I sit down to write with a nubby afghan draped around my shoulders. The deep cold of last week’s polar vortex has passed, the nights of worrying about double digit negative temperatures over, hopefully, for a while. Other than a few chickens with frostbitten combs, all the creatures under our care came through the dangerous cold unharmed, and when the temperature climbed out of negative numbers for the first time in a week, it felt momentarily like spring. Until, ensconced in my chilly writing closet, an ancient space heater roaring at full-blast, I remembered 10+ degrees is still very, very cold. Spring in western Dakota is a long way off.
The temperature is not the only reason I feel chilled. It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian tradition, and it’s also the 20th anniversary of my father’s sudden death. Living and working in New York City, attempting my first foray into adulthood, the call came at dawn, my mother’s weeping voice breaking the news. I flew home for the funeral, but the ground was too frozen to bury him. “What will they do with his body?” I asked. No one knew for sure. It was the beginning of a Lent that would last for years.
A decade later, I found myself in South Dakota; avenues swirling with human activity replaced by wind-soaked grass and the slow dance of ruminants grazing. I tell people who incredulously ask how I’ve ended up here that, of all the places I’ve lived, Manhattan and South Dakota are the most similar. They never believe me, but whether lost in a river of bodies at rush hour or an ocean of grass in late spring, the scale is the same, the magnitude a reminder of my own minuteness.
I heard recently that we have become a “ritual-poor” people. Most of our holidays revolve around consumerism rather than connection, the roadmap through grief truncated into cliches that alienate as much as they comfort those who are grieving. Sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten that the journey through the valley of the shadow of death does not follow a straight or clear path. It is a wilderness.
This winter feels more like Lent than usual. It has already been a year of ashes, but traditions like Lent offer an opportunity to practice walking through the wilderness while in community. We don’t have to do it alone.
When Lent ends, there will be a celebration of re-birth. Of resurrection. Of spring and new life. But for now it’s OK to recognize that darkness still encircles us, that the earth still slumbers frozen beneath our feet, that the seeds are stirring but have not yet sprung forth. For now it is OK to dwell in the gathering twilight of early evening and remember: from ashes we are born and to ashes we shall return. It will be spring soon, but it’s not spring yet.
In less than a month we begin calving. Acting as midwife for livestock is a grueling, round-the-clock job. It is the time of birth, new life, exuberance and exhaustion, but it is also a time of death. Whether it’s because of birth defects or troubles during labor, some of the babies born don’t live long. They become part of whatever grows next — the blades of grass that feed the other lambs and calves, the leaves of the towering ash trees, the thicket of brush where a doe hides her fawn.
I shrug off the afghan. The wind’s picked up, and it’s rattling the panes of the south-facing windows. It’s a chinook wind; the weather’s changing again. By week’s end my kids will run across the yard in sweaters. It will be too cold to leave off coats, but I’ll let them anyway so they can remember how it feels to move unencumbered by layers of heavy polyester and wool. And when they return to the house later, red-cheeked and shouting, telling me they are “cold, too cold,” but laughing as they say it, I will smile, lift them into the warmth of my arms, and remember how it feels to run unencumbered too.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in the northwest part of South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.