Snow and Ashes 2014

Snow and Ashes 2014

“All these [romantic and artistic] visions and versions of winter take place at the pressure point where indoor warmth meets the frozen window.” In his essays on winter the Canadian-raised American writer, essayist and commentator Adam Gopnik suggests that it was the domestic installation of plate glass windows and central heating that moved human beings from the experience, perception and artistic representation of winter as a perilous time of the year to a more romantic one that takes expression in painting, poetry and music and in our ability to venture out to winter sports, secure in the belief that we will return to a warm lodge where we can eat raclette and drink Irish coffee seated by a picture window looking out towards snow blanketed mountains and frozen lakes.

This long hard Wisconsin winter has me at my own “pressure point” where at three large windows overlooking the Fox River the relentless double-digit below zero temperatures meet my very warm second floor room in St. Joseph’s Priory on the campus of St. Norbert College. For the first time in my life I have the blessing of living beside and overlooking a body of water. My desk and computer put me in a place where the river and its banks are always in my sight lines. I use the long window ledge as a shelf for what I take out of my pockets and for little books. So I spend a good deal of time observing life on the river and the furred and feathered whose home it is.

The fall and early winter was the time of the one hundred or so geese that sit on the bank that under the east side of the Priory slopes to the river. The geese mark this territory as theirs and those who venture to walk there will know that from the soles of their shoes! The geese seem to have seasonal schedules. In the fall when the sun first rose over the river I would see them quietly at rest on the water close to shore. As the sun rose higher they would come up onto the riverside lawn and move from south to north eating the grass. In the afternoon they might settle down. But I was not sure where they were in the long dark cold nights that came upon us very early this year. People say that Canadian geese don’t fly south for the winter as they once did. I believe that ours do. Winter came early and once the river began to freeze the geese moved elsewhere. I know not where. I know they will return.

Then there are the few squirrels in the big tree just to the south and very close to my windows. They seem to be at peace with the geese but perhaps not so with the lone long large red-tailed hawk that I could find every morning sitting in the old apple tree directly east of my windows. This hawk is patient and unmoving until, when its wings take it aloft, I suspect it has a target mouse in sight. The squirrels seem to live their winter lives between two trees for there are no other signs of their foraging anywhere else in the snow. And – perhaps a sign of spring’s approach – now the hawk has a companion. They sit motionless for hours on the lowest large branch of a tree beside the frozen river. From time to time one will fly off – perhaps to catch lunch or dinner – while the other remains at their post.

But I have not seen the waters of the Fox since before Christmas. The meteorologists report that this is the coldest winter in Wisconsin in thirty-five years. Those born and raised here say that it has “never” been this cold for so long. A newcomer at my “pressure point” windows might well believe that the sloping bank outside my window levels out into a long wide flat playing field that extends to the row of homes on the other side of the pitch. But it is, in fact, the Fox River frozen solid and covered in snow for months. Predictions are that this hard winter of white will last well into the end of March.

But this week, like the flecks of black feathers on the otherwise all white plumage of the snowy owl that’s been seen flying over the campus these weeks, we will be marked with smudges of black ash to mark the beginning of Lent . Ashes tell us that something has happened that cannot be restored: the remains of a cremated friend, a black circle at a camping site, and the charred remains of a cabin caught in the path of a raging forest fire. Our Ash Wednesday forehead crosses and smudges are all that’s left from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem five days before the Triduum of his passion, death and resurrection. Unlike so many other ashes as “the end”, ours are a new beginning, an entry into forty days of practices of restraint (fasting), generosity (charitable sharing), and prayer (clear intention about what we’re doing and why) that create the conditions for the possibility that God will rise anew in and among us with warm brightness that will restore the flow of the river, fresh new growth and new life for all.