Lighting the Darkness (again)

A luminaria bag from Richard’s memorial service.

For many years, Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice by inviting friends and family to help us “light the darkness” by filling and lighting dozens of luminarias to glow through the year’s longest night. The little candles on a scoop of sand in a fragile paper bag lined our half-block of reclaimed industrial property, and their light shone until dawn.

After lighting the luminarias (not easy in the cold and wind!), the crowd trooped inside to sample my Sinfully Delicious Eggnog, which I made by the gallon for the occasion (literally, using four dozen eggs, two pounds of confectioner’s sugar, many cups of dark rum, and a dairy-cow’s worth of cream), and other goodies. The sound of laughter and happy voices filled our house into the night as the luminarias glimmered outside. The warmth and love were palpable for days afterwards.

Solstice and the Light the Darkness party were a highlight of the year for Richard, and when we had to move to Denver for his radiation treatments during the first year of his brain cancer, he was low about missing the celebration until I decided to throw the party via the internet. Our community of friends, family, and readers of my blog sent in images from around the world, and in Salida, a small crowd gathered to light luminarias and continue the tradition at our house. (Thank you all!)

We told ourselves that we would revive the Light the Darkness party the next Winter Solsice, but it was not to be. My mother was dying that winter, and we commuted back and forth to Denver so I could manage her hospice care and be with my folks through her end.

Luminarias ltght “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden. (It’s the slanting stone atop two stones that open like a book on the far left side of the photo.)

The following Winter Solstice, we did light the darkness again, but Richard was only with us in spirit: Molly and I revived the tradition for Richard’s Celebration of Life, a moving and racous remembrance in the ballroom of Salida’s Steamplant Theatre and Conference Center. The luminarias, with messages to Richard written on the bags, circled his sculpture, “Matriculation,” in the Strawn/Grether Sculpture Garden outside.

I revived the Light the Darkness party the following Winter Solstice, partly because our friends and family loved the celebration and partly in Richard’s memory. But the next year I had just moved into the little house, and it didn’t have the space for the kind of big sprawling party that Richard had loved, and I didn’t have the heart. I did light luminarias on Solstice, and I made a batch of eggnog and gifted it in jars.

This year, my first Winter Solstice at home in Wyoming, I was determined to light the darkness again. Both for the symbolism of illuminating the year’s longest night as a promise that warmth and life will return, as well as the act of spreading light and love to brighten a dark time in our country and the world.

I also wanted to avoid the divisiveness of today’s discourse and celebrate the winter holidays by being inclusive. It’s no coincidence that winter holidays in the Northern Hemisphere, including Channukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Yule revolve around light. They all fall around Winter Solstice, that “hinge-pin” where the year turns from the darkness of those long nights back toward longer and brighter days and the warmth of spring. Celebrating Solstice itself honors all of those traditions in a spiritual way without choosing just one.

Luminarias light the frozen darkness of my front walk on Gerrans Ave in Cody.

So last Thursday, on a still and cold evening, a couple of dozen friends and I lit the darkness: That afternoon, I poured sand into paper bags, put a candle in each, and set out 50 luminarias. At dusk, friends arrived to help light them. Afterwards, we went inside and drank homemade eggnog and other festive beverages, nibbled on holiday goodies, and enjoyed each other’s company. Just as with the parties in Richard’s day, laughter and love filled my house, blessing it with the joy of the season. The luminarias glowed through the night, casting their light on darkness literal and metaphorical.

That’s my wish for each of you, our country, and for the world: that the light and love of this holiday season fills your hearts, and that you remember and nurture our shared humanity. That we all make the turn toward the warmth and life of spring, and resolve to share the best of who we are, to behave with kindness and compassion for everyone. No exceptions.

Blessings to you all!

I saved some of the luminaria bags from Richard’s Celebration of Life. This inscription and sketch is from painter Charles Frizzell. 

Winter Solstice and Hope


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

Solstice Eggnog: Slow Down, Pay Attention

This afternoon, I called my 87-year-old dad to check in, something I do every Sunday. While he told me about the morning's church service, which seems to have featured as much Christmas music as the two pastors could fit in, complete with choir, organ, classical accompaniment, soloists, and the whole shebang, I busied myself with starting my annual batch of Solstice eggnog.

While Dad described the service, and from there segued to the pastors, both new and both female (he approves–they each give a good sermon), I broke and separated 36 local eggs into two large bowls. When Dad went on to politics, I turned on my big Kitchenaid stand mixer and slowly beat 2-1/2 pounds of powdered sugar into the gorgeous orange yolks (chickens that get outside to eat bugs have the most beautiful yolks, not those pale ones like factory-farm eggs).

As I carefully began mixing the first of eight cups of dark rum into the yolk-sugar mixture, I realized I had lost the thread of Dad's conversation (he's smart, reads a lot and has a lot of time to think, so he can pretty much carry the conversationby himself). I tuned back in with just a touch of guilt and paid more attention for the rest of our talk. 

Later, as I whisked four quarts of heavy whipping cream, plus two quarts of half-n-half and a quart of skim milk into the yolk-sugar-rum mixture, I thought that I've been doing that a lot: Whizzing through my days, doing at least two things at once, and not paying my entire attention to any one. It's an old habit, that going full-tilt boogie until I drop, and one I thought I had unlearned. Or at least learned to be aware of. 

Apparently not. Since I didn't notice until after I had spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Dad without giving him my full attention. 

Huh. I guess I get points for noticing, even if belatedly.

And is it so bad to multi-task if I can do two (or three) things at once? I get more done that way. (That's the voice of my ego, who hates to admit I'm wrong.)

As I hefted the heavy bowl of rich and fragrant nog, all three gallons of it, into the fridge to mellow for the night, it hit me: Splitting your attention means missing part of life. Moments you'll never know again.

Dad is 87. Mom died nearly five years ago in 2011, the same year that Richard died. She was exactly two months shy of 80; Richard was just 61, vigorous intellectually and physically, engaged in abstract sculpture–until the cancerous tumor nuked his right brain. 

Did I really need a reminder to be present in this moment, right now, because what's next is a total crapshoot?

Apparently. 

So tomorrow on Winter Solstice, the day when I begin my annual tradition of reviewing and considering my writing and life, and coming up with my intentions for the new year, I'm going to start (again) practicing slowing down and paying attention.

Being where I am and inhabiting this solo life. I never imagined I would be a widow at 59, navigating by myself. But this is the life I have, and it's better than the alternative. After helping two of the people I love most in the world die well, I know that much. 

For now, I'm going to finish making a huge batch of delicious homemade eggnog, pour it into dozens of small jars, and spend part of my day tomorrow delivering my annual gift of love to my friends. 

And enjoying the being on this earth. Alive. Present. Savoring my moments, however they come. 

Solstice blessings to you all!