When we moved to Mount Desert Island (in the month of May), a local friend told us, “Start watching the police beat in the Islander in March. That’s when it starts getting weird around here.” True to form, March newspapers in the past few years have included: a story of “shovel rage” – a local resident moved to throw snow at a town truck and strike it with his shovel in frustration that the sidewalks were not being cleared quickly enough (no damage was reported, and no arrests were made); a report of a man calling police from the maintenance shed at a golf course, claiming that he was being chased (there was onbly one set of footprints in the snow); a motorist slamming on his brakes because the car behind him was following too close, causing a rear-end collision and damage to both cars; a resident calling police to say that someone had been rude to her over the phone; and a report of a woman walking down Main Street in her underwear. One of my favorite recent local-interest items, the disappearance of a tub of scallop gonads from a car at the Somesville One Stop, actually occurred in November, but in a nice bit of symmetry, made it onto Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” in March of 2013.
Of course, many of the reports in the police beat are not funny at all. I can’t quote statistics, but it seems as though calls for domestic assault, OUI and other drug and alcohol-related crimes are high in late winter – or maybe it’s just that it’s not obnoxious tourists getting drunk in hotel parking lots, but our own folks getting into trouble near to home. It’s no secret that winters here are long and dark, and that cabin fever is a real danger. When Cap’n Nemo’s in Bass Harbor burned down in a few years ago, a thoughtful local reminded me to be on the watch for domestic disputes, as the folks who had previously found their social outlet at the neighborhood bar would now have to spend time in small houses with their spouses and children.
For many folks, March is also the time when the money put aside from summer jobs starts to run thin: the oil tank is empty, the refrigerator is empty, the rent is due, the light bill is due, and there is no paycheck on the horizon until May or June. In the best years, there is no margin for error for those who rely on a seasonal economy, and in years with long, cold winters, there is little hope of making the summer money stretch far enough. Both Island pantries have unfortunately become regular parts of the winter economy, and I can vouch that requests for assistance from the clergy discretionary funds peak in the late winter.
March is when it starts getting weird (or perhaps weirder). But today, most of us have some sort of shelter, some source of heat and light, and some opportunity to get out of the house occasionally. Imagine life in northern Europe in the Dark Ages, when many folks lived in one-room huts, heated with a wood or peat fire. Only the wealthy could afford glass for windows or candles for light. Food was stockpiled in the fall, with no effective means to preserve it. In this setting, winter is not just depressing and stressful; it is actually life-threatening.
The days start to get a little longer after Christmas and the midwinter solstice, but not nearly fast enough. Spring is months away, and any sort of harvest well beyond that. Late winter is a season when time seems to slow down, when death seems to be all around, and it’s hard to remember that new life will ever be possible. A time when we count the days until we can crawl out of our winter cocoons, our stagnant little tombs, and celebrate resurrection and the triumph over death’s finality.
The Christian tradition of Lent, of counting off the forty lengthening days before Easter, recognizes the reality that rebirth doesn’t come without death, that new life doesn’t always come when we are ready for it. March would be easier if we could spend it under a sunlamp, or if we just sang happy songs and ate lots of chocolate. Lent would be easier if we could just jump straight to Easter. Many of us can afford to head south in March to someplace where the sun shines and the earth isn’t a bog of frozen mud. Some of us can afford to heat our houses to 73 and leave all the lights on. We can afford to create the illusion that winter has no hold on us, that death has no hold on us.
Those of us who spend Lent counting the days until the resurrection know that it is actually death’s hold that is the illusion. Resurrection life doesn’t necessarily come when we want it. But it comes.