indistinct in the fuzzy light, limbs bridging heaven and earth as surely as the flying buttresses in a gothic cathedral. A cathedral in which the incense has burned too long, blurring sight with smoke.
I close my eyes and lower my forehead into my palm, exhausted by the effort of discerning something, anything in the nothingness that surrounds me. In my mind, I see better but not clearly. I see myself kneeling in a pew in a great grey cathedral, my forehead resting on the backs of my hands, which grip the back of the pew in front of me. As a white-robed acolyte swings a censer hidden by the smoke that billows from it, I hear the sound of smoke, which is the sound of snow falling, a sound that’s less a sound than a feeling, like the presence of someone no longer living. The heartbeat of an angel.
I lift my head, open my eyes and gaze into the flat whiteness, empty as a photo box. Nice day for a white wedding. We’ll toss fluffy snow-globe flakes instead of rice. The thought of Billy Idol makes me smile. Free association is one of the real benefits of living here.
The textured silence pulses against my skin, hums in my skull like a once-thumbed Jew’s harp.
During the depths of winter, spring’s presence is nearly impossible for me to feel. By mid-March, she’s begun to reveal cracks in her worn winter armor. I know she’s there beneath the snow, in the not-yet-broken buds on the trees, in the love song of the chickadee, wooing her like a hormone-crazed Italian. Still shy, uncertain, she keeps herself hidden, swathed in virginal white, but I know she’s there. Deep inside her deliberate silence, I can feel her breath.
St. Benedict wrote: “Always we begin again.”
Always we stand at the point of entry into the new. Not just on New Year’s Day. Not just on the first day of spring. Not just when the snow melts. Not just when the ground thaws. Not just after the last freeze. Not just on Mondays. Every day. Every moment. The next moment beckons. Hiding all its joy and sorrow, wonder and pain, glory and shame behind an ever-fresh and unknowable “door number three,” the next moment calls to us from the dark side of the lintel: Join me.
Sometimes it whispers. Sometimes it screams.
I don’t know about you, but most of the time I demur. Thanks, but no thanks. Attractive as “starting fresh” sounds (say, during sleepless early-morning-hour resolutions about “tomorrow”) I’ve grown rather accustomed to the well-worn path of the same-old-same-old. “Yeah, yeah”, I tell the beckoning new, “I remember what I said last 4 am about growing and changing, but I’m really busy right now. I can’t swim to the other side of the pool when it’s taking all I’ve got just to tread water right here.”
I’m reminded of lines from Dr. Suess’s Hop on Pop: “Say, Say, what does this say? Ask me tomorrow but not today.”
If we can put it off, whatever it is, most of us will. As Dr. Suess pointed out so memorably: learning to read is merely initial evidence of our nature as procrastinators. Even as we’ve made something of a fetish of “change” in modern American culture, boy do we resist it.
When we find ourselves beneath the lintel of “door number three,” we most often experience it as a surprise. The stunning irony is that while crossing a new threshold is often the last thing we think we would have chosen had we been given the opportunity to choose, once we’ve been propelled across it, we can’t imagine how we would have survived without that crossing.
If the path that I believe I would never have chosen is what has made me the person I am, to disavow the path is to disavow myself, a bizarre sort of annulment.
Certainly there are myriad traumas—violence, illness, suffering, loss—that we can well imagine doing without. And yet, even in the face of these horrors, most of us expand our very identities to accept the terms of life on the other side of a door we didn’t consciously choose to open and may, in fact, have resisted with all our energy.
In To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue wrote: “No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise.”
Sounds great, huh? But what does it mean?
When I think back upon the crossed thresholds of my own life, they seem clearly divided into two groups: those I knew were coming, despite any public posturing to the contrary; and those that truly took me by surprise. I’ve experienced many moments of my life as straight-up thresholds, fully aware that every moment after would be different as a consequence. I’ve also found myself on the other side of a moment I didn’t recognize as any sort of threshold whatsoever. I’ve found myself suddenly, unexpectedly struggling to get my bearings, to identify familiar landmarks. Like a kidnap victim, blindfolded and dropped off in a strange neighborhood, I’ve found myself thrust through a door I didn’t choose and through which I can’t go back.
To view the threshold as something other than a threat requires something of a leap of faith. So what, indeed, is O’Donohue getting at?
I think he’s saying that the invitation of the threshold is the call of the "beckoning new," ever-present and ever-faithful to each of us. Every moment of every day, life knocks on the door of our consciousness. We may pretend we don’t hear the knock, blow it off, reject it, but the invitation remains as a constant presence. The promise of the threshold is nothing more nor less than the promise of spring. We see it before it is visible. We hear it while it is still silent. Spring lives, a seed buried deep in our heart, as un-sprouted promise. We know it’s there for no other reason than the fact that we feel it, and feeling it, we have faith that it is real.
While some of us live in geographic locations where we must experience physical, seasonal winter more acutely than others, we, all of us, experience some form of spiritual winter. Some period of time where we feel trapped. Where thresholds loom not as mere doorways, but as great chasms requiring not human-scale steps of the one-foot-after-the-other variety, but superhuman feats of athleticism and second-sight. We look in every direction, as through the windows of my cloud-locked mountain cabin, and think: Nah. I’m not up for this. Why try?
And that’s just the moment when trust is most required. Our vision may be cloudy, indeed. The landmarks unfamiliar. The silence resonant and distracting all at once. We may cast about, like a fisherman in a trout stream, all our senses focused on finding signs of life in green-dark water. We may discover ourselves wide awake in a place we do not recognize. That’s because, in point of fact, we’ve never been here. This isn’t the same thing as saying we have reason to be afraid.
I put on my coat and walk through the white, tulle-textured air to water the chickens. As I traverse the ridge, I feel the rumblings of spring’s still invisible seeds rise though the soles of my snow-covered boots.