A Word of Resolution for 2016

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them.

Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

 

January is tricky. I don’t know if this happens where you live, and I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest long enough to have scrubbed memories of common, dull Januarys elsewhere. But there is no darkness like that of a January morning. In fact, here at least, Sunrise simply defies the Solstice that is weeks old—rising later than ever, while Sunset tugs at the other end, stretching away from the day, striding farther across the Pacific Ocean. I notice the creeping length of the afternoons in increments: Last week at this time it was pitch black when I left class, now there is a faint glow of white across the Olympics. But the mornings. Oh. They grow heavier and darker.

 

I used to watch the calendar—where the timing of Sunrises and Sunsets are writ in tiny italics—for the day deep in January when the sunrise began to tick backwards. On that day my soul would inhale deeply and rise toward the light.

 

This year, though, I haven’t minded. I’m out early most mornings, grasping a chunk of fresh air and getting a few miles under my feet before I put my seat in a chair. Something about starting in the dark, in the privacy of absolute shadow, allows me to hold my inner stillness for a little while longer. Several miles later, as I close the distance between hill and home, it is light and I must reenter the world, share the sidewalk and the rain with other bodies, others’ thoughts.

 

It’s the first time I can recall ever embracing January (except, of course, in New Zealand, where January is a cathedral of light and July is an ache of chill and damp.)

 

Last January I joined the practice of naming a word to define the year to come. My word for 2015 was a sensation, a representation of feeling, a metaphysical concept wrapped up in a gorgeous set of syllables: charmolypi, loosely translated as joyful sorrow, a kind of letting go.

 

This year, however, I am going with something simpler. A verb. A drawing in, rather than a letting go.

 

 

Embrace. The solace of shadow, the singular sweetness of the dark season. No longer keeping my head down in January, simply waiting for the darkness to end.

 

Embrace. This season of madness. Book launch two weeks away, my every moment accounted for, writing guest blog posts, doing interviews, preparing for book talks, this busyness that borders on frantic as I reach out, connect, and try not to slip on the ice of my own expectations.

 

Embrace. The distant sparkle of creativity, the flashes in my periphery, reminding me that although I am here now and the open meadow of the blank page is a few days’ journey in the distance, I’m only just visiting and I’ll be back my story home, soon.

 

Embrace. That pain deep in my hip and groin grinding like a pepper mill. I’ve stopped running, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. And as my hips shake loose and my back releases from the confines of a runner’s constricted muscles, I have access to yoga asanas I never thought possible. My body, embracing me in gratitude, my ego rebuilding. I walk 8 miles in my running shoes. I feel no pain.

 

Embrace. The softening of my shell in the warmth of others’ support. The love and encouragement that has come my way in the past year leaves me trembling. I shed a carapace of doubt and insecurity and learn to accept others’ generosity with grace and in wonder.

 

Embrace. The singularity of this time, as uncertain and strange, as full of bright lights and blue shadows as it is. For it will change, as all moments do, blurring into the next or bursting apart like a camera flash.

 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.~ T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”

 

 

 

Solstice Stillness

It’s in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer ‘How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?’ Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

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the space between words Copyright 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and … trying to change it.” Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

To Know the Dark

There is no day I anticipate and welcome as much as Winter Solstice. Like many of my fellow Pacific Northwesterners, I am a diagnosed Vitamin D deficient. I crave light with the trembling desperation of a junkie. Every morning from the Winter Solstice through the end of February, I note the sunrise and sunset, confirming the day is a minute longer than the day before. Then two minutes. Until one day, though it is still Winter, I’m running in 6:00 a.m.dawn.

Winter Solstice is the true beginning of my new year, a day without the entanglements of religion, gifts, resolutions, overeating or travel. It is a day for reflection and remembrance, for letting go and looking forward.

This year I felt a particular need to mark the turning of the season. The last day of 2012 and the early months of 2013 were filled with darkness; at the time it was hard to imagine a way forward. Yet, by the time we reached the Spring Equinox, we’d transformed our lives. Like sunflowers following their heliotrope instincts, we’d turned our faces to the light. I wanted to acknowledge that transformation as this year of turmoil, transition and finally, peace, drew to a close.

I’ve practiced yoga for many years, but with the exception of some weepy Savansanas (Corpse Pose, a lying-down meditation) after a particularly intense practice, I’ve avoided its mystical elements. Not out of skepticism or indifference, but from an acknowledgment that there is only so much a busy brain and body can focus on. My practice has been physically and mentally transformative and I’ve benefitted emotionally from the residual grace of active meditation.

This Winter Solstice offered me the opportunity to take part in a unique celebration that was also a fundraiser for a local center for victims of domestic violence. The event was a group ceremony of 108 Sun Salutations. A Sun Salutation is a series of 8 or 12 poses performed in a flowing sequence, following the natural rhythm of yogic breathing—deep inhalations and exhalations. The number 108 is sacred in many Eastern religions, which you can explore here and here, but I most enjoy knowing there are 108 stitches on a baseball and that Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter. And now I enjoy knowing I can move though 108 Sun Salutations non-stop and not hobble, wince or otherwise regret it the next day.

We were instructed at the beginning of the three hour practice to set an intention for our evening. My intention was to allow gratitude to carry me through the physical challenge. Gratitude for a strong, healthy body. Gratitude for opportunities to do the things I love, in a place of beauty and community. Gratitude for the love which surrounds me. Gratitude that even in a time of darkness, my husband and I had each other and we had the strength and the resources to change our lives. The women who seek help from places such as Dove House are in crisis; they have few, if any, resources left. I offered this practice in gratitude for an organization that supports, shelters and empowers women and children escaping domestic violence.

Completing 108 Sun Salutations was humbling, exhausting and soul-stirring. I left my body behind and focused on one breath after another to make it to the end. The collective spirit of our community brought light and breath to women and children in need. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have given and received so much in return.

Wishing all a gracious embrace of the darkness and a glorious return to the light.

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

—Wendell Berry

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Sunrise over Admiralty Bay ©Julie Christine Johnson 2013

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

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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.

Winter Solstice

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Winter Solstice. The words sparkle like starlight reflecting off snow. They whisper of  the chill of dusk that falls heavily into long night. They hold the glow of windows warmed by firelight and candles, opaque with the steam of hot soup and rich cocoa.  It is year’s most mysterious night, when the sun abandons an entire hemisphere and Winter stakes her claim in the frigid void. For thousands of years humankind has sought to chase away the demons of ice and darkness by creating legends and rituals of light: Yule, Saturnalia, Yalda – traditions predating Christianity which celebrate the inexorable march of the seasons.

From the depths of winter’s darkness rises the promise of light – this is the great beauty of Solstice. It is a beginning. Each day Winter slips in a moment more of light, as slowly and stealthily as an icicle melting in a minute of January sunshine. But the moments build. Suddenly, about the time you are tying a bow on a box of chocolates for your Valentine, you realize that skies which once dimmed at 4 are still streaked with sunset at 5:30.

I vow this year to relish the dark, to delight in the cold, to embrace a season that is as fleeting as Spring. It is the time of year when I can read a novel in an afternoon, curled on the sofa, safe from the descending dark and rain and free from the distractions of sunlight and warmth. The projects I’ve put off all year suddenly become the only things I want to do- the scrapbooks, the correspondence, practicing the guitar, the all-day cooking sessions, thumbing through my old Italian textbooks, trying to see all the Best Picture Oscar nominees before the March ceremony. Inside things that should be done only when the weather outside is frightful.

Our Christmas tree is brightly lit and festooned with memories in shapes of snowmen, St. Nicholas, reindeer, and shimmering globes, and it lifts my heart when it glows solitary in the darkened room. I have always been anxious to dismantle the tree as soon as the clutter of holiday gifts has been cleared; this year I will leave it to lighten our spirits into the New Year.

I will celebrate this turning point from darkness to light, but promise not to turn so quickly toward Spring that I miss the beauty and mystery shimmering just inside Winter’s gloom.