I grew up on a farm on the Western edge of Missouri, hard by Kansas. This was the prairie landscape of our frontier forebears, and upon its blank canvas the seasons were clearly marked. Year after year I watched as spring, summer, fall, and winter swept before me with all the drama of a Shakespearean play. Pounding thunderstorms, magnificent drifts of snow, glittering ice, perfumed breezes, and hot sun that magically burst seeds into fields of golden wheat designed all the days of my childhood as if by the hand of some great artist.
This upbringing, passed down to me from my father, ingrained in me a deep and sensory awareness of nature's shifting moods. Both a farmer and a flight engineer for TWA, Joe Carroll's work on land and in the air turned on the weather. Schooled by farmers and pilots, he developed a keen nose for the smell of coming rain, and a sharp eye for the sickly yellow sky that precedes a tornado. It was my father who taught me the difference between harmless, marshmallow-light cumulus clouds -- and the ominous cumulonimbus thunderheads that signaled a coming storm.
Weather's brooding omnipresence fused in my childish imagination with God -- as if it were God's great face I glimpsed behind the wind, sun, and clouds. Even today, though I live far from the Missouri plains of my childhood, the weather outside continues to occupy a central place in my inner life. Whenever I'm hurting or my energy is scattered, mindfully shifting my awareness to the scent and feel of the air, or turning my face skywards, always helps to steady my soul.
Attention to weather this way corrects one of the common misperceptions around the "inner" life: That it is self-contained and private -- just me and my soul. But inner reflection is also about attuning to the greater existence within which we all live. Like a Buddhist meditation or a Christian prayer, contemplating a snowfall or even the swath of a hurricane on the weather channel helps to remind us of one of religion's core teachings: Before the infinite mystery of the cosmos, we humans are merely mortal creatures.
Nature's cyclic changes can have psychological as well as spiritual effects. Especially in the winter, when night falls early and the sun glimmers weakly, happiness can plummet into depression and loneliness. Psychologists call this Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. But I wonder if, in our modern-day separation from the rhythms of nature, we've also become disconnected from the naturally occurring emotional cycles of hope, joy, sadness, and melancholy.
Indeed, as we enter the last season of the year, I find myself reflecting on the meaning of winter. As a writer, I find that I work best during the winter months. The recent record snowstorm in the city of Washington, where I live, reminded me of how winter is the season of creativity. The biting cold and thick, falling sheets of snow outside pushed me inward to that receptive space where my inner imagination resides. Some of us, as Donald Hall confesses in "Winter: A Spiritual Biography of a Season," are "darkness lovers. We tuck ourselves up in the long sleep and comfort of cold's opposite ... lighting ourselves by darkness's idea."
Light -- the radiance of spiritual illumination, the burning flame of faith -- has always been celebrated by the world's religions. Yet like a season of the soul, the darker emotions of despair and even depression offer a different kind of illumination. Melancholy emotions press the soul downwards. Nestled among the tangled roots of darkness, like the winter seed in the fallow field, the soul germinates new life.
Those teachers who have charted the inner weather of the psyche have named the plunge from the heights of joy the "dark night of the soul." Like miners, philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard or mystics such as John of the Cross have tunneled their way into the depths, seeking the vein of wisdom. The struggle doesn't have to mean permanent loss of faith or optimism, but can be seen as a state of fruitful emptiness until that time when we can be filled again by a more expansive state of mind.
The ancients knew this secret of the rhythms of life, constructing their quarterly rituals of Solstices and Equinoxes around the four seasons of the year. The taciturn Missouri farmers of my childhood didn't talk much about the spirituality of weather. But with their slow style of talking and keen sensibility for a drop in temperature or a shift in the wind, they conveyed the well-tempered patience that comes from humbly weathering nature's cycles.
And so, as Winter lays her solemn mantle over the Northern hemisphere, I'll look to the farmers, philosophers, mystics, and ancients who've gone before to guide my way. Mindfully observing the weather outside, I'll let nature take her course -- even with me. Turning within, I'll light the fires of my creative imagination -- and seek the treasure hidden in the long, dark hours before the dawn of emerald spring.