A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

5 comments on “A rose in the wintertime

  1. How strange wordpress is. I, too, have a blog on WP that I don’t write on very often. I happened to have a certain song in my head tonight whose words I couldn’t entirely remember. I googled what I DID remember — “rose in the wintertime,”for instance — and found offeringstone. I loved reading this post and its citing of Come sing a song with me! I guess it was a Unitarian service you speak of here, and it happens that as I write this, a few years after your post, I was at my own Unitarian service — today, that is, on October 2, 2016.
    You are a very graceful writer, and I wish you had more writing jobs, though possibly you have found some by now.
    I’m a writer — sort of. I’m nearly 80, and I write so slowly that publishers have given up on me, and two recent books of mine I published myself on lulu.com. People in my church and other friends seem to enjoy these books, though, as much as my more “impressive” ones. The corporate press doesn’t want my sort of thing these days, perhaps because I don’t write thrillers or sci-fi.
    I hope to read more of your posts — about the Estonian language, i. e. My own blog is marthastephens.wordpress.com.
    October in Cincinnati is not yet drying up. Normally, our typical first frost is, I believe, on October 10 . . . somewhat later these days, I expect, now that we are injuring our planetary home the way we are.

  2. Michele Klika says:

    Hello Anita. 🙂
    We have a few things in common, so I thought I might share what they are and some other thoughts.
    I too am an ex-Lutheran. However, my family wasn’t particularly religious, at least not in the sense of attending church as a family or belonging to that denomination, although me and my three siblings were sent to Sunday School on Sundays at a local Lutheran church. The idea behind that was so we wouldn’t grow up as unchurched heathen kids. I was confirmed at age 12. My experience with this denomination was neutral to positive, but this contact with religion didn’t satisfy my thirst for the real thing, which is to know God personally. Nothing could fill that place, not even my contact and experimentation with things of an esoteric nature and belief in reincarnation during my teen years. When I cried out to God in despair at age 18, desperate to know His personal love, He graciously responded and opened my eyes to see that Jesus was the way to Him. I still continued dabbling in the occult, so it took 9 more months for me to come to learn what Jesus being the way actually meant, but at Easter of 1981 in the privacy of my home, alone, I had a true conversion, becoming a follower of Jesus Christ at 19, leaving all ties to any one particular Christian denomination behind at that time. I have never stopped belonging to Him in the 32 years since. And since that time, I have learned that so much of what is found in church groups is actually a mix of Jesus’ teachings and tradition, a particular culture’s political, historical, or social twist on them or a particular groups favorite teaching from the Bible. Still, I regularly spend time with others who have experienced the power of that changed life through the touch of Jesus Christ and ignore the rough bark of the tree.
    A Maryland girl, I now live in the Czech Republic with my husband of 28 years and our five sons. Similar to your assessment of Estonia (as you recorded in a separate blog entry), I would say the Czech nation ranks among the most non-religious or atheistic on this planet, if it doesn’t take 1st place.
    Like in Maryland, wintertime arrives later than it used to 15 years ago, but still lasts as long.
    Like in Estonia, Czechs celebrate Christmas in the evening on the 24th.
    Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming is among my favorites. (In Czech: Zvěst slyšte v širou dáli: kmen suchý růží zkvet, meaning: Hear the news in the wide distance: a dry rose stem has bloomed.)

    How I stumbled upon your site, was by looking up the etymology of the word ‘witch’. It was Čarodějnice (Witches Day) here in the Czech Republic yesterday on April 30 and my curiosity was piqued about how we got the English word. While doing my search, I saw your article on how many words Estonian has for our one ‘witch’. Estonia isn’t so terribly far from here and might possibly share some common ancient customs, so I thought I might as well take a look. As far as I know, like English, Czech has only one word as well – arising from the root word čarovat – having to do with casting spells and doing magic. Despite having one word, belief in the estoric is very strong here, eclipsing by far any other form of belief except for indifference to or fear of anything of a spiritual nature.
    From there, I noticed you had an entry entitled Universalism Unitarism and was curious as to what you might have there.
    And here I am.
    I hope Springtime in Maryland is proving a refreshing time for you, chasing away the winter blues. And that you’ve found a good job or will soon.
    Thanks for sharing so eloquently.
    Michele Klika

    • Hello Michele,
      Thank you for your lovely message. I’m glad you found something to enjoy on this blog. I go through periods of times when I post a lot of things, then I stop until inspiration strikes again.

      About Witches Day — Estonians don’t celebrate April 30, but American Wiccans call it Beltane, the Eve of May. This is borrowed from old Celtic traditions. Usually it involves lighting bonfires, where that is possible in our urban society, and celebrating with food, drink, song and dancing.
      How is the word čarovat pronounced?

      I see that you mentioned Unitarian Universalism. Do you know that there are Unitarian congregations in the Czech Republic? Here is some information from the Unitarian Universalist Association web site:

      The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians was founded on June 30, 1930 and recognized by the government on the same day. The founder and first minister, Rev. Norber F. Capek, died as a martyr in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Dr. Capek, writer, lecturer, and composer of over 200 Unitarian hymns, may also be known to many Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist Churches all over the world. The flaming chalice is also of Czech Unitarian origin. The RSCU is a member of the IARF and a founding member of the ICUU and has a long-standing relationship with the UUA. Previous to the Second World War, the Prague congregation was the largest Unitarian congregation in the world. Currently the Prague congregation has about 450 members. Brno, Plzen and Liberec also have Unitarian congregations.

      There are about 120 Unitarian congregations in Transylvania as well. Here is some information:

      “Unitarianism traces its religious roots back nearly 450 years to 16th Century Transylvania. There, a theologian named Francis David (who in true UU fashion was first a Catholic, then a Calvinist before becoming a Unitarian) converted the King and much of the population to a radical theology — a theology that espoused the oneness of God and the humanity of Jesus, and that held up reason and tolerance as the pillars of its faith. Today, despite centuries of persecution, there are still some 60,000 Unitarians living in the Transylvania region of Romania.”

      Bright blessings to you,

  3. Heidi Neumann Bement says:

    Kallis Anita,
    I stumbled across your blog purely by accident and was stunned ! Reading your writings about food, church, home life , summer camp was like going back in time through my own childhood. But the stuff on the language, and history, and religion is all new to me and so fun to read! Keep writing, I’ll keep reading!
    All the Best,
    Heidi Neumann Bement
    ( Ps hi to Peter!)

    • Heidikene! How wonderful to hear from you! I immediately dug out some old photo albums and found four photos of you with your brother, my brother and myself, dating from around 1959. I was age 7, the boys must have been 5 or younger, and you must have been 3 or 4. We always loved visiting with your family and I remember your parents Uncle Mart and Aunt Asta fondly. I’m delighted that you like the blog. It’s a form of time travel, as you say.
      ole tervis,

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