MUD SEASON: A Meditation on Spring
Revised March 2020
…how dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you…and surrendering, lose myself? How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Thought they are really seasons of us, our winter-enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape, where bires and reed-dwelling creatures are at home. Rilke, Tenth Duino Elegy
Spring comes with its flowers, autumn with the moon, summer with breezes, winter with snow; when useless things don’t stick in the mud, that is your best season. Wuemen Huakai
I undertook my first road improvement project at age six or seven, removing rocks from the dirt road in front of our house in Avondale, Arizona. It was the work of an idle summer afternoon. Accompanied by our family dog, Cicero, I dug stones out of packed earth and flung them in the field nearby. I felt I was acting for the general welfare and planned o telling my parents at dinner about the good I’d done in smoothing the road. But then, my father came out and told me to stop. We needed those stones in the road, he told me. This made no sense: Wasn’t it better to make the road smooth? No, he explained, the stones made the road hard. We need a hard road more than a smooth one.
It took me years to understand what my father meant. In some ways, I’m still learning. There is geology to consider, as I’ve learned living in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is not the Granite State but at bottom much of the area where I’ve lived for25 years is a rumpled bed of stone scoured and dumped by glaciers that withdrew unevenly only ten thousand years ago. Glaciers may be gone, but ice and snow still remain. You can hike down into the ravine below my citified apartment even in to summer, peer into a deep sandstone crevice, and find snow there, pale and dirty, its chill breath seeming to whisper all we’ll ever know of endurance: I was, I am, I will be.
The prolonged violence of the glacier’s melting notched our valleys and piled up gravel much like those river stones I spent a childhood summer afternoon flinging into the field. After the melt, life took hold and eventually trees, but a hundred centuries of death and resurrection have yielded only a meager soil laid like a thin sponge over the unyielding stone ledges. With the March thaw, streams gush, swamps rise, bogs flush, forest hollows fill with vernal pools. For several weeks, with snow still knee-deep in shadowed woods and on the north sides of buildings, we live in a between time, neither winter nor spring. No hymns are written in its praise. It’s a time of neither here nor there, a non-season when, as T.S. Eliot, wrote, “between melting and freezing/the soul’s sap quivers.” The literal sap quivers in the maples, drawn off in buckets and boiled for syrup, but this is perhaps the season’s only sweetness. Mostly, it is the season of MUD.
In March and early April in the neck of the woods beyond Dodgeville, where I lived for years, over seventy miles of dirt roads turned to mud, and most of our driveways too. Paved roads were too expensive in many areas, and paved lanes were shunned as being too suburban even by those who could afford them. A road agent patrolled with the township’s chairman, posting Day-Glo signs declaring some roads officially closed owing to mud. In theory that was to save the town crews the trouble of rescuing vehicles sunk to their axles–thought every year they have to haul a few out anyway.
Even in Milwaukee, mud coats the flanks of our cars, splatters our clothes, cakes our shoes. Children, anywhere, of course, are mud connoisseurs. In their school art classes, kids are handed sponges and brown paint and told to do paintings of mud. After school I see them walking home through the real thing wherever they find it. They stomp and squish. They poke and stir, sampling the textures and colors of downtown gutter-mud. Children, so much closer to the source of life, seem in touch with their muddy origins. From dust you came, the priest says, thumbing a forehead with ashes. Dust, yes, but for there to be life, you have to add water, and we know what that makes…
Mud even figures in architecture. In the country, our house had an entire room devoted to it. At our place I…and guests..left boots and coats in the mud-room and sometimes pants and socks, too, so that, on occasion, we entered our dwelling place half-hanked but mud-free. Except for Maggie, the ruling mutt, who didn’t honor the mud-room and had to be chased down with a towel we kept by the door.
Mud season brings portents. Buds swell. A blush early appears in the red maples above the lagoon. Daffodils poke up from the earth, only to be buried by a late snowfall. A coyote limps across the tennis court in full day. Our minds hardly grasp the coming change: In two or three months, we’ll plunge our bodies into the same pond we walked across only weeks ago.
Mostly, however, I think we fear it, this loosening of winter’s hold, the shedding of ice-
certainty. We fear this time of year not so much for where it’s taking us–the spring bloom and summer roar–but for what we have to go through to get there. We’ve all heard that Christmas is the busiest season for suicides, but I heard recently that in Wisconsin it is mud season. Mud stirs dangerous longings and reminds us of all we’d prefer to forget. The entire direction of civilization is away from mud. We measure our progress with pavement. The modern city or suburb, with its paved streets and sidewalks, its curbs and storm drains, is really a giant mud-avoidance system, designed at great expense to lift us into higher and drier versions of ourselves. The word “pavement” derives from the Latin pavire, “to stamp or beat,” and indeed we try to beat down our muddy origins and muddy selves to suppress all things untoward and unseemly, to make our way smooth. But, in March and April, on roads laid more lightly over land, pavement heaves and buckles as though, after winter’s iron months, a terrible secret strains to surface.
We all, of course, go through personal mud seasons, COVID 19 notwithstanding, and these can occur at any time of year. We suffer illness and depression, the loss of loved ones, failed or failing marriages, crises of faith…in ourselves, in others, in our gods, which is to say all those temporalities that dramatize and make visible the restless impermanence of the dynamic, invisible world, things experienced in the light of the knowledge that every object is singular, that every event, once it is over, is over absolutely.
But, personal mud seasons need not be drought on things great and dire. Humans have a peculiar talent for misery, and lacking big reasons for unhappiness, we make ingenious use of small ones, all the bounced-check and runny-nose occasions of woe. Lacking the glamour of tragedy in our lives, we fall back on the ordinary, everyday returns to mud that we all so much depend on: the computer crashes, the cat catches her nails in the screen door, the children cut each other’s hair with poultry shears, Jack fails to appreciate my talent for staring out the window at the bird-feeder for long minutes at a time. Mud, mud, mud. We need the mud, it seems, for our mud seasons give us the pleasure of self-pity…which, for most of us, ranks between bowling and sex…and I never cared much for bowling.
I’ve learned, though, that our need for mud goes much deeper than our need to pity ourselves. We need the mud for what grows from it. Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side. In my mud seas painting that Cody, a seven-year-old friend, did at school, the great brown swath across the bottom two-thirds of the paper is topped with tiny, bright flowers. The image suggests causality–mud makes flowers–but also necessity: No mud, no flowers. As I enter my various mud seasons, I’ve learned to ask: What death, what loss is this? Or, what is it within me that needs to slip away? And, out of this muddy muddly, what new thing, what recovery, what resurrection will come?
Now, into Lent but weeks before Easter, my thoughts return to that Jewish peasant riding on a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem the week before Passover. (Reading in March that people laid branches and spread their cloaks on the road before him, a Wisconsin farmer can conclude only one thing: He was riding through mud.) What can this fellow teach me, I wonder, about going through the mud, about letting go, about reclaiming solid ground, about being raised up?
Now, I was raised in a reasonably intelligent, liberal, Protestant home, but there were somethings that my Sunday Schoolteachers didn’t teach me…maybe, of course, I just wasn’t paying attention…but it seems I had to grow nearly to adulthood to figure out that Christ wasn’t a last-name, like Potter or Majiek-Hiner, but a descriptive title: Jesus the Christ; Jesus the anointed one.
Anointed in what sense? For answers to this question, I’ve been turning lately to voices I didn’t hear in childhood and who were not around when I was studying Christian theology with a serious intent. In recent years, the work of such biblical scholars as John Crossan and Marcus Borg has taught us much about the historical Jesus, including the political and social context of his teachings and actions. Their work has helped me a feel for Jesus as a man. The Jesus of my childhood was a willowy, doe-eyed figure who spent too much time in his bathrobe. I liked his ideas–turning the other cheek and loving your enemy seemed both difficult and deeply right (much like the Seven Principles of Unitarian-Universalism, maybe) but Jesus himself was strangely unappealing. I was told that he loved me and that I should love him back, but for a child love lies close to the skin, a matter of texture and heat: My father’s scratchy face, my mother’s soft arms. I didn’t see how I could love someone so remote as this Jesus in heaven.
It was through reading literature and acting in plays that I eventually learned to love people I had never met and who may not even have existed. We call these people “characters,” and I think I know enough now of Jesus to see him as a great character in the most dramatic of situations.
The scene is Jerusalem, a Jewish city under a brutal Roman occupation. It’s the week before Passover, and for days Jewish peasants have streamed into the city from the surrounding countryside, preparing to celebrate at the temple. Their presence makes the Roman authorities nervous. Recent years have seen a string of apocalyptic prophets leading peasant uprisings; the Romans have to kill them and their followers by the thousands. Now word is out that another troublemaking, this man Jesus from Galilee, is on his way. There’s a buzz among the peasants thronging the temple precincts. The Roman authorities and their collaborators among the city’s Jewish aristocracy, including the scribes and Pharisees, can only watch and wait for their moment.
And here comes Jesus, astride his donkey, slogging through the mud, with a crowd of followers around him and more people coming out to meet him on the road…people calling out on every side: Prayers, praise, requests for healing. Jesus knows the Pharisees among the crows are watching him closely, waiting for him to slip up. He knows they would as soon see him dead.
Then, some of the Pharisees, alarmed by the crowd’s enthusiasm, call out: Teacher, order your disciples to stop. At this point a lesser man would make some ingratiating or politic reply, but Jesus answers: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout.”
Now, this is a man I could love. I imagine him speaking not with haughtiness or pride but out of a calm conviction of the rightness of his actions. In mud season, all the land cries out the coming change, and Jesus felt himself so aligned with the natural and cosmic order that the very stones would cry out his arrival. And, it is in this same state of confident assurance that he later clears the temple and ultimately goes to his death.
How would this world be transformed if we could all go to our ends with such clarity of conviction? How, I ask myself, would my life be transformed if I could walk with such a sure faith? What new life would waken within me if I could slog through the mud of my passage here—through my great trials and everyday afflictions—with the grace and courage of this man?
Now, I understand that the Palm Sunday story is part legend, much symbol, and wishing that we could live like Jesus may be too much to ask. On most days, if I manage to keep my shirt tucked in and refrain from kicking the cell phone across the room, I figure I’ve made my spiritual progress for the day. And when I do hanker for a moral uplift, I know it’s easier to seek inspiration from men and women nearer to us. In our schools, we justly celebrate the lives of such secular saints as Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa: Figures less problematic than Jesus because they are certifiably mortal. Religion of any sort is much an activity of the imagination and perhaps Jesus remains impossible to imagine afresh, buried as he is beneath centuries of cultural myth and the accumulated debris of our religious upbringings, Christian or not, happy or not. But, as someone who wandered from his Baptist upbringing to follow other paths—Buddhist and Hindu practices, Arabian horse breeding, reading Ezra Pound while drinking Jack Daniels or expresso—I find myself returning by odd and circuitous routes to the dual figure of Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. And…hard as it may be…if I want to love Jesus the MAN, the peasant revolutionary and visionary radical, I must also come to terms with Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, a figure who is something more than just a man. And how to do this?
Again, I listen for voices I didn’t hear in my childhood, voices I didn’t hear in my theological training, actually. I rediscover Jesus in the words of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, who recognizes Jesus either as a fully enlightened being or as a bodhisattva, a person of high spiritual attainment who has chosen to remain in the cycle of birth and death to help others find their ways to enlightenment. I rediscover Jesus as the man Islamic people revere as a great prophet and saint, and as the mysterious and powerful figure who rides through the poems of the Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi. I rediscover Jesus in the writings of the medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, who if asked whether Jesus was God’s only begotten son, would answer: “Yes, and so am I, and so are you.”
Hearing these and other voices, I imagine Jesus the man as one of God’s many embodiments in the world and as that potential divinity within each of us. When we enter into that which is divine within us, we enter into our own Christhood, our own Christ-consciousness. To stand fully within that presence, to live and move in such alignment with the divine and natural order that the very stones shout out our arrival is to enter our highest, our anointed, selves. And, what the New Testament tradition describes as Jesus’ resurrection and return to the Father represents for us the possibility of a return to God by whatever name we choose: Higher Self, Brahman, Ground of Being.
This is heady stuff, I know. For most of us, a mystical experience consists of finding a parking space with time left on the meter. For much of my life, I’ve lived contentedly by a few simple rules: Don’t track mud in the house, take care of your own, help others, do as little harm as you can, change your oil every 3000 miles, and wear clean Jockey’s when you leave home. But maybe enlightenment really is simpler than we think. I’ve been told that religion boils down to two beliefs: First that there is something of ultimate significance in the world; second that there is a way of being connected to I. Each of the world’s religions offers a distinct way of connecting, and each of us must find his or her own way into ultimate significance. Prayer, meditation and selfless service are all honored methods. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me that if done right washing dishes can serve as well…electric dishwashers don’t qualify…sorry.
We also touch the Divine through our experience of nature, and in spring we celebrate the power of rebirth and renewal. By the beginning of March, the blue birds were nesting at the edge of our horse pastures over in Iowa County. Their presence…once almost gone in SW Wisconsin…year after year, renewed my faith in the world’s extraordinary competence, its talent for winning against long odds. Today, years later, I breathe in the odor of wet earth and pines as though my sense of smell were being restored to me. All about, roots grip down and awaken. Sprouts nudge toward light and air. Everywhere, the earth staggers to life.
And yet, the example of Jesus and the experience of mud season, also remind me of a harsher truth: To be reborn, we must die back. The way to Jerusalem lies through mud. Dying, like mud, can take many forms, but every death…in the sense I mean…is a letting go. We let go of ambition, of ride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of youth, of loved ones who go before us. We let go of insisting that the world be a certain way. Letting go of any of these can seem the failure of every design, the loss of every cherished hope. But, in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations, let go of our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may feel at times that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined.
When I was much younger, I, like most people I knew, had spent much of my time in the mud, only I didn’t know how to value it. Mud seemed only to block my way. I had spent my life in pursuit of knowledge and happiness, only to find that both were over-rated, for what is knowledge without faith and what is happiness without sorrow.
In commenting on his novel, Laish, Aharon Appelfeld says, “Laish is a story of pilgrimage…and as in all pilgrimages, what matters most is reaching the goal, sustaining faith through the travails of the journey. The stopping places, the pauses, the tests of faith, the perils to be overcome count for very little, so long as they are survived.”
True. The path to the high calling, to a noble goal, to resurrection always lies through the mud, because only through pain and struggle and sorrow and confusion do we grasp the necessary truth offered in the old Hebrew psalm (as rendered by Stephen Mitchell.
You return our bodies to the dust and snuff out our life’s like a candle flame. You hurry us way; we vanish as suddenly as the brass; in the morning it shoots up and flourishes; in the evening it wilts and dies. For our life dissolves like a vision and fades into air like a cloud.
But, the pilgrimage, the muddy journey, is not “merely” something to be survived en route to the goal. In some profound way, the goal is merely an excuse to make the journey. Whether in the Epic of Golgamesh or “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” or “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, we spend little time with the pilgrim before he sets out an even less once he reaches the end of the journey. Why? Because all the good stuff happens in the middle…in the mud.
In the time has taken me to work through these thoughts and put fingers to type pad, we in our part of the Midwest have gone through off and on again single-digit temperatures and weeks of thaw and mud, through a blizzard that buried our fond hopes of early spring beneath a foot of snow, through a stretch of freakish 70-degree days in which snow vanished by the hour, and at last to gray days of rain relieved by skies of robin’s egg blue. All this has reminded me of two things: The path to the goal will be unpredictable, and we will have a hard time choosing the right footwear.
Years ago in Japan, my daughter and I came to an understanding at the end of winter. She would wear her WINTER boots to school but on her return I would meet her at the bus with her SPRINGTIME rubber ones. She would sit on a snowbank to pull them on, and then we would stomp home through the mud. “Mud is good exercise,” she said, searching for mud of just the right consistency to suck one boot off her foot.
My father taught me to leave stones in the road to be prepared for mud. And I — over the years — learned something about walking through it…and children in return have shown me what spirit can be brought to the exercise.
All of us, young and old, soon and late, can find our way in the mud, the season of our terrible and our certain joy.
Let us bring to it all the spirit we can muster.