A Review of
The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
Barbara Mahany’s new book The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings for the Season escapes neat categorizations. It combines — and reimagines — the almanac, essay, and cookbook, while simultaneously asking the reader to engage with the author. This engagement, however, isn’t a matter of doing, at least not immediately. Rather, it necessitates being, of sitting with the months of December, January, and February and allowing them to stir the soul.
December, for instance, that “month of the longest night” (15), tends to be viewed with wariness and weariness. The days wend toward the solstice, the night when all is dark. Yet Mahany proposes a different perspective. December’s darkness is not oppressive, but alluring. The long nights call her to watch the moon and her yard’s inhabitants: the sparrows and squirrels, the cardinal that reprises its red plumage not only in December but also January and February. Mahany sees the promise and the mystery within the wombing dark. Though the darkness lingers, it always gives way to life and light.
January ushers in “the new-born crystalline hours” (95). The days brim with hope and anticipation—as well as fragility. Mahany regards this month as she would a newborn, incredibly vulnerable yet full of potential. She says:
I will study you, be in awe of your sudden appearance, your entrance, your being here. There was no guarantee you and I would meet, and therein is the miracle, the often-taken-for-granted miracle. Yet, unmistakably, a miracle in every way.
Both miracle and blessing, each new year demands…the full attention of all of us standing here on the cusp, filling our hearts and our imaginations with promises, vows, hopes, resolutions of the deepest kind. (96)
January, Mahany suggests, is the chance to dream, and to keep dreaming. It is the month to look beyond what is to what could be. Dream, Mahany urges, dream and witness it begin with your “next whole breath” (127).
February, by contrast to January, tests the soul and its dreams. The month is not the longest night, nor is it the newborn hours. It resides somewhere between the two, perhaps exactly like a newborn who has not yet settled into a regular rhythm of sleeping and eating. Its in-betweenness produces a listlessness as one awaits the weather’s decision of whether to be winter or spring. And yet—the opportunity for “survival, astonishingly” (173). The cardinal, “the red bird of courage belts out from on high…all but yodeling: Do not despair, there is reason for hope” (166).
Writing of the months as separate time periods can make it seem the book is fragmented. But not at all. In many ways, The Stillness of Winter is a musical composition, united by particular themes even as each month displays its unique movements and idiosyncrasies. One of these themes is attention; the book practically resounds with it. December, with its deepening dark, requires attentive waiting, much as Mary did all those years ago. January asks one to look, with not only one’s eyes but also one’s heart. “Over and over,” says Mahany, “I teach my children to look and look closely. … It is often the unnoticed to which I must teach them to pay the closet attention” (121). And February—February demands listening, to “put our ear to the heartbeat all around. There’s stirring deep beneath the crust of earth, and deep within our weary selves—invisible but certain” (165).
Another theme is wonder. It pervades the book, from the almanac entries — who knew, unless one were an astronomer, that Sirius shines in the winter months, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, with a luminosity twenty-two times greater than the sun? (162) — to the recipes for relish “to relish” (70–71) and the elixir that is bread pudding (143). The cardinal, too, a recurring presence, stirs the soul to wonder. And in wonder’s presence, joy arises. The soul reimagines the world, reveling in the wonders it contains.
A final theme is the double movement of the interior and exterior life. The book rarely states the theme explicitly, but its essays, recipes, and blessings reveal it. As the soul startles in wonder and joy, it reaches out to others. It defeats winter’s doldrums (72) with unbounded generosity. It takes oranges and chocolates to the men and women who survive in the bitter cold (179). The soul, perhaps quietly slumbering, awakens in the stillness of winter.