Spring is here, or so the keepers of time tell us. We have passed that notch in the calendar when light and darkness are given us in equal measure. Winter is past and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and begin to enjoy longer days and the sight and smell of things getting about the business of growing. For now, though, that is only a hope, and what we see is not quite what we’ve been awaiting. The landscape is little more than a palette of various hues of brown. The remaining snow has lost its brilliance and is tinged with dirt. And the ground, whether covered with matted leaves or heaving up in a kind of awakening, is, well, muddy. It would be tempting, after the long wait for spring, to sink into disappointment, especially when the weather warms briefly and then turns cold, or brings us more snow. Yet, a late-arriving spring like this one has something to offer and, if we’re smart, we will befriend it and let it walk us slowly into the richness of the season. Now is a time of preparation for what is to come, to gaze on the stark canvas around us before it begins to burst into color and growth. After all, when it does, life will get very busy, not only in the natural world, but in our lives. Activity will ramp up as schedules swell with graduations, weddings, and ball games. Homeowners will frantically pull out coolers and grills, uncover deck furniture, and fuel lawnmowers for the first of many cuts of the season. Gardeners will feel an urgency to ready their beds and plant even as the local greenhouses warn them to heed the frost-free date. Wildflower and bird enthusiasts, knowing they have a small window to see Dutchman’s Breeches and migrating warblers, will rush to converge on wildlife areas armed with guidebooks and cameras. So, much as I’m longing for sun, warmth, and the sight of a Swamp Buttercup or a Black-throated Blue warbler, I’m taking a pause on these chilly, doesn’t-feel-like-spring-yet days. I’m contemplating the mud, knowing it could be nesting mortar for Eastern Phoebes if they choose to stay again to raise a family. I’m watching the squirrels stuff their mouths with leaves and scurry up trees to prepare beds for new broods. I’m enjoying the cacophony of chatter from a flock of blackbirds or the song of a single robin as the sun amazes me with yet another spectacular rising or setting. I’m taking a closer look at what appears to be nothing and am noticing the winter feathers of the male Goldfinches start to turn yellow, buds on the branches of an Elderberry bush, and the first leaves of Bee Balm at the base of the brown stalks from last year’s growth. In the belief that anticipation is often the best part of a vacation or a happy event, I’m drinking in this time and appreciating it in its somewhat awkward adolescent phase because I know without seeing that it holds the promise of something quite wonderful that is yet to come.
Sometime around mid-February, those of us who live where seasonal change is felt most keenly start the long wait for spring.
With that season of promise nearly upon us as I write, the signs of its approach seem sparse. An east wind is blowing off a frozen lake and temperatures returned to the teens overnight. Further defying the onset of warmer weather are the stubbornly intact patches of snow that, though beginning to diminish, cling to our landscape.
Absorbed in this state of waiting, many of us are edgy, irritable, and anxious, even as we try to remind ourselves that spring must come eventually. We glance outside and then look at the calendar, counting the days until the equinox. Still bundled in our winter coats and scarves, we gaze longingly at spring merchandise in stores. We rejoice and celebrate the occasional mild day, even as our hopes are dashed by another snowstorm or cold front.
We are waiting, and maybe not so well, especially when what we see and feel doesn’t fit our desire to shed our winter layers and bask in warmth again. Instead of getting locked in frustration, though, I am starting to notice that if I can quiet myself just a little, I can see and hear signs that something in the earth has shifted, signaling a new season is on its way.
After all, although there is still snow on the ground, much of what fell during a March storm that blanketed our area last week has already started to disappear, revealing – could it be? – grass. On closer inspection, I notice the tips of daffodil foliage emerging. Near a pond frozen over and covered with snow, I am able to see more and more of a log that has been our snow-depth gauge all winter. And the male cardinals who have brightened wintry days with their brilliant red feathers have broken their silence, moved to resume singing by what they know to be coming.
A fellow writer who senses this change says she is feeling the intensity of the sun on her walks in a way she did not in January. Her spirits have taken flight at the sight of returning red-winged blackbirds, robins, and bluebirds. “You know that winter has lost its grip and is on the way out,” she writes, “no matter how much it tries to make us feel that it isn’t.”
The day before our latest snowstorm, I found a woolly bear caterpillar on a lane between two open fields. Knowing the storm was coming, I tucked this little herald of spring into a brushy area inside the woods not only in hopes it would survive, but as a pledge of faith in the coming season of new life.
Waiting can be a time of watching and listening and delighting in what we see and hear, if only we will open ourselves to it. For me, these days of anticipation are ones in which I am reminding myself to spend time outside whenever I can, even if the temperature and wind speed are not quite ideal, and to keep my eyes and ears attuned to the harbingers of spring.
Some of the most serene people I know have a habit of being quiet at home.
Whether they live alone or with other people, these souls seem to prefer and practice living without the constant background noise that pervades many of our dwellings.
One such person rises each morning and makes it a point not to turn on the radio or television while getting ready for her job in a busy, production-driven office. Another who is at home during the day also keeps the radio and TV off, lets an answering device catch most of her phone calls, and, if she does play music, chooses soothing chants.
For these quiet-keepers, the stretches of silence and stillness in their lives spill over to those they meet. Despite whatever stress threatens to disturb their peace, both manage to convey a sense of repose in which they are receptive and willing to listen to people. In conversations, they do not interrupt or finish sentences. They ask questions that reflect a genuine interest in the other person. Being in their presence is peaceful and affirming.
Such people are models for me as I seek to live more quietly, yet struggle with a temperament that is more prone to jumpiness than calm. (My quiet mother lamented throughout my early life that I was in “perpetual motion.”) My profession did little to settle me down, thrusting me into an atmosphere of nearly constant stimulation that fed those natural tendencies. Today, removed from that setting, I sometimes still find it challenging to maintain quiet while working out of my home. In that, I do not seem to be alone. Increasingly, it seems, many of us think we need some kind of ambient noise to be productive and creative whether it’s music or an app like Coffitivity, which delivers the sounds of a coffee shop to our computers. Coffitivity, by the way, claims research shows that ambient noise, like the sound mix of “calm and commotion” found in a coffee shop, can aid creativity.
I have written with some success in such settings, yet I find value in silence. So for me, instead of giving in to the impulse to break it by introducing sound, I am working on developing more of a taste for quiet.
Rather than turn to electronic sound or even the kind of visual noise the Internet offers with its insistent invitations to look at a picture, video, or the latest trend, I am challenging myself to accept and live with the discomfort silence sometimes brings.
In the 40-day season of Lent, which began this week, I am joining others who are fasting by unplugging some of their media connections to admit more silence into our noisy, distracted lives. Unsettling though this can be, I am hopeful that, as I experience the hunger of silence, I will begin to cultivate a mind and spirit that is less cluttered and more receptive to the gentle whispers I fail to detect when I stuff myself with the junk food of noise and information.