Winter Breath

On Grandad’s birthday I wake to a snap of January cold. The rocking chair beside the fire invites me to settle in for a cozy start to the day, while I wait for the old house to warm up. We are in the thick of winter now, submerged in its muffled folds. And in another lockdown, too. When will it end?

The temperature is -29℃ this morning. I look at the screen which tells me this, then out the window, where the sun shines deceptively. There is ice on the tidal river, unusual except for these rare cold days. The fire roars beside me, but the snow sparkles on the other side of the glass. I look at the forecast once more. No wind. A glance at the motionless trees outside confirms it. There is an edge to the world out there, and yet, beauty beckons. I could use some fresh air. The window wins. On goes the puffy blue parka. 

In the yard, a brave bobbing head peeks out of the chicken coop. Keep those wattles in if you know what’s good for you! I warn, cutting through the side of the yard to the top of the packed snow-blown wall that borders the road. I wait for a car to pass, then clamber down to cross over. My nose tingles at the tip, cheeks stiffen. I tug down my toque and pull up my neckwarmer to meet it, till my face is only eyes. Nose and mouth snug, I breathe through this buffer of warmth. 

Something strange comes into view as I turn up Millboro Road – a rising plume of white from the base of the snowbank. Like a dryer vent in the ditch, or snow queen’s cauldron bubbling, a mist ascends from a mysterious source. Peering closer, I see a portal through the snow, down to the dark of the drainage ditch below. There is water running beneath, and this is ice fog rising. 

The snow crunches decidedly under my boots. I can see my tracks from yesterday afternoon’s walk, the snow untouched by plow or wind. It is mercifully calm this morning, and dressed as I am, I’m comfortable for a long walk. 

Today I will head up to drunk skunk’s hideaway, then down into the next little valley of the watershed, where a big stream flows under the road. The farmer is doing chores up at the open sided barn on my right, and the cows gaze out at me with placid, prisoned faces. I wonder what it’s like to be penned up all winter? I’m feeling a little bulky myself in all this protective gear.

I puff my way up the hill, breath escaping between my layers. I can feel the blood pumping through my body, bringing oxygen to my brain, expanding my curiosity. Frost begins to form on the top ridge of my neckwarmer, and soon I can see my own eyelashes blinking white in the sun. 

Easing into descent, I can’t help thinking of Grandad out here. It’s his second birthday in heaven. I miss him. He would have been out ice fishing on a day like today, or maybe getting the old skidoo running. I miss the grieving we should have done together as a family, laughing over memories, letting our love reach out to hold and heal. Time has passed strangely these two years. In some ways it has seemed like one long, cramped winter. 

Where the road curves into the final dip of the valley, there are dozens of crows perched in the trees of a yard. They are still as the sky, feathers fluffed, waiting for I know not what. Next to their silent gathering, a sparkle catches my eye. Just past their bare perches is a small tree entirely covered by hoarfrost. 

Attention is the beginning of wonder. Crunching boots slow, and I blink the crust from my eyes. I love hoarfrost, the way it transforms trees into crystal palaces, and straw into diamonds. None of the trees so far on this walk have been so graced. I scan the stream and frozen-over marsh that feeds it. More diamonds. Now I see – the trees and bushes that line the water are the ones which have been enchanted. 

Under the narrow bridge, the stream pours out of a giant culvert, and the quiet roar breathes slow roiling mists that swirl above the surface. The same magic of the ditch is at work here. I stand and stare at the rush beneath my feet. The warmth of moving water exhales its vapour to the crisp air, bestowing icy kisses on the trees in reach.

The beauty is in the breath. 

Where the branches hang over the stream, a crystal cavern has formed. Even the barbed wire stretched across the channel, remnants of an old cattle fence line, has received the touch of this charm. 

Suddenly I am aware of how stiff my neckwarmer has become. I yank its frozen folds down and gulp in the winter air, sharp at the back of my throat. I want to taste it, this living breath. If there is a portal here, I will fill my lungs till I find it. I feel the sharp in my chest as the water pours and the crows lift, searching. 

Oh Breath, are you here, rising from the valley?

I need more than my lungs can hold. I need oxygen for the soul. I press close to the guardrail, leaning over the edge till my breath intertwines with the ice fog. I am the spellbound crow. 

Listen, listen, the water whispers. There’s something below the frozen layers – hidden and deep and moving – and where it bursts out in ditches and drainage pipes and right through rusty fences it touches our bare and waiting branches and brings beauty to them. Beneath the blizzard, God is still alive, still in movement, not frozen out by the troposphere’s temper tantrums. 

The stream keeps flowing, even in the always-winter. In unlikely, mysterious places, He is still breathing. 

~ Lindsey

S. D. G.

Eyes for Glory

Dawn is an old woman creaking out of bed this morning. Her rosy fingers are slow to pull back the covers. Her sigh is cold at the window. 

I rise into slippers and wool and spilled coffee, the morning still grey as I patter about the house. This year has seemed slow to dawn too, at least in my mind. I am still adjusting to 2022, eyeing it with hope, but not without suspicion. I need a way to look at this old world with new focus. 

I’m so accustomed to the dark and dull that the glint of sunlight on the bare tree outside my window surprises me. I still feel the draft around the edges, but it reveals the beginnings of a sunny morning, and I am drawn.

Forget about breakfast, I layer up and bundle into my warmest parka, my biggest boots, and sling the camera around my scarved neck. Out I go.

We had a grand nor’easter on the weekend, hurling snowdrifts at us, followed by a disappointing rain. The snow is not gone, but there is an icy sheen over it now after the temperature flip-flopped again. I pull up my furry hood to break the wind. 

I’m going on a beauty hunt, I decide. The last time I did this was early November, when the colours of autumn were still riotous, before the brown, before the mask of snow. I head up the laneway to the pond. This road is only plowed partway in the winter. Sometimes the drifts on this last stretch are too high for my boots. Now the frozen rain has formed a crust over the waves of snow, and I wonder if I will crack through it. But someone has been here before me, I see. Someone in snowshoes. I step into the pressed tracks, and the path holds me up. 

At first, all I see is white. All I feel is wind. Then I follow the sun, to see where it dances, and I begin to see the beauty. 

The shine on the rippled water. The sparkle of crystals on seedy flower stalks. Shadow patterns on the bank. I dare my hand out of my mitts to focus the camera lens, to find a pleasing angle. I kneel in the snow, bending closer, looking harder, and I am rewarded.

And yet, this was easier in the fall. The wind didn’t bite my fingertips, or slow down the camera’s lens. I simply strolled about and let the colours lead me. Now, I’m hunting, truly. Winter has never made things easy for anyone.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been struggling to situate myself fully in this new year. The world can feel like a dark, cold place. Restricted. Isolated. Throwing one storm after another into our bracing faces. 

I shift off the path to zoom in on a silky seedpod, and my right leg sinks in the snow, up past my knee. Then I drop my mitt and it slides down the sheer curve of the bank. With a little floundering I right myself and retrieve the mitt. Too heavy. That’s what I am for this landscape. Too heavy. What weights do we carry into this year?

And yet. Someone has gone on before. Someone with their feet shod in preparation for the deep. If I stay in their tracks, I can walk this winter world. 

It is this footing that gives me eyes to look with hope. Eyes to believe there is still beauty everywhere, that this is a world graced with love, laced with glory. 

Some days I must hunt for it. Bundle against despair and put my boots on. Maybe I’m just a crazy woman in wool trying to ignore the newsreels of the “real world.” Or maybe there is just more to see. Maybe the glory hasn’t departed. 

I follow the snowshoe trail to the footbridge over the river. I can barely fit this narrow way in my bulky blue coat, and I feel like a penguin waddling between the railings. Suspended above tumbling water, I see across the pond and farther upstream, to where a handful of ducks are floating and bobbing, unfazed by the cold. The sun is climbing up, up through the tall trees behind me, embracing more of the morning in its glow. 

And I know it, here on the bridge – that eyes for glory are what I need this year.

It’s there. It’s there with brightness and beauty great and small. It’s there with a sky that does not stop telling of fresh starts. It’s there with the persistence of those whose purpose is unaltered by storms. It’s there in love and patience and kindness. It’s there in the enjoyment of every good gift, gifts that keep falling and falling from heavenly lights. It’s there when I refocus on what is true and lovely. 

It’s here, on this path, imprint by imprint up the hill toward home, holding me up, each step a beholding. 

~ Lindsey Gallant

S. D. G.

The Glory of the January Rose

I almost didn’t recognize you,
dear rosebush,
scraggly and spattered with the snowplow’s spray.
I could see right through you to the white field beyond,
your stems like a barbed wire window,
your berries brown and puckered.
Oh where is the sweetness of your glory?

But if glory is creation pursuing its purpose,
then even now you shine –
for you submit to the season’s stillness,
preserving the life given
by your very silence.
You hold the seeds still,
and you dare to wait,
to take the form of barren thorns,
knowing the roots of your beauty.

Yes, here is glory,
yes, I see your face
here in January. 

~ Lindsey Gallant

S. D. G.

Advent and Aurora Dreams

Photo credit: John McKinnon

I sat down to write about Advent, but this burst out instead. That’s the thing with Advent. Hope gives you a little nudge and your heart rips wide open. This piece is about the northern lights, and about missing home. But it’s also about the deep soul places longing to be filled. Advent give us permission to live in the tension of our unfulfilled longings, while pointing toward their Source. 

***

I dreamt about you the night of the last solar flare. 

I knew others were staying up late, getting up early, searching the skies in hopes of their first glimpse of your magic. I was too tired to keep watch for the slim chance of reuniting with an old flame. While others chased elusive pale streaks in the southeast, I tucked in and slept snug. I had years of northern memories to satisfy. But did they, still?

For I dreamt of you.

You called me, and I simply walked out the door of my dream into your presence again. Your fire spread over the valley where the autumn moons rise full and golden. But there was no moon to compete with your beauty. You came in green, like an old friend, and I didn’t need to jump up and down or try to capture you in camera frame. I stood on the porch and knew you, in the deep place of being that grew with your touch through decades of winters past. And you grew in the sky until I all I could see was aurora. 

It was February, 2020 when I last saw the northern lights with my waking eyes. February, 2020, when the world seemed to spin a little straighter on its axis, when I flew across the country and thought it odd to see a few people at Toronto Pearson Airport in masks. 

It had been a long day of winter driving, straight north from Edmonton, with my sister at the wheel and her two little boys in the back seat. We needed to make the fifteen hour trip in one day in order to surprise my older sister the next morning on her 40th birthday. It was near 10:00 pm when we left Hay River, after stopping for gas and a bathroom break, and to buy a box of cinnamon buns at the Super A on the edge of town. With the time change, it already felt like 1:00 in the morning. We were both tired, the roads were snow covered, and we still had three hours to go. My job was not to drive (it had been too long since I had driven standard), or navigate (for we were well acquainted with this singular road), but to keep us awake. With heavy eyes we pulled out of town, hoping the boys would sleep the rest of the way. 

As we left Hay River behind and turned onto Highway 5, my heart rose in my chest and stopped my breath. The night sky had opened, and out poured the northern lights in glorious, swirling green. They spilled across our view like ink on fire, unrolling across black parchment. 

“Welcome,” they whispered. “Welcome home.” 

I had no trouble keeping my eyes open then. I pressed my face toward the windshield, then turned to look out the side windows. We were surrounded. They threw the tips of spruce and jack pine into relief, backlighting the boreal forest on the left side of the road. They glowed and danced neon over the highway ahead. I had not seen the aurora in this brilliance in at least a decade or more. 

They lit up a dormant place in my soul, the place that comes alive when I cross the 60th parallel and find my northern bearings. I could feel the pull, reorienting me to a strong sense of belonging. 

They accompanied us all the way home that night, fading only when we reached Fort Smith. They had done their job – keeping us both awake, and reawakening me to the magnetism of this land, turning the needle of my heart home. 

When I woke from the dream, I was still living in two worlds. Had I indeed gone out to the porch that night and seen the northern lights? The possibility floats through my mind for a moment and then disappears, as chronos time takes over, as my body remembers it has not risen from beneath these covers. But, oh, part of me is still in the sky. I have seen them! They came. 

I know God speaks in dreams. Sometimes he dances. 

The dream haunts me as I go about my November days. I see pictures online of stunning displays all over Canada, and from my hometown. If I could be anywhere in the world during a geomagnetic storm, it would be there, tipped north on the 60th parallel, feet in the snow of the high riverbank. 

There is an ache as these lights retreat. The space in my soul contracts, and finally collapses. Nothing else will fill it. But I carry the emptiness with me. 

There are other lights, here on this floating cradle of sandstone, and so I am not left in utter darkness. These lights cheer me as I wake and live, flickering in candles, shimmering on the salty waves, glowing with love given and received. 

And yet I am waiting, always waiting for your return. 

Sometimes I climb into those black holes of your absence deep within, looking for leftover sparks. I am waiting for the silent rush of coloured fire, for the next cold night you take my breath away. I am waiting for the needle to jump and spin, pulling me into the storm’s wild dance. I am waiting for you to bring me home. 

~

Lindsey

S.D.G.