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Saturday, December 18, 2010


I've always been fascinated by frozen water.

I'm not talking ice cubes or popsicles. I mean how a large body of water - a pond, a lake, a bay, the water in the marsh outside my window - can become hard and still. Meanwhile, underneath, the water continues to move as the tides change.

I must have been nine or ten years old when I fell through the ice while skating. Not my whole body. Just my right leg.

I was skating on a pond in the back of my friend's house. It was my first time on skates. I was using a pair borrowed from a friend - an old pair that used to belong to her older sister. I had fallen a couple of times and marveled at how hard the ice felt on my hip and backside and head, even though the thick layers of my snow suit.

The pond wasn't very deep. When I looked down, I could see the bottom of the pond, covered with old, dead leaves and broken branches. I could see the water moving slowly over the bottom. It was thick - moving along like corn syrup - and yet the surface was as hard as a rock and strong enough to hold my weight.

Between trying to find (and maintain) my balance, and being fascinated by the slow moving water underneath, I wasn't paying attention to the places where the ice had gotten thinner in the warmth of the sun. Suddenly, my right leg gave way, and I was stuck in the water, up to my thigh.

It was scary. Really scary. Even though I could feel my foot hit the bottom of the pond and I knew I wasn't in any danger of drowning, I simply didn't have the strength to get my leg free.

I struggled and struggled, but I just couldn't do it. As I struggled, I could hear the ice around me crack. It was a most terrifying sound.

The few minutes it took for my friend to call her father and brothers to help me felt like hours. As afraid as I was of being stuck, I was more afraid to be alone and stuck. What if more of the ice broke and my whole body went under - even though I knew, logically, that it couldn't happen since the water was not that deep.

Logic is not always functional when fear becomes a companion.

I remember that my right leg felt cold right down to the very inside of the bone. I felt a sharp stab of pain and then, more horrifying, I felt numb.

Eventually, I was pulled out of my icy trap by several strong arms and lots of cheery, warm laughter, towel dried, covered with a warm blanket and driven home with the car heater cranked up to high.

Even the warm blast of the heater didn't seem to melt the frozen feeling in my right leg. I couldn't feel my foot, except for a strange sensation of 'pins and needles'. My toes seemed to have vanished from my body.

My mother greeted me with a mixture of hysterical relief and anger. I hadn't asked her permission to go ice skating. Hadn't even told her I was going ice skating. Hadn't thought to mention it. It was rather a spontaneous decision. She didn't even know she needed to be worried. (Mother never missed an opportunity to worry.) She thought I was playing dolls or dress up, safe and secure in my friend's house.

She decreed, then and there, that I was never, EVER, to go ice skating. Again. Ever. Did I understand? Yes, yes I did. And, I never did. Until I was, oh 16 or 17 or so and figured that, if I was old enough to drive a car and have a job to save up for college, I could go ice skating with my friends.

The clearest image I have from that long-ago memory is the water under the ice. How it moved. Slowly. How life still existed under the hard sheet of ice that covered it. Still moved, even if more slowly.

I went out this morning to look at the ice under the water in front of Llangollen. A thick covering of snow rested on top of the ice, so it was hard to see anything underneath. I knelt down and leaned over the dock to brush off some of the snow, but it was hard and crusty and opaque.

A few gulls flew overhead as I was doing this. I could hear my mother's voice being carried on the sound of their cries, "What are you doing? Be careful! For God's sake, don't fall in! There's no one here to pull you out like last time."

I giggled at the thought of it. Sometimes, I crack myself up like that.

As I walked back into the house, I thought of some of the people in my life who are frozen. Just as hard and as opaque as the frozen water in front of my house. Afraid to take a risk or dare to dream. Afraid that some danger is happening somewhere out of their sight - out of their control - to something or someone they love. More afraid of the possible consequences of trying something new than the enjoyment of a new experience.

And then there are those who have risked and dared, only to fail. Their failure hardens their surface, even though they seem to skate by on it. But, they wobble emotionally, trying to walk on their skates rather than risk knowing the exhilaration of how a body can actually glide on ice.

They hold on to their fears and become emotionally distant and unreachable. I can see the emotional water flowing underneath, can even, sometimes, see the dead, dry leaves and broken branches on the bottoms of their heart and soul.

But, I can't reach it for them. Can't reach through their emotional ice. Not my job to do that. I just try to get them to look - scrape away some of the snow and ice covering the surface, so they can see.

And then there are friends who fall and get up - or let others help them up, warm them, and drive them home so they can try again, perhaps at a later date. These are my heroes and heroines in life. People who have known loss and failure and still get out there, on the ice, and skate, despite the risks involved.

I know that, historically, Jesus was probably not born "in the deep midwinter", when "snow lay on the ground." That was how it was in Merry Olde England, but not so much, I don't think, in ancient Bethlehem.

No matter. I think it's a wonderful metaphorical time of year to celebrate the birth of The Christ Child - the One who breaks though the frozen places in our lives, and comes to show us that life and love continue to flow just under the surface of the icy reality that sometimes comes in the Seasons of our Life. The One who helps us look at how the water continues to flow over the silt and sediment of failures and broken dreams that lie at the bottom of the heart and soul.

No wonder, when the angels come to bring a message from God, the first thing they say is, "Be not afraid."

I don't know what is the more fearsome - the fear that freezes us in place and makes us emotionally unavailable to ourselves and others, or the work of acknowledging the fear, putting on your skates, and risk looking foolish as you wobble and take a few spills, perhaps even falling through the ice a time or two.

When you understand that life goes on, underneath it all - even the bad stuff - eventually, you learn to glide and can say, with a heart filled with the joy and exhilaration of anticipation, "Merry Christmas!"


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I just ended ties with someone who is frozen, and it took a while for me to get myself untrapped from the ice. This speaks to much of what I felt, but couldn't articulate. Thanks.

Ann said...

A good one -- and so easy to become frozen - thanks for warm friends who break our ice with laughter.

Lisa Fox said...

A beautiful meditation, Elizabeth. Thanks for this.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen dearest Sister! and a Merry Christmas to you all ;-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Ann, Lisa, Goran and Anonymous. I sorta thought I wasn't alone in this train of thought.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Amazing meditation, Elizabeth. I remember it was your meditation last year on "Frozen" that helped me start to get un-thawed.