Bleak Midwinter


Sunday night, the last of my grades went in, ending my autumn semester.

Back in September, I confessed to having a sense of slow-motion failure in these courses. That sense never disappeared. The semester had so many missed opportunities.

It had far worse evils, too. A young undergraduate on the same sports team as several of my students died the day before final exams began. At my other campus, a series of three student deaths by suicide made national news; one student died on the day after Thanksgiving. (As far as I know, my classes were not directly affected, but the news cast a shadow over the last weeks of the term.) One of my friends lost a grad-school friend to suicide.

And on December 12, another friend of mine, a professor only ten years older than I am, who had lived near me in Scranton, died of cancer. The end came just a few months after an apparent remission. It was not, if there is any such thing, an easy death. The news still hasn’t set in properly; I don’t quite understand what happened, and I’m not sure I ever will.

I do feel relief that the semester is over. Submitting my grades marked an important boundary in my mind—as if I were pulling a drawstring tight, trapping everything inside a bag. I have willed it to be so, knowing full well that life doesn’t work that way.

I’m sorry I didn’t serve my students better in such a time.

Objectively speaking, the teaching probably wasn’t bad. Surely many of the things I tried in class worked for some students. There were moments of clarity and connection. In most respects, it was even probably a semester worthy of pride. But subjectively, for me, at least, there were also many moments of disappointment and apparent failure, compounded by a deeper and much murkier sense of mortal inadequacy.

Did I leave my students with tools they can use to live in justice and hope? Did our brief time together matter?

Mortality is about more than death. It’s about the limits of your reach. Your arms can stretch only so far; your grip is only so strong; your heart can only sustain so much speed. And your skills can solve only so many problems.

An aspect of teaching that nobody can prepare you for is the need for forgiveness, including self-forgiveness, as you undertake work that is deeply connected with mortality. Even at the best of times, education can’t be separated from maturation, rites of passage, and life cycles, and I imagine we all go into the work knowing that. But people don’t tell you that the life cycles in question may be your own.

You will never be adequate to all your students’ needs or your own ambitions as an educator. If you care about your job—if you take seriously the mor(t)al weight of your work—that burden can drag you under the wheels of the academic enterprise.

This holiday season, more than usual, I’m trying to grant myself enough space to mourn a bit—over the death of my friend, most importantly, but also over some less obvious mortal things.

For the Christmas season, I’ve been reading a new book by the Church of England minister Rachel Mann, called In the Bleak Midwinter: Through Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti. It’s structured as a series of daily meditations on Christina Rossetti poems, emphasizing the Advent season’s traditional religious character as a time of fasting and penitence and even mourning, rather than the indulgence and frantic performative cheerfulness of the shopping season. It also brings out Christmas’s undertones of human weakness and danger.

As Mann observes,

Rossetti brings the Nativity into the harsh winters of mid-nineteenth-century England, but she also brings out the sharpness of beauty. The Christ who comes to us in lowliness is full of wonder and beauty, but he comes to us in sharpness of ice and snow; he is exposed and exposing. He delights and he terrifies us, too. …

[W]hen we ask what on earth our own gift to God might look like in return, we find [in Jesus’s birth] an analogue. … He is helpless, unable to feed or look after himself. He is so vulnerable that he could not defend himself if we sought to hurt him. (95 and 107)

Many people reading this won’t identify with Rossetti’s or Mann’s religious tradition but will still recognize the bittersweetness, the sense of loss and fear and often anger, that attaches to the winter holiday season for so many of us. It’s not the northern European soil and water alone that are “hard as iron” or “like a stone,” in Rossetti’s words, at this time of year.

I don’t find it difficult to guess why many peoples in the northern hemisphere long ago would have scheduled holidays about birth, survival, generosity, and the kindling of lamps, among other things, near the winter solstice, just when we need the most assurance that light and life have a future, rather than in the more obvious spring, when the signs of new life are all around us.

Renewal and life in such a time are not found in abundance, but in sufficiency. The sources of joy, our stories tell us, may be found in the flickering candle instead of the blaze of sunlight, the straw of a stable instead of a palace. Peace on earth, and peace for us, may drift and sublimate with each visible wisp of breath in the air.

For now, for here, for me, this moment is enough, and this light is enough, and perhaps this work is enough.


Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, completed by Ford Madox Brown, Beata Beatrix (detail), 1877. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.