“Winter’s for Resting,” and Other Vignettes from Ithilien House

Upstairs is a treasured book I’ve had for years, about the day-to-day life and small but engaging histories of a farming community in North Carolina. Titled Rugged Hills, Gentle Folk: My Friends & Neighbors in the Big Pine Valley, the book is now out of print, but that didn’t stop my father-in-law from ordering his own used copy after he enjoyed it during a visit.

Rugged Hills was given to my family by our realtor, long ago — the one who helped us find the little brown house, if I’m not mistaken — and the wisdom and contentment in its pages is plain and strong.

I pulled it off the shelves recently so that the girls could hear stories about harvest time and Bitsy the abandoned lamb, among other real-life tales, and we’ve been keeping it close by since. (“Turn loose that chicken, you varmint!” first hollered by the author at a slavering fox one night, resulted in endless giggles at the lunch table today.)

And I keep wandering back to the short chapters myself.

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“Winter’s for resting,” says one brief subchapter. People who are tied to the land know the rhythm of the seasons; they know there is a time to work and a time to rest. A farmer doesn’t plow frozen ground or scatter seed upon ice, and I know there are good lessons from their rhythm for my life, where the delineations between the year’s times are not always so clear.

But I think that this particular winter, in this house, we know.

Our garden, the brilliant and project-halting chill of the weather, our very bones are telling us it’s time to rest.

It isn’t a rest that means a complete break from activity — farmer or not, everyone has chores, even in winter — but a rest that is mindful of our limits and girds our plans with intentionality. We’ve had our years of filling the pre-Christmas calendar with festivities, but this Advent we’ve more or less chosen events and exercises that help us focus on what we hold dear. Consequently our holiday hubbub is calmer, if only because I’ve been chastened by these earlier months… but for us, it’s been better this way, and full of quiet gifts.

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On Thanksgiving Eve we laid aside the pots, pans, and preparation that “needed” to be made for the morrow, and took the girls out in search of hot chocolate and croissants. Little buttery flakes fell to the table as lightly as the little ones’ chatter.  I watched them savor their sips of cocoa, and saw Y enjoying his own hot cup as he walked around the bookstore, and then I felt a sudden surge of gladness at being present in that moment — with this family, in this warmth, at this hour — which, I suppose, is simply what we call contentment.

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I’ve had to sleep on a little camping cot for a few weeks to avoid the ill effects of a tired (now happily recycled) mattress. I couldn’t sit up in it to do my usual computer-based chores at night, so I began reading a new-to-me book at bedtime: The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. I shivered at the princess’s discovery of the mysterious old woman upstairs, and one night I suddenly regretted that I was reading about goblins tunneling underground right before falling asleep; I had to read on for a “safe place” in the plot to stop for the night. On the whole it was a delicious experience.

Tonight I pulled up the Gutenberg publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on my phone after dinner and read only a brief excerpt aloud, thinking the language would be too antiquated to hold the girls’ attention. But Lucy was already leaning over the arm of my chair when I stopped. “Go on,” she said, “I want to see what happens next.” So I did.

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The biggest discernible change — at least for me — are the daily activities I’ve tucked in the linen pouches of the children’s Advent calendar. On our first year with the countdown calendar, the pouches were full of every form of Christmas cheer I could brainstorm, with no repeats; another year, I neglected to bring the calendar out altogether (the year Little Jo was born). This time, I ended up with enough repetition and simplicity that there’s a bit of a pattern: making something small for or writing to specified people on Tuesdays, tea with a children’s Christmas book on Fridays, etc. Something uncomplicated to help us love and spend time with God or His people.

Y surprised me by saying he’d like to join us for the making of paper snowflakes, so one evening the four of us sat at the table in comfortable and concentrated silence snipping, tracing, unfolding, admiring each others’ designs — each one of us looking up, every once in a while, to comment on how nice it was to be together this way. To date, we have also decorated our first gingerbread house (and demolished it), filled baskets, and, on Sundays, scribbled a few simple and guided thoughts, to be tucked into our stockings and shared on Christmas Day.

Even so, a few slips of paper lie on the sideboard tonight, from the days we weren’t able to carry out the planned activity. And that’s all right.

Each night, the girls take a wooden disc-shaped ornament from the day’s pouch for our Jesse Tree, and we read the corresponding story in the Jesus Storybook Bible. We sing a Christmas carol together and pray — and though I have no way of knowing which of the gossamer minutes through the years will weave into my daughters’ memories, these words are the richest meat and milk we could offer their growing souls. How we pray that they will go down deep.

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The last of our winter lesson days have gone by in such a blur that I haven’t done as much to prepare myself for Christmas as I’d like. I’ve had days of catching only snippets of Bible reading while the girls finish their workbooks, and of praying for others while I wash my hands or go about the day’s chores. But the moments above have allowed me to catch my breath, and find rest.

This has been my year of learning to lay down my challenges daily. I smile a little now to think of that seemingly innocuous verse in Psalm 23: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Yes, I’ve been made to lie down, and have deeply needed His admonishment in this vein.

Winter is for resting, and to remember this is like a great exhalation, particularly when we remember that God has come, is come, and will come again. As Christmas Day approaches, I’ll be searching out a spot to be simple and still, knowing that in our lives — as in Bethlehem — He will enter in by places and times and means which we do not anticipate.

It was the night before Christmas and all through the world
Everything looked like business as usual
Shepherds sat on a hillside, looking up at the stars
While the world fell asleep, unaware just how deep
Was the darkness the night before Christmas

And the night before Christmas it seemed to be just a night
But the wind blew like something was coming
And like children with secrets that they’re bursting to tell
The cedars danced in the breeze, while all of nature it seemed
Held its breath on the night before Christmas. 

And hope, hope long awaited
The hope of the ages
Would break with the dawn
And the song that all of creation was anticipating
Would start with a baby’s first cry

– “The Night Before Christmas,” Steven Curtis Chapman. (Not a traditional carol, but listening to it each year and reflecting on its words has become a welcome yearly custom.)

Blessings to you, friends, in this expectant week!

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