During the 40+ years I did not reside in my home state, the main thing I missed about Texas (besides my Mother) was the sky. The sky here is so wide, so blue, so often completely cloudless, and sometimes so spectacularly vivd that only photos of bluebonnets and Texas longhorns rival its replications on souvenir postcards. Because Texas is vast, the sky stretches from horizon to horizon, sometimes fully visible on vacant lots and open roadways even in heavily-populated areas. When I was a small child, my father and I would lie on our backs in the open yard next to our house in the evening and look up. We would watch the shooting stars and he would describe all the constellations we could see. He died when I was only six, but even today, those lie-down lessons are some of my most vivid memories of him — and I still know my constellations. He was a pilot and he loved the sky. So do I.
At this time of year, the sky is especially vivid in a winter sunset. We have had a particularly cold season this year, and that produces some of the same color as extreme heat does in the summertime. I don’t know the atmospheric particulars of these phenomena, but I always think of the old maritime saying: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailer’s warning.” Accordingly, a sky such as the one pictured above would indicate hope, at least for the next day.
But I’m finding it hard to hang on to hope these days, having lost it so often after just the briefest glimmers over these last long and difficult years. Yes, Covid appears to be waning, at least for now, but there’s a giant collective hangover that won’t be cured with a simple Alka-Seltzer: inflation is up, the blame game is ugly, and the crazies are out in full force and running for office. With a dearth of sensible solutions, we’re banning books, buying guns, and cheering trucker convoys. We are all still angry and tired and aggrieved and, most of all, lonely; we miss our friends, our former activities, our civil society, and our plans for the future. Even the much-anticipated winter Olympics, which might have brought devoted fans some new heroes and moments of inspiration, turned out to be, as a USA Today article proclaimed “…the strangest, most controversial, most unwelcoming Olympic games of our lifetime.” (Christine Brennan, February 20, 2022) Unfortunately, having watched it all, I have to agree. Even the Olympics were reduced to a familiar cliché: unprecedented.
And now there is the invasion of Ukraine to epitomize “the winter of our discontent,” with Russia’s own Richard III living in a world that hates him. As in the Shakespearian play, winter once again becomes a metaphor for a time of oppression and sadness, the sympathetic landscape for malevolent evil and ambition while Russian tanks role over snow-packed roads into Kyiv. (As Putin wages this military assault in retro-WWII style, will he remember what happened to German tanks when the land thawed?)
Yet, irony of ironies, this outrageous transgression by a deranged dictator might ultimately be the source of our hope and salvation. Here are the moments of grit and determination the world has been looking for. Here is Chef José Andres and his World Central Kitchen feeding Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border; here are Ukrainians living elsewhere returning home to fight for their country; here are world relief agencies coming together to provide shelters with food, clothing and medicine for displaced persons; here are the Western nations, even the the notoriously neutral Switzerland, coming together to condemn Putin’s unprovoked aggression and coordinate serious sanctions to deter him. And here is the young Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a former television comedian and winner of “Dancing With the Stars,” emerging as a once-in-a-century leader and patriot by refusing to be bullied and by not abandoning the fight for freedom even in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. “I don’t need a ride,” he said when the US offered transport to safety, “I need more ammunition!”
These are visions of leadership, patriotism, and humanity that have been missing in the world; these are visions of hope and inspiration that might finally free us all from the paralyzing fear of forces beyond our control and deliver us from still more winters of discontent. Faith in our better selves is a powerful weapon, as Putin is finding out, and examples of that faith give us all hope whether we’re Ukrainian or not.
So I will continue to enjoy the brilliance of these late-winter sunsets and try to muster the hope they promise for the next day. “One day at a time,” my Mother used to say. Isn’t that how we always make it through the long days of winter into the delights of spring?