“There’s nothing good about January in the Midwest.” That’s what my teenage daughter said the other day and she might be right. The snow looks like tar. The air feels like ice. The sun smells like — nothing, there is no sun. The sky is gray, the spirit is dreary. You don’t even have Christmas vacation to look forward to. It’s just a long month of cold, dark, predictable days. Hibernation makes sense.
Because I’m Lutheran, I’m always tempted to make myself look on the upside. To “count my blessings,” as they say. Here goes.
• The Super Bowl’s around the corner (aka sanctioned finger food).
• Valentine’s Day is coming soon (aka sanctioned chocolate).
• Fifty-eight days to spring break.
• Our household has income.
• The family is well.
• I’m alive.
Yes, true, all these things. But still, please allow me a moment to wallow in the bleak midwinter and to offer one potential antidote to the melancholy.
Recently after church, a group of us frosty winter-people gathered around a pot of hot coffee and a pile of donut holes. This chit-chat time usually interrupts my kids’ dash from the sanctuary to the nearest door out. (My two teenagers think I tend to get into long conversations. When I’m catching up with friends they are usually standing right behind me, poking at me to wrap it up.)
Last week, I chatted with Mary, who is having troubles at her place of employment. She is a military veteran who now works a corporate desk job. Lately, Mary’s been finding notes left anonymously at her desk; vicious ones directed toward her. She doesn’t know who is leaving them. I didn’t ask what they said. We both know the hateful messages refer to her transgender identity, a quality that has wrought her a lifetime of rejection and loss.
Mary doesn’t want to file a complaint to human resources because she believes it will make the situation worse. I think she’s right. Malicious people find ways to make their targets miserable without anyone else seeing it and without overtly breaking any rules, often times turning the charm on overdrive for those they seek to please. Mary said she takes the foul notes to the office shredder immediately upon receiving them.
As Mary and I stood chatting over coffee, I thought about what our pastor had said from the pulpit, just minutes earlier. Our pastor told us that church is like a hospital for sinners because we all know our wretchedness.
I think she’s right because I’m the kind of person who plays over and over my wretchedness in my head. When the question is asked, “Do you have any regrets?” I’m the kind of person who answers, “Yes, more than you can ever know, more than I can ever count.” I remember times when I might have been the person to leave nasty notes, or carry out some other mean action.
I think of Jennie Ernest. She was a junior-high classmate and she was special, in terms of intellectual capacity. (We didn’t call it special back then.) Jennie was tall and overweight and bumbled into junior-high clichés with a perky personality as if she fit in. I remember her like a caricature — an awkward, disheveled, supersized Betty Boop with heart-shaped lips.
Daily, in the locker-lined halls of the school, Jennie offered the purest form of friendship. Daily, my friends and I engaged with Jennie, only to mock her. I was one of those mean girls. We must have thought it was pretty funny because my mother overheard my friends and I laughing about Jennie once. “Does she know you’re making fun of her?” It was all my mother needed to say to shame me into stopping.
It’s probably silly to dredge up old school regrets, but those are the safest ones. I can write about Jennie because I can hide behind chronological immaturity and seventh grade. Believe me, there are plenty of other times in my adult life I wish I could do over, revise, rewrite, rework. The Jennie Ernest story also points to the importance of adult equalizers to enter the inherently cruel kid world. (Shout out to all the youth mentors out there!)
But we adults need to level out each other too. Mostly, we need to check ourselves and our present day tendencies to harbor petty resentments or to judge others who seem different. (These days, it’s the well-deserved resentments that most trouble me.) In this bleak midwinter, I propose a simple action to lift the darkness: kindness.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to Mary, after she poured her story out to me. I blanked out on all the other people around me including my kids tugging at my sleeve. I wished I could offer a more tangible help for Mary’s situation. My mind raced for solutions. Could I walk up and down the cubicles of her workplace and root out the cruelty? Could I make whoever’s doing this answer to me?
As if I had any power. As if I were a one-woman antidote to bullying. As if I could even depart my own workplace for the purpose of stalking someone else’s, like some self-appointed mean-police. As if it would make up for all the times I was the emotional perp.
If only I could track down my friend’s work-place tormentors and take back how I treated Jennie Ernest in the seventh grade. I thought about Mary’s paper shredder. If only the inner injury could be destroyed into unrecognizable strips of paper as well. Not just for my friend, but for all of us because we all harbor emotional wounds of past and present. We all could be stamped “handle with care.”
But there wasn’t anything I could do for Mary but listen. I gave her a hug before relenting to my children’s pleas to depart the coffee hour chit chat.
There is about 15 minutes more daylight than three weeks ago. The axis of the earth is shifting us toward the sun. We are turned toward spring. While there’s a part of me that likes the dark, cold quiet of winter, I welcome the coming of the next season. I long for the reminders that I’m forgiven. I long for the opportunities to be the grace for others. The good thing about January is the possibility to give and receive kindness. It feels pretty good on a sleeping soul.
That’s just my idea to survive the bleak midwinter. What are yours?
Terri Mork Speirs recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.