Lighting the Solstice Darkness

Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice, the day the sun “stands still” in its apparent journey southward, is the turning-point in my personal year.

The calendar year runs ten more days past solstice, but to me, the old year ends the day the sun pauses, when the tilt in earth’s axis–our planet rotates through space at a surprising 23.5 degrees off vertical–means the Northern Hemisphere is pointed as far from the sun as it will get.

After Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere eases ever so slowly back toward the sun’s light and warmth—the logical beginning of the new year to me.

Winter Solstice is the year’s shortest day in this hemisphere, averaging nine and a half hours long, depending on latitude and topography, leaving about fourteen and a half hours of darkness.

Sunset at 4:35 p.m.

Sunset at 4:35 p.m.

If you live where hills or mountains block the sunrise and sunset, as I do, your shortest day may be considerably shorter.

The sun here rose over a 10,000-foot-high ridge at a few minutes before eight yesterday, and set at behind a 13,000-plus-foot peak at about four-thirty. That’s only an eight-and-a-half hour day and a long fifteen and a half hours of night.

Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice with luminarias, votive candles in paper bags. (These “little lights” are called farolitos in northern New Mexico and luminarias across the rest of the Southwest and Mexico.)

Each year on solstice night we would throw a “Light the Darkness” party to celebrate earth’s turn toward light and warmth. A crowd of friends and family would help us fill, place and light luminarias along our half-block.

Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida's Christmas Mountain in the background.

Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida’s Christmas Mountain in the background.

We’d troop inside to get warm, drink the eggnog I make just once a year (scroll to the bottom of the link for the recipe), and nosh on holiday goodies.

Outside, the little candles in their bags glowed, lighting the longest night; inside, the love and cheer lit our hearts.

The year Richard died, we held the celebration of his life on the Saturday closest to Winter Solstice, and the crowd who turned out helped us light luminarias in his memory. Last year, my first full year alone, I revived the Light the Darkness party.

This year I intended to, but couldn’t. Terraphilia, the house that accommodated crowds, is no longer mine, my new, much smaller nest isn’t finished, and the truth is, Richard was the one who thrived on crowds and loved a big party. (I did my best to hide in the kitchen.)

Still, I wanted to honor the turning of the season and year, and the tradition that so delighted my late love. I needed to light the metaphorical darkness I feel from national and international events, and the personal darkness that creeps in from time to time as I confront the daily task of shaping a new life alone.

Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year....

Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year….

So I pulled the box of luminaria bags off a shelf in the garage, dug out a bucket of sand, found candles, and filled two dozen luminarias, just enough to line the retaining wall that will one day (soon, I hope) support my front entry deck, and to light the seating area and steps on the street side of Creek House.

At dusk, I lit each candle, and watched as the bags began to glow, magnifying each tiny flame. Then I went inside and made a batch of eggnog to toast my late love, and to “jar” as gifts.

A bitter wind sprang up as I headed to bed, and I wondered if my luminaria candles would stay lit. Or if the bags would catch fire in the wind and burn up. Or if roving mule deer–Salida’s yard rats–would eat them. (Creative worrying is one of my talents.)

Still lit at dawn after the longest night

Still lit at dawn after the longest night

This morning when I woke and looked outside, all two dozen luminarias glowed in the stillness before dawn.

A small miracle, and one I take as a good sign for the beginning of my new year.

26 thoughts on “Lighting the Solstice Darkness

  1. Dearest Susan – What an inspiration for us all. You and your farolitos and all they symbolize light the way to walk through this world. Thank you! A lovely Winter Solstice to you, my dear friend.

    • Dawn, comadre, sister of my heart–we have both had dark days this past year, and my wish for both of us is a gentler new year, one where the lessons aren’t so hard on the heart. Enjoy your holidays with Noe and your family. Remember to take time for you in the whirl of these days….

  2. A touching and inspirational piece. Light the darkness: What a powerful metaphor for all of us as we contemplate the paths our journey will take us this coming year. Regardless of my choices, I do know that I am inspired to walk with intention.

    • Marva, I think of this time of the year when the rhythms of life slow (except, of course, for human holiday party frenzies!) as the contemplative season, time to look back and look forward as they year turns. The metaphors of light are such a powerful part of this season; we can use them to deepen the spiritual part of our every days, and enrich our lives as we do. Blessings to you as you go into an exciting year with a Fulbright Fellowship to look forward to!

  3. Susan, What a thing you wrote! It is quite beautiful and a sure help to anyone who reads it and I thank you. Love, Carolyn

    • Carolyn, Barry Lopez once said to me that he thought the best thing you could say about a book or other piece of writing was that it would help spread the light in the world. So thank you for that lovely compliment! Blessings of the solstice to you….

  4. I Love the Luminaries, Susan, and your personal placement at your new little house .. sharing winter solstice with your Love Richard. May the new Year bring you much light & much happiness~

    • Kathy, Thank you. I am hopping hoping (that was a Fruedian slip!) this year to find my way to a sustainable pace for this solo life. I’m too used to charging forward full speed and having someone there to pick me up when I collapse. :( May the new year bring you and your native garden beauty and rain!

  5. Lovely as always,Susan.I’m so glad you lit your candles.It is a good start to your new year.

    My granddaughter would rather I didn’t worry so much,creatively or otherwise,so I’ve tried to use the word concerned in place of worried as practice.

    Wishing all happiness during the holiday season and a joyful year ahead.

    • Jan, I think using the word “concerned” is good practice. I also think worry has its uses–as long as it’s not paralyzing or destructive, it can simply be “practice” for what’s ahead. Happiness and joy to you too!

  6. Susan, what a lovely piece, what beautiful photos. I felt as though my world was moving gently into balance when I saw your luminarias were lit and that they remained so throughout the darkness and into the new dawn. I saved the photo of these beautiful pieces of light with Christmas Mountain in the background to my computer.

    As for “Salida’s yard rats” I could only laugh. We had a pair that bedded down each night behind the garage and another one that took his daily breakfast in the front yard. This nightly/daily practice drove our dog, Abbey, to distraction but didn’t phase the deer since they knew she was confined inside the fence.

    The turn to the new year and to new beginnings did indeed begin with the coming of the light. May yours be a gentle, peaceful and renewed blessing.

    Sending hugs :)

    • Lindy, Thank you for the lovely compliment and the wonderful blessing for the new year.

      On Salida’s mule deer, I bet the two bedding down at your house drove Abbey nuts! The deer herd has grown exponentially since you moved away according to the wildlife officers. We used to have 50 to 100 deer in town; now we have 500 to 1,000. That’s too many, and it shows in how shabby and skinny they are, and how many are walking wounded, limping and males with misshapen antlers. It’s sad. Something will thin the herd eventually, but it may not be what we would most like….

      I wish you ever-greater joys of your Michigan place and the joy of nourishing it and you through the seasons!

  7. Good morning Susan,
    I am grateful for your lovely blog, and this one’s new light, for you and those of us who connect with you. As I felt the first lengthening of day yesterday afternoon new energy began to dawn. May all the blessings that have augured well for you be fulfilled with peace, support, respect and much love and joy in this 2014.
    Warmest best,

    • Hello Rae,
      Thank you for that thoughtful wish. May your writing continue to open new doors for you as the days lengthen into warmth and spring. Blessings of the returning light!

  8. Susan,
    I’ve been catching up on reading your blog. Can’t believe I haven’t checked in since November.
    Thank you for sharing your journey in discovering who this new solitary person is. I am honored that you trust your readers with your grief.
    And thank you for sharing all the pictures of your new home. Its coming along nicely.
    I’m in the process of reopening my own blog after a hiatus of three years and yours is a fine example of what I would like mine to be.

    • Sherry, How lovely to hear from you! I appreciate your comments–it’s not easy, as you know, to keep up this kind of writing. But the rewards are huge in the community that developed and the wise and wonderful responses. I’ll look forward to seeing your Simple Living blog grow.

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