Nobody was expecting snow to come so early, and so sudden. Autumn was still in the air, having approached us with such maidenly reluctance that only in late October did we start to see leaves slowly emerging into startling hues of red and orange and yellow. There is never quite enough time to enjoy the golden autumn days, when warmth and chill intermingle so nicely that one feels drawn outside every moment of the day, or the autumn rain that makes just the right sort of music on leaves and windows. Yet this year, it went by breathtakingly fast.
It is one thing to watch giant snowflakes drift lazily across windows and disappear on the ground, but another as one steps outside into the wind and cold to see a curtain of snow fall onto the shivering neighborhood tree, still wearing its red coat. Winter is upon us.
It’s been many years since I biked in the snow. Not since we bought our first car in China in 2001. But before that, biking had been the only option. Frosty winter days meant frozen fingers that fumbled clumsily with lock and key, and the unwrapping of many layers of hats, gloves and scarves once inside the classroom. The thought of it brings me back to another time and place, the chatter of the classroom, the sound of students reading and talking, and the one sentence greeting to the best of friends that started out every wonderful day, “I’m frozen to death!”. Yes, in that little town, autumn went by fast as well. It jumps and leaps and dives and is gone, leaving us sighing longingly in its wake, flipping impatiently through the calendar to see when it would next come again. But there, winter had its charms too. Snow would come and rest comfortably on the ancient and crumbling city walls, adding to its height and giving it a softer, fluffier look. At its feet, a cheerful old couple sold baked sweet potatoes that one could smell a mile away, and burned even gloved hands. Buildings threw long shadows onto the frozen lake, in the middle of which sat the lone and solitary pagoda. On finer days a water bird might find it a good place to rest and spot for fish. But in winter, it stood alone. Picturesque. Beautiful. Mine.
It’s a great pity I didn’t appreciate it more while I called it home. Back then, the rush had been to get out of the cold into the warmth of the house. The warmth of the house! It lures and enchants me even as I type these words. It was the greatest moment of the day when the key turned in the lock and the door swung open. Warmth would leap into my arms with a giant hug and cover my glasses with its naughty little hands. When it let go, the surprise it prepared never ceased to delight me. The smiling faces of the parents, the childish chatter of Jimi, and the smell of food, the softness of bed. What a spell that was! It restrained even the fiercest winds.
But all that have been left behind. In pursuit of a dream. In following the scriptures of an ancient teaching, “read ten thousand books; walk ten thousand miles”. Ten thousand miles have taken me to a city where I’m known as a stranger, where skyscrapers reach for the farthest stars, and cars speed past with blinding lights. The biting cold feels the same, yet the homecoming quite different. In the corner of this city I have built for myself a nest with Katniss the cat. I tried to build city walls and pagodas into it, but all I can manage is a shadow of them, flickering across the paintings and calligraphy hanging on the walls. The lights in the distance shine with a purpose and determination I can’t understand. Behind every light, there must be a story. A story of family, a story of love, a story of winter’s warmth… None of those, are mine.
Yet in the little nest I have built something like harmony lingers. Katniss is my constant and faithful companion, and slumbers sweetly by my side as I write these words. A large cup of latte sits on the coffee table, a lamp glowing beside it. In this haven I’m protected, from the wind and cold and the demands of growing up. It’s a secure place where the mind is not rushed, but free to soar and roam wherever it fancies. Yes. On a winter day it seems all the more inviting. Quiet, familiar, and cozy. God’s presence is so obvious, in Katniss’ kitty snores, in the lamp light reflected on windows, and in the smell of the stew on the stove, it can almost be tasted. He has prepared this season in life as a blessing and a lesson. And His promises ring ever clearer that spring will come, that life will be abundant, and that He makes all things beautiful, in His time.