“… 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.
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.