Love endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13.7
A Lithuanian friend told me many years ago that the word March in Lithuanian meant “fighter” or “war.” Spring officially starts in March, but it doesn’t burst forth with the vernal equinox. It’s more a stumbling, a step forward and then back, a fight. A few mornings ago, just as we are about to head out the door and walk to school, I am startled by large snow flakes falling from a glowy white early morning sky. I look to the weather icon on my phone for help, and find it just shows a partly cloudy sky with a high of 30. “What is this?” I ask my waiting daughter.”Better bundle up, it’s flurrying out there.” On the way to school, the flurries are the obvious choice for small talk with the crossing guard and other parents. “What’s going on? It’s supposed to be spring,” we say. “This is crazy.” Audrey makes funny faces as we walk briskly in the raw cold. “This is my ‘catching up’ face,” she says laughing as she tries to keep up with my stride. “This stinks,” says another mom to me with a deadpan face, watching her kid go inside.
By the time I reach home, the flakes have stopped, but it’s still raw and windy. The weather, it occurs to me, is the perfect microcosm for how we endure, or “weather” the unexpected in life- the things that don’t go as planned. I have some experience in this. Mostly, I think, this is what we need to know- how to endure. I’m tempted the other day by a beautiful, colorful cover of a magazine I loath/enjoy that promises to get my life organized and offers a subheading something like “1001 Simple Ways You Can Have a Better Life,” but then I say quietly, but outloud to myself, “1001 ways? Who has time for 1001 new things to do.” Maybe the people who already have it all together have time to tack on 1001 things. I am still stumbling towards spring.
Though we control so many things with the touch of our little tapping fingers on our “smart” phones, the entire atmosphere of the planet hovers over us as a reminder that our kingdoms are miniscule. We have yet to invent any way to stop a tsunami from wiping out cities, or an earthquake from shaking the foundations of our cozy homes, or even a blizzard from grounding our plane when we intended to escape the cold. I’m doubtful anyone is even working on this. Scientists study space and send intricate equipment to land on other planets, collect specimens, and return to earth, and they delve deep into our DNA to decode the human genome, but I’m not sure anyone has a job that entails trying to change weather patterns. Predict them with some accuracy? Yes. Prepare for them- yes.
So, we prepare for the winter storms by crowding grocery stores and stocking up on food. I was amazed a few months ago when the weather channel was predicting the “blizzard of the century,” (which incidentally never came) and I went to my local Trader Joe’s to get my weekly groceries. There were so many people on line to check out that I couldn’t even make out any of the lines- just a huge mess of shopping carts. There was a tangible, focused energy- an excitement and a sense of urgency. The shelves were literally getting cleaned out. It seemed odd to me given that usually the day after a snowstorm, the roads here are drivable, and no one would need quite that much food. But it was clear that the preparations were more about comfort than necessity. People were more chatty than usual on the jumbled line, and the woman I stood next to told me she was buying her teenagers’ favorite comfort foods: snacks and dips, and ingredients for their favorite homemade soup. I myself had tossed all manner of unnecessary things into my cart, including whipped cream for hot chocolate, double-creme brie cheese, and a chocolate babka. When it’s finally my turn the cashier and I chat about her job and life while I pack my food in my bags, and somehow it comes up that my husband had died. As I’m pushing my cart away, she calls out, “Well, I was gonna say, I hope you survive the storm- but I have a feeling you will.” We prepare, and it’s wise to prepare, but there are many things we can never prepare for. I began this piece by saying, “Mostly, I think, this is what we need to know- how to endure.” But in reality, there is no way to “know” this until we are in the midst of the enduring.
To endure something uncomfortable or difficult- whether it’s a brutal winter that won’t take its timely leave, a shocking medical diagnosis, or the betrayal of someone we trusted, seems less about preparation, and more about sheer stamina- the ability to keep going. But it’s also more than just survival. Surviving means you’re alive- you may be falling apart- but you’re still breathing. One can survive a difficulty in many unhealthy ways- by numbing with alcohol or distraction, or by simply living with no life…closing oneself off to the world and becoming one of its many “walking wounded.” Enduring means suffering without breaking. Enduring is about a mindset and a resolution to bear pain- “to suffer without yielding” is one definition. Its synonym is patience. Patience.
As is often the case with so many truths, true endurance lies in paradox. In the Old French as well as in Latin, “endurer” and “indurare” respectively, both mean “to harden.” So part of enduring is being sturdy enough to withstand the raw winds of March and life. But the other part is to keep a soft heart. Avoid making demands like “It’s supposed to be spring. How can this be happening? It should be warm!” These don’t change the weather or your life- they drain your energy and embitter your heart. Saving your energy for the fight and keeping your heart soft also means you just can’t take these things personally. There really isn’t much time for “Why me?” if you want to endure. And there isn’t any time for placing the blame on someone else. Strength derived from softness- focused on the task at hand- this I think, is endurance.
The second part of the paradox is that in order to be unmovable and unshakable, one actually has to be flexible and make adjustments. “Wow- look how far the roots go,” my daughter says on the way home from school the other day stepping over the bumpy roots of a tree whose trunk is far from the sidewalk we’re on. And I think, deep roots and a strong foundation- endurance. And it’s not only what we’ve built upon, but what we’re heading towards that steadies us. The promise that spring will arrive- without a doubt- helps us persevere today when we hear that 3-5 inches are expected this very afternoon- on the first day of spring. Yet at the same time that we have this fixed foundation from the past and steady gaze on the prize in the future, in the present, we are asked to be flexible and willing to make adjustments, just as a tree’s branches have the ability to bend rather than break. Our task isn’t just to stay standing and fixed in the face of the forceful winds, but to walk forward- to keep moving. Stability derived from adaptability. My grandfather called it, “rolling with the punches.”
In the New York Times this week, I watch a video of a hummingbird trying to retrieve nectar while in a wind tunnel created by scientists. The article is entitled, “Tiny Masters of Turbulent Air,” and it turns out the hummingbird is unfazed by the changing winds- still able to hover magically as they do. While the wings beat miraculously at 40 times per second, the key to the tiny bird’s ability to hover in the variable wind speeds is their ability to make adjustments. “They change the position and motion of each wing independently as those wings beat 40 times a second. And they do it in the space of one wingbeat,” writes James Gorman. “The tail also is making, ‘constant corrective maneuvers,’ ” says researcher Sridhar Ravi. To be unmovable- requires a lot of small movements and adjustments. While the birds tiny body can be seen in the video moving almost chaotically in the turbulence- the head remains steady and focused on retrieving the nectar- a picture of the paradox of endurance.
If we have kept our hearts soft and open, we too can make the necessary adjustments in times of turbulence. Like the hummingbird’s ability to hover, enduring is more of an art than a method. It reminds me of mothering. You can read all of the best parenting books out there, but it still comes down to learning as you go. Learning your child and adjusting your plans and expectations. You don’t get a “time out” to figure things out when your child’s having a meltdown and you’re not sure why. It reminds me of writing as well. There is no way to start writing a piece that is already polished. I toss out my raw materials and start adjusting them while I’m writing. It feels scary and vulnerable to make adjustments while still in flight- in mothering, and in writing, and in life. Sometimes they look a lot like stumbling. But these “constant corrective maneuvers” are the hallmarks of humility and wisdom.
Hard and soft…fixed and adaptive. And there is one final paradox: see the unseen. To endure something difficult we must believe that life- and suffering- because it is a part of life as Victor Frankl points out, have meaning. And if we can’t see the meaning right now- we must believe in the unseen. Not just in the promise of the future which will be seen eventually, but in the unseen happening right now in the present. Sometimes we call this faith. Years ago, on a cold day in March, I was coming back from a class I was taking at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I had been to the gardens in April during the height of cherry blossom season, and in May to see my favorite peonies, but in March the manicured grounds were rough and felt foreign, like a botanical ghost town. I went home and wrote a poem about the emptiness and stillness I felt there, but also about how I sensed the unseen- the invisible work going on under the surface.
If we can learn anything from March it’s that stumbling forward is OK. Much of my life these days feels like March- like a struggle- like forward and then backward movement. I have a hard time letting go of my preconceived notions of where I should be by now. “It shouldn’t be snowing on the first day of spring!” Oh, but March is a fighter- and so am I. Be patient, I tell myself. Laugh a little- like Audrey making her funny “catching up” face as we hurry to school in the raw cold. Keep flying.