Saturday, February 2, 2008
Winter has always been my favorite season. The summer is too humid, fall too melancholy, and spring too obvious. Winter suits me. I love the cold—when I was a kid I liked to build tunnels through huge piles of snow and then see how long I could stay in the tunnels in just a tee shirt and jeans before I had to go inside to warm up. The silence in those snow tunnels had a muffled quality that was the sound of peace to me. I liked to imagine that nobody in the world knew where I was as I lay in those tunnels, surrounded by the steam of my own exhalations.
It was in a tunnel of snow in the immediate aftermath of one of the two huge blizzards of 1978 that I first thought that there might not be a God. I was alone with my thoughts, and it struck me that I really might be ALONE with my thoughts. Having been raised Catholic and serving as an alter boy at the time, this thought was pretty radical for me. I chewed on it for a while and decided to withhold final judgment on the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being. I reasoned that God created me, so the least I could do was give Him the benefit of the doubt before I decided He didn’t exist.
Well, the winter of 1978 became the spring of 1978 and so on until I was much older. When I was 21 I came to an answer on the question of whether I really had been all alone in that snow tunnel. I decided that it had been nice knowing God, but that I just couldn’t continue a relationship with someone so distant and uncommunicative. (He probably feels the same way about me now.)
And now that I am pushing 41 and winter has come around again, I find myself wanting my six year-old daughter, Isabel, to love the cold and the snow and the clear winter skies as much as I do. I have felt this way since she was born. I have taken her out for walks on the coldest days and brought her out into the snow at daybreak as often as I could. It is important to me that she feels about winter the way I do.
When I press myself for a reason for wanting her to love winter, the best I can do is remember a frigid night in 1991 when I was working at an environmental education center in Massachusetts.
There was an eerie cracking sound and then an ice-amplified echo as the surface of Lake Massapaug shifted to adjust to the deepening cold. I was in the middle of the lake, lying flat on my back on a smooth sheet of ice blown clear by the wind that had been gusting for three days straight out of the north. Having grown up in Delaware, I had no experience with lakes freezing over solid enough to drive cars across. And I certainly had no experience with the rifle-shot sound of the ice cracking and settling. A frozen lake is not a silent thing.
I lay on my back, neoprene underwear earning its keep, staring up at the clearest, blackest sky I had ever seen. The stars were a symphony of blazing lights that would blur out of focus as the Canadian wind made my eyes tear up and then snap back into sharp points as I blinked the tears away. Staring up at those stars that night fifteen years ago is the closest thing to a religious experience I have had since I walked away from religion as a 21 year-old.
I felt as if my body and I were separate entities. My body stayed prone on the ice and the rest of me rose up out of my body at incredible speed, up toward the stars. I was hurtling through space and at the same time I was without a body, so I expanded outward to fill all the space around me in all directions. As I expanded, I came to the stars and just kept right on expanding, including the matter of the stars into me. None of this happened at the level of words—it was all much more elemental and primitive. I became the universe as I lay flat on the ice, looking out at space. And in this becoming, I didn’t feel a God out there anywhere. I felt all of time and all of matter, but no Creator, no Judge, no Loving Father. Just time and space.
But that was enough. When I came back into my own head and body there on the lake, I was stinkin’cold. I got up and went to bed in my cabin and thought about what I had felt. I have never taken drugs and have never been prone to unusual mental states, so I was a little unnerved by the whole experience. When I replayed it, I was filled by reassurance that I am connected to everything there is through my physical being. All of the matter that makes up me and everything else in the universe comes from the stars. We are all part of the same huge creation. There was a cold aloneness on the lake, but at the same time a connection to all of creation.
I found that feeling of connection much more authentic than the feelings I used to have about God back when He and I were talking. And that feeling of authentic connection to the universe is what I really want to share with Isabel—not just a love of winter and snow. But she has got her own inner life, her own relationship to make (or not) with God. So rather than take her out into the cold and talk to her about stars and the inter-connectedness of everything, I will have to be satisfied with the joy of snowball fights and sledding and building some snow tunnels of our own.