In Wisconsin, fall yields to winter in fits and starts. Although we’ve already had our first snow, there are still a few trees stubbornly clinging to what little life they have left, and their cracked leaves shiver at every passing breeze. The temperatures fell solidly below freezing all last week, but this weekend Milwaukee warmed up just enough to gift us with two days of frigid, clinging rain.

For once, I am ready for winter. Typically, I would not go so gently into the cold and eternal-seeming night, but I prefer fresh snow to the T.S. Eliot-grade wasteland we’re witnessing at present, and if we are going to have winter for the next five months, there’s no sense in forestalling the inevitable. But Wisconsin, it seems, is bent on preserving the Advent spirit—teasing us with an evanescent first snow, but refusing to give us snow-frosted tree branches and proper sledding hills until we’ve been sufficiently patient. Try as I might to avoid it, I should probably give Advent its time of day, too.

Historically, Advent has been my favorite liturgical season, but this year, my feelings are a little more complicated. I am torn between my desire to stay separated from church and my longing to experience something of spiritual significance at the darkening of the year. I know that many people derive spiritual fulfillment from extra-ecclesial sources, but this is my first Advent without a church, and I am honestly not sure where to begin. In other words, despite my litany of previous posts to the contrary, Advent may yet find me sneaking into back-row pews and singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

All familiar attachment to the church aside, however, the four virtues of Advent strike me as particularly important points of reflection after an existentially formative year. Over the past year, my hope, love, joy, and peace have all been tested up to their breaking point. I have experienced disillusionment with my career path, my job(s), my faith, and my mental health. As illusion after illusion has been stripped away, I have made unprecedented changes in thought, word, and deed. I decided to pursue teaching as a profession, enrolled in college, stopped going to church, and started going to counseling. I am learning daily how to better love and build a life with my boyfriend, as well as how to be a true friend, a loyal sister, and a good citizen. For as challenging as this year has been, it has not been without commensurate rewards of hope, love, joy, peace, and ultimately, wisdom.

I am unsure if I will darken a church door this Advent season, or when I will finally come to a decision about Jesus, or when my mental health struggles will be manageable enough to call them “resolved.” But I am sure that no matter my lot, Wisconsin’s December snow will come. Most people will complain about driving through it, but no one will whine about how it looks adorning their twinkle-lit door garland or how excited their kids are to make their first trip to the sledding hill.

And on Christmas morning, having gone to church the previous evening, my family will wake up, eat cinnamon biscuits, and open gifts around the Christmas tree. We will stay in our pajamas until dinner, and then we will eat more than we ought.

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