Early March or late February used to be my favorite time to walk in the woods in Connecticut and Rhode Island when I was young. Especially I liked to follow a stream, up or down, it didn’t matter. With no leaves on the trees or the underbrush, it was easier to stay with whatever path the stream took. But I had to be careful. This is what I liked most about this time of year. I had to watch my step for what was going on beneath my feet. The moss was starting to lose its winter dullness and show just a hint of green. Tiny fern spirals poked through the ground litter, and closer to the stream, sprouts that would become skunk cabbage broke through the frost of the night before. When I looked up, I could see the tips of the tree branches starting to swell just so slightly. No buds that day, but I knew they were coming.
About two months after Laura died I consulted the Zhōuyì and found hexagram 3, zhūn. The Chinese character 屯 pictured the situation of my grief exactly. The line across the top resembles the hard, frozen soil of the winter. But poking through that line is “a tender shoot.” This reading helped me see my grief as part of “the difficulties surrounding a new beginning.” (Ritsema and Sabbadini 95) Westerners might be inclined to read this character as a sign of hope, which we usually associate with springtime. I have seen this character translated as “difficulty” as well as “sprouting.” Richard Lynn translates zhūn as “birth throes.” The Chinese commentators on this hexagram emphasize cautious action in the face of peril. Take the time to get one’s mind straight. Reorder priorities, and then think about what to do.
There is no expectation that better times are coming regardless, no thought for us to just wait for “nature” to take its course. The ancient Chinese text accompanying this hexagram sets forth the four stages of the time cycle: spring-growing-harvesting-trial. The text advises, however, that the question “is connected to the cycle as a whole rather than a part of it.” (Ritsema and Sabbadini 95) Don’t just think about spring. Therefore, the neo-Confucian commentator Wáng Bī, whose text is the most widely used version of the Dàodéjīng today, advises that zhūn is the time to “weave the fabric” of a new order. (Lynn 157). Both Wáng Bī and the Daoist Liú Yīmíng warn that “if you proceed recklessly, desirous of rapid progress, you will increase the danger.” (Cleary 48)
Contrary to my idyllic description of a city-boy taking a hike along a stream bank, Philip Simmons describes the problems of actually living in the muck and mud after the frozen ground thaws. In a rural area, especially one like New Hampshire, with a shallow, hard granite water table, mud quickly becomes a trial.
For several weeks, … 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 nonseason 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 the season’s only sweetness. Mostly it’s the season of mud.” (Simmons 78)
Simmons does go on to point out that: “Mud season brings portents. Buds swell: already a blush appears in the red maples above the swamp. Daffodils poke up from the earth, only to be buried by a late snowfall.” Having been raised a Catholic, Simmons goes back to the story of the last week in the life of Jesus, Passion Week. Like the Chinese, however, Simmons does not jump to what comes after the mud season of the soul, but faces up to the difficulties, the birth pangs of that time.
Mostly, we fear it, this loosening of winter’s hold, the shedding of ice certainties. We fear this time of year not so much for where it is taking us–the spring bloom and summer roar–but for what we have to go through to get there. (Simmons 79)
A good description of grief: the mud season.