Monday, December 21, 2009

The shortest day, the longest night

"On this longest night of the year, before the light overcomes the dark, sit in the dark (alone or with others) and think about the importance of darkness. ...Be grateful for the darkness that soothes us to sleep, the darkness that animals require for hibernation. Give thanks for sheltering dark places: the rich earth where seeds germinate, the caves that harbored our ancient ancestors (and where some of our sun gods were born), the cellars that keep us safe from tornadoes, the wombs that provide our first nourishment. Acknowledge the darkness of suffering, which can deepen our appreciation of life and strengthen our connection to one another."
In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth, copyright 2005 by Patricia Montley

My friend Sue sent me the above meditation on the Winter Solstice this morning. Also this morning, the comic strip Arlo and Janis by Jimmy Johnson depicted a sequence in which Arlo is frantically shaking a sleeping Janis awake, imploring her to hurry. Did we oversleep? she asks, alarmed. No, he answers. It’s the shortest day of the year.

The latter perspective makes me laugh, reminding me of my attempts over the years to explain “shortest day of the year” to my children, and long before that my effort to understand it myself. I still remember being frightened at my sister’s explanation, when she as an all-knowing 8-year-old took the reverse perspective and told me it would be not the shortest day but the longest night of the year. I feared lying in the dark for hours and hours and hours, listening to every knock and creak as the long night wore on and on.

But Patricia Montley’s meditation resonates more with how I really feel about the Solstice these days. I’ve learned to welcome deep winter as a time more conducive to internal growth, introspection. In the summer we spend so much time outside and active, biking or swimming; in the fall it’s all about activities, from school starting up to fall sports to get-togethers with friends we didn’t see during the summer. And then in late October begins the steady series of holiday festivities.

Winter, after Christmas, lends itself to quieter pursuits: more reading, more writing, even more cooking and housecleaning. Quiet indoor activities, more meditative in nature than those we pursue during warmer weather and sunnier days.

At the time of year, with the nights so long and quiet, I stand outside in the dark, thinking about the frozen earth drawing inward into itself, and I think about the Pagan roots of Yule, the craving for warmth and light and abundance that led ancient celebrants to light fires and commence with revelry just around the date of the longest night of the year. Although my family is fortunate in that light, heat and food are available to us throughout the winter in abundance, those same urges resonate with me. As the long dark cold nights settle in, I find it uplifting to think about the ancient Pagan rites of staving off winter with burning logs and loud singing.

And I wonder if those ancient people always knew that the shortest day of the year would come and go and the days would grow longer again. Were there some who didn’t trust that it was cyclical, who worried that the days might just keep growing shorter, the nights longer and colder?

The ebb and flow of daylight give us reason for optimism. Although the long nights of darkness don’t especially bother me and are in some ways a comfort, my 11-year-old has a harder time in the winter months; he tends to grow a little dispirited as the days shorten. So as we face the Solstice, I look forward myself to another month or two of hunkering down in the darkness with soup recipes and good books. But I also look forward to spring, when Tim will get out his baseball glove and his disposition will start to brighten again.

1 comment:

  1. These are very interesting meditations. I too like the variance of the seasons and how each one evokes a different mood and quality of activity.

    Makes me wonder if I could ever live in a place like LA where the outdoorsy brightness prevails all the times.

    Re the shortest day of the year: I love how the darkest day also marks the beginning of the opposite trend - from now on each day gets longer and longer.