April 21. 4:37 a.m. The moon shines. Stars signal a clear sky. No clouds to provide a barrier to the cold. Tender apple blossoms, white with a lacing of pink at their edges, curl inward. My dad, the farmer, envisions them from where he lies awake in bed. Gives in and rises to stare into the dark. Looks at the thermometer again. 27 degrees. Waits.
As apple trees begin growth in the spring, the buds begin to swell and lose the ability to withstand cold temperatures. As the buds develop, warmer and warmer temperatures (still below freezing) can damage them. The killing temperature is often called the critical temperature and is defined as the temperature that buds can withstand for a half-hour.*
5:44 a.m. The sky remains inky black. The thermometer reads 26 degrees. Nothing can be done but wait, worry, pray. For clouds to move in, for the dew point to creep up a bit, for wind to stir the cold, for the sun to defy logic and rise not on course but by command.
At or near the bloom stage, the critical temperature is the same for almost all fruits and flowers. Freezing temperatures of 28 degrees Fahrenheit will result in about a 10 percent loss and 24 F in a 90 percent loss.
6:21 a.m. Birds sing. Slivers of light appear on the horizon. Cold clings to delicate, drooping blossoms. The temperature crawls up one degree to 27. The weather app predicts by 8 a.m. we may be at 28, then jump to 32 by 9:00.
After a freeze, people often want to know how bad the damage was. It takes several hours for the symptoms to develop. As frozen tissues thaw, they will turn brown or black if they were damaged or killed by the cold, revealing the extent of the damage. Experienced fruit growers can quickly assess the damage in the days following a freeze.
Logically, we understand that time should be equal. Scientifically, we accept that the 60 seconds between 6:51 and 6:52 p.m. are equal to the 60 seconds between 4:32 and 4:33 a.m. But anyone who has waited and prayed for dawn knows that experience can conflict with common sense. The moments in which we wait and pray for light are hard fought, painful, anxiety-inducing. It is difficult to push forward, to hold on, to hold out hope.
This impossible slowness of dawn also struck me a few weeks ago on a long drive through the middle of the night. After a week of vacation, my husband and I opted to steer toward home while the kids slept and the traffic was light. At 4:30 a.m., Tim, who had been driving since sunset, pulled over onto an abandoned exit so we could switch seats and he could close his eyes. The sky was still inky when I took the wheel, my kids snoring softly behind me, curled up in their seats with blankets and resting their heads on pillows stuffed up against the car windows. In unfamiliar territory, I wove through mountain curves, glancing again and again at the glowing digital numbers on the car’s clock that claimed it was morning, while aware that my headlights still shone into the darkness. Sipping coffee and nervously alert, I drove into the horizon, longing for a crack of brightness in the sky and wondering why the darkness seemed slow to lift.
We refer to the hours from midnight to dawn as night (“How did you sleep last night?”), even though, once the clock strikes midnight, we actually enter the long, dark hours of morning. From 12 a.m. to 12 p.m., we spend more time in the cold dark than in the light of the sun.
Most of us have experienced long moments of waiting for the light. We might be occupying this space now, daring to hope that dawn has broken in this pandemic. In the dark morning hours, we find ourselves tossing and turning, asking God: by now, shouldn’t it be light? Shouldn’t the sky be brightening? Shouldn’t we be through this?
In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor chides Christianity, and convicts me, of never having “anything nice to say about darkness,” and for using darkness as a “synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.” While acknowledging the practical dangers of the dark, she also goes on to defend it by arguing that at a theological level, this language, this disdain of darkness creates all sorts of problems: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”
Taylor also points out that this bias toward sunlight can send the message that one’s time in the darkness is deserved. She talks of the toxicity of churches that offer “full solar spirituality,” the kind of faith that reflects only its sunniest sides and emphasizes certainty, reliable answers, and unwavering belief. Trouble begins in full solar circles when life begins to unravel, when heartbreak, depression, doubt, or illness come knocking. A bit of questioning might be accepted initially, but is followed up with assurances about God not giving anyone more than they can bear. “Sooner or later,” she says, “it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.”
Maybe we fall into our own pit when we start believing the dark is deserved rather than a part of the necessary rhythm of our days. Maybe I too often make the mistake of cursing those wrestling hours before dawn, when they also offer me the gifts of awareness, honesty, and openness. Maybe, when the cold of frost descends on the blossoms, God’s presence hovers closer.
I haven’t always been a morning person, but I’ve slowly become one. Several years ago, when I made a commitment to writing as a daily practice, it was clear the only hours my mind and house were quiet enough to sustain me are the early ones, when I can be up before everyone except the dog, and tap into my creativity before work and the world slowly squeezes it from me.
In these early morning sessions, I’m grateful for the slowness of dawn, the way it offers me time to sit and think and write before the light rises. But, in addition to the freshness of mind given by rest, having a front row seat for the sunrise is humbling. The sun reveals the mess the dark has covered up: dishes left last night in the sink, branches blown down in the evening storm, apple blossoms left drooping.
The light reveals the mess of my 5 a.m. self — disheveled, hair sticking up sideways, smudged makeup under my eyes, feet in gaudy slippers, and wearing yoga pants littered with dog hair. This intimate version of myself is one only those closest to me get to see. The reality revealed in the morning light reminds me of my inability to save myself, whether by hustling or working or proving. My only option is to wrestle with the spirit, to be open, to be deeply aware of my humanity and imperfection.
Kent Haruf, author of one of my favorite books of all-time, Plainsong, died in 2014. Haruf raced death to finish his final novel, Our Souls at Night. In an interview, his wife, Kathy, describes how he “took himself and his oxygen tank out to his writing shed and wrote a chapter a day for 45 days,” turning in his draft to his editor just before he died. As was his practice for years, Haruf wrote on an old typewriter with a wool cap pulled over his eyes. He described that he “wrote blind” every morning in order to avoid the distraction of spelling, syntax, and punctuation. I’m struck by his choice to remain in the dark, to hold on to its gifts of vulnerability and imperfection. To choose the dark for its possibility and allow himself to walk its raggedy path, not scared of bumping along, but open to where it could bring him.
Those of us who live in the north, especially here in Michigan where winters are particularly cloudy, understand the glory of the long-awaited sun after enduring a barrage of dark winter days. We also know that the deterioration and decay of last year’s vegetation, the dormancy of the plants and trees, the lifting of the darkness, make spring exciting. Each spring we are given literal context for words like renewal and resurrection and restoration.
While I love the changing of the seasons and all the bright, hopefulness of those “r” words, I want to focus on their shininess rather than the reality of what they might ask of me. Renewal requires letting go. Restoration requires brokenness. Resurrection requires death.
It’s been ten days since April’s coldest mornings. I called my dad yesterday to check on his trees, and he’s still waiting, watching. He walks the trees, stops to pick a few petals apart, and sees evidence of damage to some of the most advanced blooms. Others, left untouched, might be okay. He’s still waiting on pollination and said that some varieties have very few blooms, but those trees were bursting last year so maybe they’re evening themselves out. “Who knows,” he says. “Last year I thought I lost most of them, too, and then things turned out okay.”
In another five months, when fall arrives, we hold out hope that round, red apples will be hanging heavy on the trees. That summer’s sun and rain will come, that thunderstorms won’t bring hail, that in October, people will flock to my parents’ orchard, drive the long driveway that tunnels through the trees, buy a bag of apples, take them home, and munch them nonchalantly, giving little thought to their long journey that began with cold mornings and the small miracle of that tiny blossom. They’ll eat the sweet fruit down to the core, toss it away, never stopping to examine the seeds, never slowing to consider the dark cold of its origin, the delicate tenderness of chilly mornings spent praying for dawn.
*From: Michigan State University Extension, “Assessing frost and freeze damage to flowers and buds of fruit trees”