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Always Winter, Never Spring

January 22, 2024

Nicole Howe

Cultivating Presence is dedicated to the intentional practice of its title – cultivating presence. Each of us has wild, untamed places within us driving us to isolation and tempting us to despair, yet our truest story is one of wholehearted connection. Here we will explore everything from spiritual disciplines to setting proper boundaries to recovery from trauma and addiction – all for the purpose of helping us live more deeply attached lives, present and available with God, one another, and ourselves.

Winter is not my favorite season. Here in the “lake effect” landscape of the Midwest, winters can be quite harsh. And you might assume that’s exactly what I don’t like about them – the brutal wind and freezing temps. For me, it’s not so much about the quality of snowy, winter days as it is the quantity. I can handle winter for a time. In fact, by the time winter comes, I’m often ready to enthusiastically embrace the slower days and cozy nights. The change of seasons puts wind in my introverted sails. And who doesn’t love a white Christmas?

Then winter overstays its welcome, and that’s where it gets me. Right about the time I’m ready to wrap things up with it, winter takes a seat on the couch, pours a new cup of tea, and starts up another conversation. Enough already.

Is it just me?

Regardless of where you live, the barrenness of a long winter seems to possess a certain atmosphere, an aura, that lives in our imagination as something hard and unwelcome. Lewis’s image of a never-ending winter is a fitting metaphor for seasons in which something has gone horribly wrong and the promise of it is lost. Something about winter is foreboding and threatening. Maybe spring will never come.

I haven’t quite figured out what to do to make the months of February to May more tolerable (and yes, here where I live things don’t often get better until then), but I have come to appreciate one simple tradition that a friend started with me years ago – the comforting beauty of a red amaryllis flower.

The first time she gave one to me, it was the height of the Christmas season. My tree was still up, and my house was warm and cozy. And I wasn’t yet making a habit of opening my front door to curse the existence of snow on my porch steps. But this wasn’t a typical Christmas season for me. That year, I was in the throes of a season of doubt, my own soul-winter, that had lingered much longer than I wanted. I’ve still never quite figured out what prompted it, but it seems I hit a perfect storm of grief, exhaustion, critical thinking, and raising curious kids who ask really good but hard questions. The floor of my faith had been pulled out from under me, and I found myself in a spiritual free-fall.

This isn’t what scared me the most, however. Far more frightening than my state of doubt was the thought that I might always be this way, that hope would never return, that my heart would freeze to stone right here and Aslan’s breath would never come to thaw it. You know, ‘always winter and never spring.’

The amaryllis flower was a fitting gift for me. My friend explained that it is meant to stand as a sort of resistance against the darkness of winter. You simply plant the amaryllis bulb in a little white pot and wait. And then, right about the time you’re taking down your lights and your tree has been thrown away and your house feels barren and dark and empty, you’ll have a beautiful bloom, bright and alive, bringing some light and life to the dreary season. It sounded like a lovely idea.

Unfortunately, for someone who calls herself a cultivator, I happen to have the superpower of destroying anything green, and I told my friend as much. She laughed and assured me it was foolproof. All I had to do was cover the bulb with dirt, water it every day, and in two weeks, I’d have myself an amaryllis. She promised me I couldn’t screw it up. I thanked her and brought the bulb over to the kitchen. Secretly, I was fairly confident it was headed toward its final doom, but I followed the instructions and began watering it faithfully every day. And what do you think happened in two weeks?

Absolutely nothing. I had succeeded in growing a pot of dirt.

I wasn’t at all surprised. This is exactly how it goes, I thought. Not just with plants…with life. Always winter, never spring. The amaryllis flower that was meant to help defy my darkness was now a mocking reminder of it.

Still, I kept watering it. I kept watering it long after the allotted time for the bulb to bloom. I am not sure why I didn’t give up on it, but I think it’s something like faith. Sometimes you just keep doing what you were instructed to do, even when it doesn’t make any sense.

And then it happened. I came downstairs one normal, unassuming morning to see a little green sprout bursting up through the dirt. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly there was something where there had been nothing. And the something was even more astounding because the nothing had lasted so darn long. The sprout looked like a miracle. It was so tender and small. And so defiantly bright green against the black dirt.

Right around this same time I was beginning to feel some renewal in my spiritual life, too. This little green sprout felt oddly symbolic in a way that I was slightly embarrassed to believe and even more shy to admit out loud. I finally dared to say it to my husband, Ryan. “I wonder if God is trying to speak to me through this flower – if He’s telling me something. I wonder if this means my faith is going to return, to be strong again, and that I might just bust through the dirt of this doubt and bloom.”

It was a thought that rushed through me and filled me with hope and relief. It was just as quickly answered with the terrifying thought, “What if it didn’t bloom?” If this was a metaphor for my life, what would it mean if that little sprout shriveled up and died before it ever really got started?

Much to my amazement though, the amaryllis continued to grow and eventually bloom. It bloomed in a way I couldn’t have guessed. Maybe it’s my lack of a green thumb, but I didn’t know flowers could do this. I didn’t know they could burst into stunning works of art while you were upstairs sleeping. I didn’t know they could surprise you with a heralded message of the good news of spring’s coming arrival in the middle of what seems a God-forsaken winter. I didn’t know they could whisper deep secrets about the truth of everything without saying a single word. They can, and they do.

One day, I walked downstairs, and there it was in the window rising up out of the dirt, against the backdrop of a freshly fallen winter snow.

It is hard to put into words what I felt in that moment. But suddenly, the Presence of God I had been struggling to trust in, yet so desperately longed for, was just…there. The “I am with you” promise I so badly wanted to believe was meeting my gaze in real-time. Everything I had ever doubted about Him fell away, and all that was left was an eternal and ever-present yes and amen.

The hope I felt was bigger even than the promise that my faith might bloom again. Yes, beautiful things can grow up out of the dirt. We can rise, even after we’ve been buried too long. But more than that I knew – more than I had ever known before – that Christ reigned. He was alive and present and coming for me whether I struggled to believe it or not. And somehow, that brought more comfort than any change to my winter season ever would.

My friend and I have continued to exchange amaryllis flowers over the years, reminding each other that though these cold, dark days will likely drag on longer than we want, God is near. He is with us – right here in our disbelief, in our nagging doubt, in our disorienting free-falls of daring questions and unsatisfying answers.

If winter has taken a seat on your couch and poured another cup of tea, and you swear you’ll never feel the kiss of sunshine again, let me remind you… spring is coming. Until then, may you feel the breath of Aslan on the back of your neck with the surprising hope-filled whisper, “I am with you.”

Yes and amen.

The featured image is courtesy of Andrea Boudrias via Unsplash. We are grateful for her generosity.


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