The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

Storm clouds over Elliott Bay, Seattle

You wouldn’t know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We’ve forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won’t be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We’ve decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we’re just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can’t stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year’s end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I’ve had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I’ve looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon’s knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I’ve had to accept that many of those who’ve known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage – defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I’d do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, “Things are better with you here.” Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way – thank you, Richard Hugo – of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I’m not one for portents, but I’ll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I’ll take the raptor’s presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice
Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.

Can I Keep the Music?

It drives Brendan batty when I forget to turn off the car radio (yes, radio. We’re working with the shabby-chic theme by keeping the original “sound system” in our 2001 Toyota Corolla). And since I’m a big fan of the upper end of the volume dial, cranking the ignition generally means getting a blast of All Things Considered or Shabazz Palaces (if it’s gonna radio, it’s gotta be public. Commercial radio ranks near the top of things that send pointed, ruby-red fingernails screeching down my internal blackboard).

Yesterday I did it to myself. After laps at the pool and a decaf Americano at El Diablo, I tucked myself into our grey, dented chariot and revved her up. Out of the plastic speakers came roaring The Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. I did what any sensible person would do faced with the dozens of soaring voices of the Robert Shaw Chorale. I turned the volume higher and added my own uncertain soprano to the mix.

The Messiah, written by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel in 1741, is one of the Christmas season’s most iconic works. It was originally intended as an Easter composition, celebrating the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It didn’t become a popular Yuletide tradition until well into the 19th century, but now it swells and soars in cathedrals, concert halls and car radios during November and December, as sure a sign of Christmas as the flocks of poinsettia that congregate at Fred Meyer as soon as the Halloween candy is taken away. And I never tire of it.

I adore sacred Christmas music, particularly medieval and Renaissance English, French and German carols in a minor key: O Holy Night, Silent Night, O Come O Come Emmanuel, What Child Is This, Coventry Carol, Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella, the Wexford Carol…They hint of mystery and magic, of cold winter nights when the sky bursts with bright stars or the air is hushed by falling snow. This music framed my childhood memories of Christmas and is the foundation of the joy and wonder for the season that I hope I never outgrow.

The irony of my adoration of sacred music is that I do not believe the mythology which inspired the compositions. I’m one hundred percent on board that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, a great teacher and humanitarian, and that he was a martyr to his faith. But it stops there for me. I have no use for religion of any kind. From my upbringing, which included stops in Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational Evangelical, Protestant this-that-and-every-which-way churches, I turn full circle to the unhindered state in which I was born. With that slate wiped clean, I willingly admit the presence of a higher power- God, if you will, since we’re speaking English and of the Western World. I’m not an atheist nor an agnostic; to put it simply, I don’t believe in a Messiah. I believe the North Star of my moral compass is a force which surpasses all understanding, but that this force has not, nor will it ever, take human form.

So, this could be a tricky time of the year. It is Christmas after all; how does a non-Christian celebrate a holiday honoring the birth of Christ? Of course, the holiday season is more than just the 25th of December (a date aligned with pre-Christian seasonal traditions, not the birthdate of Jesus). It is a season that transcends religion, that embraces and celebrates the universality of nature and humankind.

This time of year is powerful. I have come to regard winter as that most peaceful and private of seasons, when I find myself listening the most closely to the silence within and without. It is a season of renewal, of the longest night that heralds the beginning of growing light and life. No matter the nature of one’s faith, we come together at the holidays to celebrate family, tradition, compassion and peace. We bring light to dark nights through our music, our dinner tables, our rituals and our hearts- which seem to open a little wider before we set shoulder to the grindstone on January 2.

This is what I celebrate. I celebrate the nature of faith that is most deeply present this time of year: faith in tradition, faith in the promise of a new year, faith that hope is greater than anger, that peace will overcome conflict. That music is one of the most potent expressions of emotion makes sacred holiday music a powerful blend of tradition, hope and divinity. I’ll turn up the volume on any of these any chance I get.

Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!