Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
The winter wind shoots tiny stinging snowflakes into my face as I stand at the top of a hill waiting for my children to drag their toboggans back. They work hard, and suffer extreme conditions, for the chance to fly down the hill again. As the small figures of the two boys near, I first see little clouds of hot breath puffing like the steam engines they love, and then their red cheeks come into view. As they arrive I remove my glove to wipe away the clear snot that drips from the younger one’s nose, and flick it into the crunchy frozen snow, wondering how fast it will freeze. And then they are off again, flying down the hill.
The urge to sled, to shoot down and climb back, is too much like descriptions of the cycles of reincarnation. Too similar to When I get to the bottom / I go back to the top of the slide / Where I stop and turn / and I go for a ride / Till I get to the bottom and I see you again—to be ignored. We have a deep love of the momentum of living, and we are compelled to return to it again and again.
On his way upstairs in his pajamas the younger boy, three, stops. “Dad,” he says, “Listen!” I look up from my magazine. “The higher you die, the more you be alive.” Then he turned and continued up the stairs. “Goodnight…” I called after him.
Children sleeping, I slough off procrastination and set some traps for the mice that have been ravaging the pantry and pooping in the silverware drawer. Within minutes I hear snap! snap! Then some thrashing and struggle. Then silence. Retrieving the corpses I consider how to dispose of them. The garbage is too disrespectful. Throw them into the snow? No, I cremate them in the fiery furnace of the cranking wood stove and watch their tails curl, and feet extend, as the little bodies roast and vaporize in flames on the red coals.
Here in the pregnant insularity of winter, the penumbral season in which darkness is winning against the light, is a good time to die. The outside world is contracted, with life withdrawn, conserving enough energy to survive the term and emerge renewed. It is a time when patient gestation may look like death, though it is preparation.
It is the Christmas season and reminders of death and rebirth are everywhere for now is when Jesus chose to die (to be reborn in springtime). It is a magical time, a time of possibility, when there is a glimpse of a choice about what in ourselves and in our lives will live, what will die, and what will be reborn.
What can I leave off that does not serve? What have I been wishing to experience, to manifest that I can carefully introduce into the balanced machinery and cycles of my life? I’m not talking about resolutions. I’m talking about the totality. Here in the darkness we can plant the seed of something new, though they may not sprout until springtime.
The spiritual traditions say that the one inner habit that we can leave off without upsetting the total balance is our negativity. This is very different from losing weight or giving up chocolate. Negative emotions are extra, and have no natural place in the organism, so if we allow, we can simply drop cynicism and criticism, greed and resentment, envy and jealousy. That’s right! Drop it and its gone, like so much garbage thrown over the side of the vessel. Though as one 20th century philosopher observed, the hardest thing for a person to sacrifice is their suffering. We will give up almost everything beside the self-indulgence of negativity.
But we can let these negative impulses die, for they have never been alive. First is to stop animating with expression. Stop making snide remarks; stop angry outbursts; stop criticizing in front of, or behind the backs of, others. Just let it go, and let the sweetness of praise replace critique; allow expressions of gratitude to replace complaint; let ourselves be, for in being we are our positive, abundant selves.
The ride of life is compelling and ultimately utterly mechanical, but we can make the ride serve for more than a thrill. Every small instance of replacing accidental happening with intentional doing is a tiny but meaningful step toward rebirth.
As Thoreau says in Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”