Venus, the evening star, is sparkling bright and high in the southern sky this evening as blue dusk ebbs into darkness. We’re three days from Winter Solstice, the longest night/shortest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, and night falls soon and swiftly after sunset.
Winter Solstice is the year’s “hinge,” or turning point, when the sun rises and sets at its apparent southernmost spot on the horizon during its annual journey from south to north. ‘Apparent’ because it’s Earth’s movement that makes the sun appear to move through our sky.
Regardless of which celestial body is actually moving, the days grow shorter until Winter Solstice, when the sun appears to stick in place.
(That seeming “stuckness” at both the southward and northward ends of the sun’s apparent journey, when it seems to pause at its rising and setting points for a few days, gave rise to the name solstice, which comes from the Latin for “stands still.”)
And then, as if impelled by some extraordinary power, the sun gradually begins to move its rising and setting points again, heading northward after Winter Solstice, the days slowly lengthening and the nights ebbing. The darkness that has overtaken the Northern Hemisphere recedes, pushed away by the growing light.
No wonder that the world’s cultures have long celebrated holidays involving light: Solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, the ancient Persian festival of lights… When the darkness seems to close in and stay, we humans naturally hope for a new beginning, a return to spring, light and the rekindling of life.
Colored lights on a Christmas tree
This year, the darkness of impending winter feels metaphorical as well as literal, and the gloom of world and national events is reinforced by the bitter cold weather that has settled across at least the northern part of the country.
I find myself burrowing inward, hungry for light of all sorts. The light of inspiration, of generosity, of kindness, of knowledge and understanding. Of cooperation and community.
The light of the kind of hope which inspired Emily Dickinson to write,
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
That kind of hope is not a passive longing for some imagined, better future. It’s a real force, the voice of life itself, of all the lives–human and moreso–who make up this world. It grows out of our collective drive to flourish, which depends not on passive longing or next quarter’s profits, not on ego or self-gratification, but on our ability to contribute to the interwoven and vibrant community of life on this green and blue planet.
I am hungry for that sort of hope and the light of the soul it brings. And for the literal light too, of longer days, of the sun’s warmth, of new growth and green.
I believe in hope of the kind that perches in the soul and never quits singing. We can forget to listen, we can be overwhelmed by events outside our control that seem to dim that voice. But like the sun, finally, slowly, moving north again to bring longer days, warmth, and spring, the light of the human spirit, of compassion and kindness, of wisdom and generosity will gain strength and return its warmth to our world again.
As long as we each do what we can to nurture that light.
Which is why, on Wednesday night, I will light the darkness of my little property the way Richard and I did together for so many years. I will set out lunch-size paper bags along my walk and deck, each filled with a generous scoop of sand for weight and fire-protection, and light a votive candle to place in each.
And as I light those luminarias and watch their glow spread in the darkness of winter’s longest night, I will renew my vow to live in a way that spreads that light in the figurative sense, of understanding and compassion for all beings. I will work to return spring, to restore the earth’s green and vibrant communities as I work to restore hope in all who seem stuck in darkness or fear.
On Wednesday night, I will also carry luminarias to the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden, and place them in a circle around “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. It will be my last Winter Solstice here in Salida, my last time to light his work this way.
If you are so moved, join me in spreading the light on Wednesday night. Light a candle, put out a few luminarias, string up colored lights, or whatever.
As those lights glow in the darkness, join me too, in vowing to extend the light. Make this holiday season one of enlightenment and action, of kindness and compassion of all sorts.
Together, we can light the darkness, and renew the good in the world.
Matriculation with luminarias as the full moon rose on Winter Solstice in 2013