Winter Solstice 2011

Winter                                           Moon of the Winter Solstice

Darkness has fallen.  The solstice has begun.  The longest nights of the year occur over the next few days.

The summer solstice, now a half year away in either direction on our orbit around Sol, has faded, faded, faded until the longest day of the year has become the longest night; in the other direction, toward which we move, the summer solstice is a half year away.

Starting now, we will begin, second by second, minute by minute, then hour by hour to turn ourselves toward the light until, at the moment of light’s triumph on June 20th at 6:09 pm, we will begin again a sure glide into winter.

On the Great Wheel it is neither the longest night nor the longest day by itself that matters, rather it is the certainty of their coming, light followed by increasing darkness, darkness followed by increasing light.  This reality, as metaphor, reminds us that no light is so fulsome that it is without darkness and no darkness so total as to be without light.

Too, we can see our lives as a turn of the wheel. In late winter we quicken, growing small within the mother.   We emerge during Beltane, the sun’s heat and the day’s length increases and we mature, grown into adults, as the turn moves toward Mabon and Samain, summer’s end.  Our lives develop fruit and we harvest; as Summer’s End moves toward the Winter Solstice, our hair turns gray and our bodies decline.  In Winter we move toward the darkness, back to the enveloping womb that is our mother, the earth.

Tonight we celebrate the winter season of our lives, the time when our life finishes its run.  This bears no sorrow, nor any fear, since we know that on the morrow, as it has since time begun, the light will again gain strength.  Living or not, it will shine on us, too.

The Dark Time

Samain                                   Moon of the Winter Solstice

Samain in Lima, Peru.  We came back through Lima from a point on the far side of the city just as evening fell.  Even there, Samain’s pale memory, Halloween, saw children in Mickey Mouse costumes, princess costumes, carrying plastic pumpkins, many of them walking toward a large shopping mall in one area, a Halloween party rocking the joint.

These Latin cultures have a certain affinity with Samain as a festival when the veil between the worlds thins and the dead can cross, come back to visit family or to haunt them.  Cemeteries had fresh flowers at grave markers, grass had been cut, masses said, loved ones remembered.  In the White City, the vast and prominent cemetery in Guyaquil, Ecuador, the mausoleums and the multiple, tall columbariums, the markers climbing the hill in the back all speak to an engagement with death, a sort of living and ongoing engagement with death, so very different from the sterile, hospital based, don’t look culture we’ve created here.

Next week, a week from Wednesday, comes the Winter Solstice and Samain will be at an end.  In sorting material about the Winter Solstice, about Yule, about Saturnalia and even Deepavali and Hanukkah the emphasis is mainly on Sol Invictus, as the Romans called him, the Unconquerable Sun.  An emphasis on the long march of daylight that begins on the longest night.

Another, equal concept celebrates the Winter Solstice as the longest night of the year, the culmination of a steady progress by darkness to push back the realm of light.  Both have their mirror in the human mind.  The light of reason shines itself on the questions we have about the way things are.  How things work.  Why this happens and that does not.  Yes.

But.  A child lives in the warm dark for nine months before coming to the light.  Ideas often lie hidden, tucked away somewhere in the darkness of the mind, back there fermenting, gathering weight.  Dreams sometimes pick those ideas up and play with them.  Too, our life is not all rational, not all light, perhaps not even very much so.

Most of life comes from the irrational, the emotional, the intuitive and to worship the light can be a denial of these important elements in our everyday life.

The Great Wheel shows us the way.  We need the fallow time, the restfulness of winter and the cold, just as we need the sunny time, the growing season, the time of thinking.  These needs are not occasional but persistent, coming into our lives again and again and again just as the earth wheels through the sky, repositioning the sun’s light.  Blessed be.

Hello, Darkness

Samain                                   Moon of the Winter Solstice

The holidays.  We’ve got no decorations up.  No Christmas or other holiday music plays here.  We did all of our shopping online.

When I was at Best Buy a week or so ago while hunting for a device to download pictures to Kate’s i-pad (no joy on that front even now), Christmas music played and, as I said here after that, I responded, singing along, even getting the little uptick in the heart that comes with the commercial or family holiday all Americans celebrate at this time of year.

I do miss some of the over doing, present wrapping–ok, I don’t miss present wrapping, decorating the tree–well, I don’t miss getting the tree, putting up the tree or the occasional nasty surprise like the one my friend Mark discovered when he watered and watered this year’s tree only to discover the pan had cracked and water had leaked out under the tree skirt, nor do I miss taking down the tree, cleaning up the fallen needles, Christmas music–responding in the store meant something to me, but only because I’d spent 40 days away from the US and this is one strong cultural tradition, over saturation spoils the effect, church services–well, I bailed on those a long, long time ago.

So, maybe I’m not too sad about our ascetic approach to the holidays.  Besides, the holiday that now means the most to me, the Winter Solstice, comes along now, too, and I do celebrate that one with candles, meditation and writing.

There is, though, a powerful need for reflection, for love, for warmth in all its manifestations.  Sergio, our guide on a tour in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the Americas, explained that winters there, where the nights are long long long, often results in depression.

Another argument for a Ge-centric faith, one that acknowledges the darkness, relishes its nurturing power, rejoices at the return of the light and doesn’t have to get overly metaphysical about it.

These brave festivals of the light like Deepavli, Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and even New Years all respond to the same fundamental astronomical fact, the lengthening of night and the ancient fear that the sun may not return.  In that sense they’re all good, but why not acknowledge, first, the fundamental reason for the season, axial tilt?

Oh. Yeah.

Samain                           Moon of the Winter Solstice

We have entered my favorite season of the year, the slow slide toward the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.  Cue Robert Frost.

(Dandelions at Lapatia Bay, Kate)

In Ushuaia the sun did not set until 9:30 pm.  Here it sets at 4:30.  As we traveled south along the west coast of South America, the days grew longer and longer.  The evening I went into Ushuaia to have supper, it was 8:00 pm and still quite light.  People strolled the streets, window shopping, holding hands, glancing here and there at other walkers.

They’re headed for a date with December 21st as well, but for them it will be the summer solstice and the longest day of the year.  I knew this intellectually, but it was the little things, like taking pictures of the dandelions at Lapatia Bay, the southernmost harbor of Tierra del Fuego, that pressed its reality into my experience.  Let’s see.  Dandelions here.  Leafless trees at home.  Spring.  Autumn.  Oh. Yeah.

 

Changing Seasons

Spring                                               New (Bee Hiving) Moon

We are now over three months away from the Winter Solstice.  The spring equinox has come and gone, yet our yard still has snow, maybe 5 0r six inches, more in spots where the snow plow moved our many snow falls to the side of the driveway.  In the orchard the snow has begun to melt around the apple, pear, cherry and plum trees.  The currants have no snow around them at all and the huchera is free of snow, too.  Those gooseberry plants I didn’t move last fall are still in the orchard, but their destination is the sunny slope of our 650-orchard-late-summer-2010_0175third garden tier.

I have a sizable number of trees with broken branches, many large ones.  They will have to be cut down and moved.  The chain saw!

As soon as the soil becomes workable, I’ll get the cold weather crops in the ground, something I’ve not done so well in the last three years.  The bees will move into their new homes in the orchard where I hope the protection of the garage on their north/northwest side and the sunny aspect of the southern exposure will help them in the winter.  They will be closer to the house, which may prove to be a problem.  If so, they’ll have to go elsewhere next year.

In the spring this man’s heart turns to the garden, the bees, the trees.  I’ve been preparing my body for spring, but I’m a bit 650-raspberries-late-summer-2010_0199further behind than I thought I’d be.  The resistance work has taken a while to work its way into my exercise cycle, but it’s there now.

Learning the language of plants, flowers and vegetables, is a life-long pursuit.  Another school year begins in just a few weeks.

10 Best Lists of 10 Best…

Winter                                                         Full Moon of the Winter Solstice

We have passed the tipping point now.  Though the nights continue long for another 3 or 4 days, we begin to gain back light, a few minutes at a time.  This is a slow process and accounts for much of winter’s length.  Those of us who love the winter find this good news; those who don’t, often head south about now.

This is also a time period when newspapers fill up with the ten top stories, ideas, pictures, sporting events.  A time of lists that attempt to summarize a year, or, in this case, sometimes a decade.  I’ve seen many so far and I enjoy them, always weighing the writers choices against my own, wondering what possessed them to add, say youth condoms, to a list of the year’s 10 best ideas (NYT).

It’s a fun game and I intend to play, too.  Perhaps with my 10 favorite works of art, 10 favorite gardening and bee-keeping moments, 10 favorite family events, maybe my 10 favorite political moments, movies, poems.  I don’t know.  Still mulling, but look for something here before the end of the year.

BTW:  The Thaw Collection of Native American Masterpieces ends on January 9th and Embarrassment of Riches ends on January 2nd.  These are both excellent shows and if you haven’t seen them, I recommend them both.

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice Eve                                            Full Moon of the Winter Solstice

My friend Allison sent me a link to this article, There Goes The Sun.  It contains an excellent digest of solstice activity around the world and also explains some of the astronomical oddities attached to it.  Good reading.

Here’s another tack, a way of setting yourself in the context of the solar system, and, in that way, in the context of the cosmos, headed in one direction–out, external–and another that places you in the context of mother earth, the animal kingdom, mammals, hominids and your self, headed in another direction–inward.

As an astronomical event this solstice marks a transition, for those of us on earth in temperate latitudes, from a day with mostly darkness toward the inverse, experienced on the summer solstice when we make the transition from days with mostly light and again head toward darkness.  From the solar system perspective all that really happens is the earth returns to a spot on its orbit where its angle of declination spreads light out over a wider area, making its affect weaker.  The sun burns on, hydrogen turning to helium, vast amounts of energy released in this fusion reaction, radiating out from the sun toward the planets it holds in thrall.

The sun itself is one of 100-400 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.  “Its name is a translation of the Latin Via Lactea, in turn translated from the Greek Γαλαξίας (Galaxias), referring to the pale band of light formed by stars in the galactic plane as seen from Earth.” Wikipedia.   How many galaxies altogether?  Estimates run as high as 500 billion.  I offer this to give you a sense of the particular significance of one moment in the orbit of one planet around just one of our galaxy’s suns.

Coming in toward you though, we can follow a different ancientrail.  This one responds to the specificity of the solstice and its impact on our northern home–winter.  Squirrels bury nuts.  Bears hibernate.  Dogs grow a coat of inner fur.  Human homes turn on furnaces and humans clothe themselves in ways designed to keep in heat.  Plants like daffodils, tulips, garlic, parsnips and lilies lie at rest in the soil during the cold period brought on by the solstice and the time just before and after it.  We have adapted to the return of the sun to this particular spot in the sky; and, without those adaptations this change in solar intensity would kill us.  In other words this event, so very insignificant when considered against the back drop of 500 billion galaxies, matters critically to those of us here, on Sol’s third planet, Earth.

There is a chance, tomorrow night, the Winter Solstice night, to abide with the darkness and the quiet, Stille Nacht; a chance to light a candle and meditate, take an hour, maybe more, to consider what has taken place in your life since light dominated the day, a time that ended on and around the fall equinox and how it may have changed as the dark began to grow more and more dominant.  This is not, and this is important, a once in a life event; no, this is a once a year time, a point where we can consider our lives, where we can go beyond our animal response to temperature and light, move inward toward the depth of our selves, that inner well where the uniqueness of you dwells.  You can spend time listening to the Self who contains not only who you are today, but who you could become tomorrow.

Or, you could pile up the wood, light the fire, dance naked under the stars and the full winter solstice moon, daring the sun to keep hiding, challenging it to start its journey, or, better to continue its journey, or, even better, challenge the earth to continue its journey so that the suns radiation will strike us with increasing intensity.  The Swedes have such celebrations, will be having them tomorrow night.  Seems a bit much for Minnesota, but there’s always a first time.

The Longest Night of The Year

Samhain                                                            Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

In my sacred world the holiday season has begun to climb toward its crescendo, or, rather, descend.  Would that be a descendo?  As I gradually shifted my view of sacred time from the Christian liturgical calendar to the ancient Celtic calendar, at first I celebrated Samhain, Summer’s End, as my foremost holiday.  It is the Celtic New Year, representing the end of the old year, too, Janus like, like our January 1st.   The growing season ceases and the long fallow season begins as Beltane ends, the season of growth and harvest.  I liked this simple, incisive division of the year, growth and rest.  Samhain also sees the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and the other world, between our reality and the reality of faery.  Life takes on a numinous quality around the end of October and the beginning of November.

In the years when I celebrated Samhain as my chief holiday I began novels then, ended projects begun in the earlier part of the year and thought a lot about ancestors and the delicate, egg shell nature of life.

Samhain still represents a key moment in my sacred year; but over time, as I worked with the Great Wheel, an expanded Celtic calendar that added Imbolc and Lughnasa to the solar holidays, equinoxes and solstices, my soul begin to lean more and more toward the Winter Solstice.  At some point, I don’t even know when, I began to look forward to the Winter Solstice as I once had to Christmas and after it, Samhain.  This was a quiet change, driven by inner movements mostly below consciousness.

Now the longest night has that numinous quality, angel wings brushing by, contemplation and meditation pulsing in the dark, taking me in and down, down to what Ira Progroff calls the inner cathedral, though for me it is more the inner holy well, that deep connection drawing on the waters flowing through the collective unconscious.  I’ve been to a few solstice celebrations, but none of them grabbed me, made me want to return.

I’ve become what the Wiccans call a solitary, practicing my faith at home, according to my own rhythms and my own calendar.  At times I’ve shared my journey through preaching at UU congregations or writing seasonal e-mails and sending them out, but now I write something on this blog and post it on the Great Wheel page.  Otherwise, on the Winter Solstice, my high holy day, it’s a candle and some reading, long hours of quiet.  This Tuesday.  The longest night of the year.

Snow

Samhain                                                  Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice comes in a week.  The longest night.  I’ll be there, remembering the triple Goddess, Bridgit, burning a candle and honoring the deep inside of us all.

Yesterday I used the Himalaya’s as a metaphor for parking lot snow.  According to the newspaper this morning I shot too low.  We have all new mountain ranges going up in parking lots and city streets throughout the metro and they’ll be there a long, long time.  This is not a good thing for city budgets.  Snow plowing is expensive.

Looking at snow mountains and threading my way through snowy city streets I have to take this body to its test.  Bye.

Nick

Samhain                                       Waning Thanksgiving Moon

The Nick Caspers murder trial will not happen.  Nick decided to plead guilty to Felony A Murder, a charge that gives a chance at parole, as opposed to the Felony AA that he faced at trial.  That one carried life without parole.

As Woolly Paul Strickland said, we all have done things in our lives for which we were not brought to account, not so for Nick.  I share with Paul a hope that the judge will be merciful in his sentencing.  The extraordinary impact an event like a drunken fight in a small North Dakota town can have on individuals and families near and far makes me aware of the lives impacted by each person involved in our criminal justice system, victims and perpetrators alike.  On TV the criminal is often a bad person and the prosecution and the victims good people; in life, the shades of gray cover the just and the unjust.

Nick enters the darkest part of this long and unfinished journey in December.  There is, of course, the irony of his situation counterpoised to the holiday lights and Santa Claus and families gathered in churches singing Christmas carols.  Not so ironic, and perhaps more helpful, is the season seen from the perspective of the Great Wheel.  In December the earth reaches the point in its orbit, the Winter Solstice, when the darkness that has gathered strength ever since the Summer Solstice reaches its zenith on the longest night of the year.

The Great Wheel teaches us that the descent into darkness is never the whole story.  In fact, it shows us that even the darkest night bears within it the seeds of increasing light, an increasing light that will lead, in time, to a new growing season.  Owning the descent for what it is, a trip down into the underworld, but a descent that has a path leading back to the surface world, is a strong narrative for Nick and his next few weeks and months.

Mikki and Pete, Nick’s adoptive parents, Nick, Jim and all the South Dakota folks:  we’re with you as you make this journey.  You don’t have to go it alone.