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ANDREA BURKE
Rochester, NY, 14620

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Blog

Surviving the Cold, Hard Winter

Andrea Burke

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(Excerpt from the unedited, unpublished book that may or not ever see the full light of day.)

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? Aurora Borealis. The very name feels like a dance of words.

One of my favorite books is a child's picture book — The Fiddler of the Northern Lights. It's about a man who plays his fiddle on a frozen pond and that's when the sky comes out to dance for him. He was a man of mystery and appeared out of nowhere. I swore I heard the fiddler that night. I could feel his strings bending and singing as I locked my gaze on heaven.

In the middle of February in Point Hope, Alaska, "cold" didn't just mean that you filled a mug with coffee to keep your hands toasty. Cold meant you kept track of the minutes on the clock while you were outside. The locals gave us their fur-lined coats and warned us not to wander around at night because the polar bears were hungry. They were known for hiding behind doors, ready to pounce. They told us the story of one who stood back against the wall outside of a bar in the night, looking to snatch an unlikely patron who tried to stumble home. So we stayed indoors mostly — taking the occasional outing to speed off on snowmobiles, get thrown about on dog sleds and walk under the giant whale ribs that lined the border of the cemetery.

But there was the one night when the world swirled with wonder.

I put on my coat, the one I brought. The thinner one. The one that definitely wasn't designed to withstand an Arctic chill. And then I put on the coat they gave me. The fur and skin. The one heavy with warmth and history.

I cracked the door slightly to see, and yes, there it was. The colors of another world seemed to break into the atmosphere, larger than life itself. Silent waves crashing against the black sky, spilling into one another like a watercolor wash. The milky way under a river of green.  I wasn’t sure if I felt fear or awe, or if that was what Godly fear was — wonder and joy while shaking in my boots. I pulled the fur close to my face. Five minutes. That’s all I had before I was in danger of any kind of damage to my skin. So covered my mouth, and I breathed in deep. I smelled the icy air. I stood alone in the snow just off the steps from the porch and I looked up.

I know I felt small. In my memory, I feel small. If there was ever a moment I wanted to fall on my knees and pray for my heart to be one with space, and the moon; the stars and the sky and the One who created it all, it was then.

Five minutes came to a close and I stepped back inside. It’s no wonder that the coat of another man's work and hunting was my cover in that season. I felt a lot like Jacob. I felt like it was possible God was going to forget about blessing me. I couldn’t get things right and I was pulling on someone else’s beliefs of faith and prosperity and pretending they were mine. I pulled on fur like Esau’s arms and reached toward Heaven, asking if He’d accept me that way. Could I possibly perform enough to get him to accept me? Under the electric gaze of heaven, I begged.

But I know now, that wasn't what He was after. He saw me already. I stood under that sky and asked Him where He was. If God was here in this land, He surely didn’t show His faithfulness in green trees and ripening fruit. He showed it in the provision of animals; in the spilling of blood. Heaven was reminding me then that if I wanted to see the beauty of God, some blood had to be spilled. I needed the protection and the cover from a life that was not my own. But I didn't see that then. I saw only barren land and emptiness in my heart. In the earth where the permafrost stays, you keep the things that nourish. That's what the native people did. So I dug into my heart and I tried to find a place to put God. But I felt like it was getting colder and harder by the day.

And the polar bears were everywhere.