Through the window in our backdoor, I see bees buzzing round the pink flowers of my plum tree. Plum trees bloom in late winter or early spring on bare branches before the leaves erupt. They do not wait to bloom until their leaves arrive to provide shelter and protection. No, they sally forth and bloom.
Here in East Tennessee blooming in spring can be treacherous as our springs are riddled with the potholes of mini-winters. Today it may reach a balmy 70 degrees and in a few days it can be a high of 30 degrees, windy, and cold. When I was younger and complaining about the unpredictable nature of our so-called spring weather, Daddy would declare, “This is blackberry winter, Anna.” Now how did he have any idea it was blackberry winter when we did not grow, or see any blackberry bushes around us?
I thought my father was simply telling tall tales that had no attachment to reality. But according to the Tennessee Historical Society, Daddy was right. The farmers who settled this area of Appalachia observed the natural world and named the little cold spells in spring accordingly. Thus, our spring “winters” were named for the activity going on at the time: redbud, (black) locust, and dogwood winters for when these trees were in bloom. Blackberry winter was when blackberry canes get their buds, “britches” winter for when you could put away your long underwear, and whippoorwill winter was when you began hearing the sweet sound of the whippoorwill singing at dusk.
In practice, East Tennesseans of the past and today emerge from the winter of our discontent (thank you, Shakespeare), ready for a reliable spring, and we instead suffer setback after setback as winter returns throughout February, March, and April, raising hopes and then dashing them.
Globally we have been suffering such setbacks since March 2020 when the pandemic began.
Today British author Katherine May’s book, Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age became available, Her last book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times was published during the height of the coronavirus pre-vaccine days of November 2020.
According to an article called How to Find More Joy by New York Times writer Christina Caron, May wrote Wintering during the Covid-19 pandemic, a time in her life when she was feeling dormant, depressed, and empty. Her usual way of living with action and purpose had fallen away and she felt calcified.
She clawed her way out of her doldrums by simple steps forward: writing a Post-it note for herself saying, “Go for a walk,” and committing to do just that. In her latest book, Enchantment, she writes about how taking the time to look for the simple acts of wonder around her pulled her from her malaise. This commitment to take notice of the simple joys around us is not easy amid the cacophony of distraction, obligation, and strife of modern life. Katherine May suggests we keep it simple and just asks ourselves what soothes us. A hot bath? Dancing alone to our favorite song? Taking a walk? Watching swirls of wispy clouds moving ever-so-slowly across the sky?
Simple pleasures have not always been enough to carry me through the last three and a half years. My dear sister Lisa was diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer in the fall of 2019. Covid 19 became known to us in March 2020. While we tried to find our footing with a disease that killed people around us, we watched as Lisa’s failed treatments, one after the other throughout 2020, 2021, and half of 2022, left her body a husk. Somehow, her shining eyes and spirit seemed undiminished, yet, her pain grew harder to manage. After two days of coma, she slipped away from us on June 19, 2022, at the too-young age of 63.
We learned Mama had breast cancer a few months after Lisa’s death. Luckily, she had what appears to have been a successful surgery to remove it just before Christmas. Our winter has indeed been one of discontent.
Yet there are others who have suffered more. For inspiration I have turned repeatedly to the people who were alive in the early part of the 20th Century when most of the world was at war. World War I and World War II were only a little over twenty years apart–with the influenza pandemic sandwiched in between.
I am inspired by the brave people who laid their lives on the line willingly fighting the Nazis through Resistance efforts. As well as the Jews and other oppressed people who were imprisoned by the Hitler war machine, yet found a way to live when death was all around them.
Similarly I am inspired by the father of quantum physics, the German scientist Max Planck who won the Nobel Prize in 1918. I do not pretend to understand quantum physics, but I am inspired by all he overcame during his lifetime and his urge to do his ethical and moral best despite incredible hardships.
Planck married his wife Marie in 1887, and they were blessed with four children: eldest Karl, twin daughters Emma and Grete, and son Erwin. Just 12 years after their marriage, Planck’s wife Marie died. Two years later Planck married his second wife, Marga, and they had a son named Hermann.
During World War I in 1914, Planck’s second son Erwin was captured by the French, and his eldest son Karl was killed in battle. In 1917, Planck’s daughter Grete died giving birth to her first child, and in 1919, her twin sister Emma died in childbirth as well. Although their mothers died, both babies survived and were named after their mothers. And in the final chapter of Planck’s life, his beloved son Erwin, who survived imprisonment by the French, fought Adolph Hitler and the Nazis from inside Germany and was hanged in January 1945 for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in 1944.
What can we learn from this man, Max Planck? Despite his work in science, he says:
. . . there is no science and no intellect capable of answering the most important of all the questions facing us in our personal life, the question, that is, how we are to act. . . . what is important . . . is to work unceasingly toward the ideal aim, to struggle daily and hourly toward a renewal of life, and despite every setback to strive toward improvement and perfection.
. . . There is . . . an inalienable treasure which guarantees to thinking and feeling men their highest happiness, since it assures their peace of mind, and thus has an eternal value. This possession is a pure mind and good will. These afford secure holding ground in the storms of life . . .
Those who are ever striving forwardMax Planck, German Physicist (1858-1947)
Them we can save.
What is worth doing? Living to see the light and feed the light in the eyes of those around us and those we love, creating beauty, bringing the joy, easing the load of the fellow traveler, making a difference in the building of community, and finding a balance in the middle of the riot of extremism. Seeking the light. Being the light. Fighting the fight to be our best selves in a time of earthly chaos–which is always.
~ Anna 2/28/2023