I have been to the end of the earth. I have been to the end of the waters. I have been to the end of the sky. I have been to the end of the mountains. I have found none that were not my friends. – Traditional Native American Prayer Song
Day two of New Year 2014 swung in bitterly windy, snowy and frigid. The arctic blasts sent temps plummeting. The birds came swirling around the feeder and the picnic table down in the yard.
Bluejays, juncos, pigeons… and squirrels… filled up on the seeds I put out. I wondered where the cardinals were, and the usual tiny winter birds. How do these amazing little creatures survive in winter? I’ll never understand; yet I cling to the hope of understanding someday.
This Christmas season, on the eve of the winter solstice, I was getting ready for our California kids to come home for the holidays. In anticipation, I was dusting and I paused at the living room shelf — where several books were nestled, snug in their cozy environs, untouched for a long time.
The Moon of the Winter Bird by Jean Craighead George had been propped up, so that the title stood out when I turned on the light. The title would not leave me. I heard the words: “Open me, and read me, now, finally.”
I’d always intended to read this book. I’m sure that’s why it was leaning up against the wall. But, why was I compelled to pick it up, now?
Inside the cover, I saw the note I’d written in 1984. It had been a gift from my husband’s parents, probably for our California daughter. “There’s something in this book that I need to know,” I kept thinking, followed by: “If you don’t take time, now, when will you?”
So I grabbed the slender volume, and took it for some bedtime reading that night.
Perhaps the moon of the winter bird intrigued me – the moon of wintertime – because of the brilliant full moon on that crushingly cold and clear night, ushering in the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. I know that when winter begins I’ll often find myself humming a favorite French Canadian Christmas carol that begins like this:
‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled, that mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead, before their light the stars grew dim, and wondering hunters heard the hymn. – (From the hymn: Words by Jean de Brebeuf, circa 1643)
The Moon of the Winter Bird comes to life in the context of this hymn. Curious about Jean de Brebeuf, I took a peek at Wikipedia notes:
Naturally, it’s the Nativity according to the native Huron setting, with all the analogies of the Christ Child being born in a “lodge of broken bark” with the babe “wrapped in rabbit skin.” The hunters are akin to the shepherds; and the Magi – the Three Wise Men – are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” who give “fox and beaver pelts” in place of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gitchi Manitou, apparently, is the Agonquin name for God. I found myself reflecting deeply on this hymn of Jean de Brebeuf during this particular Christmas solstice time. I somehow knew, also, that these weeks would become particularly reflective, as my heart was sensing a myriad of transitions that would follow in the coming year.
Our daughter did come home, yet the holiday week seemed out of sorts, since she wasn’t feeling well; and the schedule was tight…what with all the other relatives from both families clamoring for a piece of their time. Time with them was on our minds now, as there’d be just one more visit back home in summetime, before the two of them took off for the sailing adventure they’d been strategically planning for the past decade.
And, now, like the Magi, like the hunters of the Huron, the time was at hand. I needed to find the gift for me in all this, as well as the gift I must give.
On Christmas Eve when we opened our gifts, I understood. She, too, was feeling a wave of nostalgia. My heart warmed in gratitude for this daughter of mine, whose beautiful gesture to me came in the form of a gift of time.
She wished for and offered time to be together…to recapture the spirit of times past, sharing a childhood memory, when we’d make an event out of going to the dentist. The treat after those visits would be lunch at JL Hudson’s and shopping at the mall in Ann Arbor. I pulled the stack of notes gently from the silky gift pouch. Reading them, I was so touched, I barely knew how to react.
Of course I wanted, with all my heart, to honor the memory. And to have the rare time together shopping. But the winter cold and snowy roads and her lingering cold kept the idea of this trip in memory. We decided,with just a day before the return flight, we’d postpone our shopping extravaganza until summer. Instead, we opted for a quiet lunch together at a local restaurant.
It’s the heart’s response that’s important, even though time and circumstances may interfere with our best wishes and plans.
I’m sure all parents feel this way when their families are transitioning. As times change, we grow older, wiser – maybe. But, our Christmas traditions can be upset in a flicker with an untimely winter storm, a power outage, health crises from circulating viruses…and maybe plans just don’t come together as you’d thought they would.
You make the usual foods you’ve always served at the holiday season. You scramble to find the perfect gifts. You hope that the visits of family and friends will go smoothly. You rush to get everything done. You fret over get togethers that may or may not materialize. You ponder relationships among the tribes. Sometimes, in the midst of all of this, you feel alone.
Alone on his northern breeding grounds, the song sparrow was a ‘winter bird’–that exciting individual , be it robin, bluebird or mute swan that stays through snow and cold to warm the hearts of men and make them wonder how the lone bird lives.
Perhaps I was drawn to this book at this winter solstice because of my daughter coming home.Perhaps living in Michigan, with its French and Indian historical backdrop, piqued my interest in this French Canadian missionary’s song. I hope to delve further into the fascinating stories already discovered.
Jean de Brebeuf surely moved as the soul of the winter bird. The common thread intrigues me of the winter bird, out of his element, struggling to survive in alien territory, navigating relationships among the tribes.
In this moon of wintertime, how do I see?
I hope to see clarity in this moon of the winter bird. Despite the harsh landscape, the winter bird finds the strength to carry on. The savagery of the history behind de Brebeuf’s song, still contains the mystic beauty of the harmony of the Christmas season.
He lives to sing a new song. Down the ages, carolers sense the hope of this saint among the Hurons, and the music travels with them, bringing peace and solace to their hearts. There is a new creative spirit in this moon of wintertime.
A child sings a new song, following in the footsteps of the parents and grandparents, who may be little aware of their influence, much like a teacher and students, or missionary and flock. Sometimes we’re graced to grasp a such a moment of awareness; and that is the gift of resilience that such insights bring.
Maybe I’m beginning to understand how the spirit of the winter bird survives, after all. And, so to rest under winter’s bough…and dream of the hope of spring.