Photo Credit: Julie Graham
There’s a strange tenderness in harsh prairie winters. In the midst of deep fog, the temperature swings slowly, visibility declines, ice and frost coat the roads and the windows, and the hoar frost wraps the power lines and the trees. We can easily get lost in fog, and our movement through it is reduced to wandering one miniscule and tentative step at a time, our senses attuned to the tiniest and most immediate signals of our place in space and time.
This winter, too many people I love are wandering through fog. Drowning in grief. Wading through employment uncertainty. Breaking under the weight of illness or caregiving. I am in an ordinary season after years of loss and grief and I am finding myself reflecting on what carried me through: tenderness at the breaking.
It hasn’t come naturally to me to seek out and trust in the world’s capacity for tenderness. In the fall into depression, I put extraordinary effort into hiding my despair, pushing to perform externally while my insides crumbled under the weight of hormones and (my) impossible expectations. Grief introduced me to the depth of the pit inside my own body, and my greatest longing was to collapse into death while denying myself all relief and comfort.
This is the thing about profound human pain, simultaneously physical and emotional and spiritual: I begin to identify with and feel attached to the fog, frozen by the fear that what comes next will be even worse than what is now. Twelve step spirituality and mentors have whispered to me in the fog, as many times as I needed to hear it: you will not move until the pain of staying here exceeds the pain of changing. It is a whisper of tenderness and compassion through my tears.
The winter world is frozen, lulling nature into hibernation, existence that is cold and stripped naked. The temperature swings and water droplets get suspended in the air instead of forming snow or ice. And as the water molecules dance around bare extended branches, they turn immediately into ice crystals. The tree is wrapped in a breathtaking and fragile cloak of hoarfrosted tenderness.
When I reach the edges of myself, no longer able to keep wandering in the fog or pretending I am okay, my frozen edges become reluctant conductors for tentative tenderness. My body starts to preserve energy for the vital organs. I stop having the energy to be afraid of judgement or failure, and, more importantly, to push tenderness and compassion away. The walls I put up to keep myself safe have kept out both the danger and the help. I need to fall apart before I can be tenderly put back together for a world that looks and is different after the fog.
Being wrapped in tenderness, like hoar frost, is cold and unfamiliar, mystical and fragile. People say wrong things alongside the ones I have most needed to hear. I receive things I do not want, like counselling, rest, or assistance with bathing or eating or thinking. My hands release the death grip on the coping mechanisms which have allowed me to survive, like denial and staying busy and the trappings of my curated mask of “perfection”. It is as desirable as a very long ice hug.
And, the falling into freezing has taught me that I can go there willingly long before I am out in the ice storm, lighting my emergency candle and praying I do not fall asleep before someone finds me dead. When I sense cold winter temperatures coming, and the forecast is calling for fog, I can embrace the coming fog and learn to reach for tenderness with grace.
The world can be cold, and not everyone will like me, agree with me, or respond with tenderness, it is true. But it is my experience that an extraordinary number of human beings (when their molecules have chance to trace the frozen and desperate limbs of their neighbours) have the capacity to crystalize into tenderness. When I admit my need, expose my pain, ask for grace and mercy, tenderness has a strange way of emerging in unexpected ways. Nature and strangers, songs on the radio or lines in a book, a phone call or a memory or a dream. Imperfection, pain, and failure crack me open enough to receive.
And then, I am surprised that God weaves this tenderness into my world so that it eventually wells up droplets within my frozen self. That the tenderness can line the inside of me as well as the outside, a grace that others cannot see or take away. May it flow through me and then out of me to the frozen edges of those lost in the fog today. Amen.