This morning, I enjoyed the first cold run of the season. I got to dig out my sweats, long sleeved shirts, and knit cap and gloves. The seasons in DC seem to operate on some sort of light-switch configuration, flipping from summer to winter with only a courtesy wave at the fall.
According to Greek mythology, winter comes when Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess, Demeter, journeys to the underworld each year. In her youth, Hades, ruler of the underworld, abducted her and made her his queen. Demeter appealed to Zeus to free Persephone, but in a display of pre-women’s-rights divorce ideology, Zeus cannot free the enslaved child-bride because the marriage has already been sealed. So, in order to keep things peaceful around the family table for holidays, he negotiates a compromise where Persephone will spend the fall and winter in the underworld, as Hades bride, and will spend the spring and summer on earth with her mother. The seasons became tied to Persephone’s movements because her mother (who brings forth the harvest) mourns at the loss of her daughter so deeply that everything withers and dies in fall, and is so overjoyed at her return that everything blooms again in spring.
Humans have this funny habit of thinking that we are somehow divorced from nature. Even though the plants and the bees and all the other mammals in the forest live seasonally, we expect ourselves to be perpetually in bloom. We give ourselves no season for rest, no season for contemplation, no season for grief. Yet maybe this is a cruelty not only to ourselves, but also to those that we love.
I have someone who is dear to me who has fallen into a deep depression. She has completely withdrawn into herself; living trapped in a prison of isolation and self-contempt. It seems that, no matter how often or eloquently I call out, my words fall in deaf ears. After every spurned attempt to reach her, I find myself grappling with this deep anger at her. Why does she reject my caring? Why am I no longer good enough company for her? Why does she make me feel so powerless and insignificant?
Tennessee Williams wrote in the opening to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” It is a terribly lonely thing to be a person. To be a mind and a soul that wants so desperately to feel connected to other minds and souls, but to instead walks through life trapped in the isolation of our own skins. So we talk and we hug and we have sex and even love in order try to reach out through the bars of our individual cells and try to briefly touch the outstretched fingers of another.
What do I do when I am stretching my fingers out as far as I possibly can, but the one I am trying to reach will not extend her hand in return? Mostly, I get angry and annoyed. Her self-imposed isolation makes me feel helpless against the destructive power of the human mind, and reflects my own loneliness back at me. It feels like rejection—like a condemnation of me. Truthfully though, I know it is not me she rejects and condemns, but herself.
She is often on my mind these days. I was thinking on the loss of her this morning, as I went for my run and noticed the trees going dormant, the grass turning brown, and the cold bite in the air. It made me wonder if, through my attempts to care, I have inadvertently been unfair to her. When nature goes cold and dark, I don’t call it selfish for refusing to produce food. I don’t accuse it of intentionally abandoning me. By the same token, when someone close to me is dragged down to the underworld, to spend her season wedding and bedding the Hades in her mind, how can I hold her to blame? How can I feel personally rejected and abandoned? With all the Gods of the Underworld that occupy the darkest corners of our minds (the self-doubt, the hopelessness, the loneliness, the unavoidable pain that seems to accompany all of us through this life) how could we fairly expect anyone to live in springtime constantly? Are we justified in asking them to live perpetually in bloom? Yet, this is exactly what we do to our lovers, parents, siblings, friends, and even our children. Maybe the best gift that we can give to our loved ones is to grant them the same acceptance that we give to the trees, flowers, and bees—to understand when they must suffer through a winter in their soul? Instead of trying to pull them out, or blame them as the go under, would they be better served simply by letting them know that, when spring arrives for them again and they are able to journey out from the underworld, they will have the arms of those who love them, waiting to welcome them back home.