Now that I am in my fifties, I have to admit to myself that I am a pond in winter. I’d like to think that it’s early winter, November at most, but if the average life expectancy for women is seventy-seven, any way you cut it, I’ve spent two thirds of my years. I don’t consider this view as morbid, only realistic. Nor do I regard this as an excuse to shrivel up and prepare for death, as though my useful and productive years are beyond me. In fact, just the opposite: at fifty-five, I feel healthier, more fit, almost as energetic, wiser, and as determined to live my life well as I did in my twenties. If I am a pond in winter, I want to be ice.
Thoreau lauded the purity, transparency, and depth of Walden in its milder, fresher seasons, when its liquidity reflected the heavens and its stillness ran deep. But he also saw these traits persisting into winter. He recognized that Walden had not shifted identities but had only taken on a different form. Underneath its transformed surface, Walden was still clear and bright and cold. Chopping through the ice to “open a window under my feet,” he saw that Walden remained essentially unchanged. Walden remained “pervaded by a softened light . . . with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky.”
Yet Thoreau did not regard the “real” Walden as lying submerged and trapped, yearning for the return of spring; rather, he saw in this natural phase new traits to celebrate, new facets to explore. He praised, for example, the thickness of Walden’s ice, which measured 1 1/2 feet deep, so sturdy that “it will support the heaviest teams.” In my winter, I would like to be such firm ice, growing deep and solid, strong enough to support anyone who needed to lean her weight against me. I want to work to amass such depth that I can be stable and secure, both for myself and others, firm in my beliefs, resistant to forces that would like to break me, weaken me, thin me.
It would be easy to be ice that is only rigid, thick skinned, and cold, or ice that is like a frozen stare, having only a snow blind perspective. It would be harder, but braver and more holy, to be Walden ice, which afforded Thoreau new vistas and perspectives. Viewing his familiar world from the strange platform of Walden’s frozen center, Thoreau marveled at his new vision, the defamiliarization of the landscape and the fresh awe it awakened. In my winter, how fine it would be to be so often disoriented in this way, to stumble in awe, to continue to learn, to see, to fill up with wonder, to really believe that God’s mercies are new every morning.
The winds of Concord cleared the ice of Walden, scoured it free of the snow that drifted and disabled the rest of the countryside. Walden and the other ponds–Flint, Goose, White–swept bare, became flat, smooth stepping stones for Thoreau’s winter walks, expanding his range and providing new routes to travel. With such ice, winter doesn’t have to signal isolation or immobility, but can open up new paths. This will require, I know, more than strong legs and health, more than time to make it possible, more even than initiative or the desire to explore. I also will need a cleansing wind, a gracious Spirit who will clear a straight path for my feet. It also must be a wind of concord, of agreement, of harmony, between my will and his that enables my winter journeys. Because the only trip I really want to take is the one led by the Spirit. The best I could hope for is to walk on firm ice, blown clear by the breath of God.