Turning Toward the Light

Tuesday, December 21st, marks winter solstice, the day with the fewest hours of daylight here in the Northern Hemisphere, and consequently, the longest night of the year.

The word “solstice” comes from “stands still,” because for a few days around the winter and summer solstices, the sun seems to stand still in its apparent migration from the southern sky to the northern sky and back over the course of the year. (“Apparent” because it’s not the sun moving, but the tilt in earth’s axis as it rotates around our giant source of heat and light–the sun–that causes that seeming solar movement.)

For many of us, the short days and long nights bring a kind of existential discomfort and dread, something deep in our cells that harks back to the days before electric lighting, when our lives were entirely shaped by the coming and going of natural light.

Holiday lights brighten my front porch in the darkness before dawn.

No wonder that our major winter holidays all feature light in some form, whether Christmas lights or Chanukah menorahs, the candles of Kwanzaa, or the Hindu Diwali festival of lights (although Diwali fell in late October this year).

In this time of literal darkness, we need light to remind us that our hemisphere will turn back toward the light, and that spring and green will return. With the Omicron variant of COVID, continuing political and social divisiveness, racism taking violent and deadly forms, and our climate in meltdown, we need signs of light and hope to ameliorate the figurative darkness weighing on us all.

One of my favorite traditions of lighting the darkness at this time of year comes from southern New Mexico, where Richard and Molly and I lived for seven years: luminarias, little candles sitting on a bed of sand and nestled in lunch-box sized paper bags. Traditionally, luminarias are lit on Christmas Eve, to light the way of the holy family to the stable. The fragile lights burn all night long, guttering out as dawn comes, signaling the turn toward longer days and shorter nights. (In northern New Mexico, they’re called farolitos.)

Luminarias at Creek House, the little house I designed for myself in Salida. (The house was still under construction that first winter solstice, but I wasn’t going to miss putting out luminarias!)

We adapted luminarias to our winter solstice celebration, one of two big parties we held each year. At the celebration of Richard’s life, Molly and I supplied luminaria-makings, and guests decorated the bags with messages for Richard and placed them around “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Salida Sculpture Park.

Luminarias lining the path at the sculpture park and ringing “Matriculation.”

I still have some of those decorated luminaria bags, which I re-use year after year. They remind me of the outpouring of love from our community as Richard, Molly and I journeyed with his brain cancer, and after his death. Our friends and family truly lit our way, and I am grateful.

One of many luminaria bags from Richard’s celebration of life, decorated with individual messages.

In this dark season, ten years after Richard died, I am turning toward the light in another way, engaging in a mindful “divestiture” (in the apt words of my playwright friend, DS Magid). I’m working at freeing myself of literal and figurative stuff I’ve been carrying with me, lightening my load as I move on.

That means finding new  homes for books, beds, and other possessions; sorting through the boxes of Richard’s archives I’ve moved from place to place to place and picking out what I think Molly might want someday; and also taking a close look at my mental and emotional stuff, working to let go of habits, expectations, fears and misperceptions that don’t serve me.

It’s not easy to let go–especially of books!–but it is freeing. And that feels right for me now.

As the Northern Hemisphere turns toward the light, we can each bring light to our own worlds, at least metaphorically. For inspiration, here’s singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s song, “Lean in to the Light.”

Winter Solstice blessings to you all!

Me, dressing for my solstice party….

8 thoughts on “Turning Toward the Light

  • Dear Susan, thank you so much for your beautiful essay and for that amazing song. I am adding it to my playlist. Sending love and hugs, Lindy Barnes

    • Lindy, You are so welcome. I think you’d really enjoy any of Carrie Newcomer’s albums. She’s an inspiration! Hugs back to you, Susan

  • Thank you Susan for this hopeful, light-filled message! Love knowing about the stillness of the solstice, seeing your luminarias over the years, seeing you, and hearing that beautiful song! I’ll be bringing these images into my own solstice ceremony tomorrow. Thank you for the light you bring to the world!!

    • Dear Carolyn, What a bright spirit you bring to this world! Thank you for these words, and for your courage in writing your memoir (Fifty First Dates After Fifty, readers, an amazing story) and living your life on your own terms. You are an inspiration! Happy Solstice to you and yours.

  • Beautiful reflection!
    Oh my, books. I sit here reading your words in our little library and feel your uneasiness about letting them go. They are so much more than paper and ink. I look a the various stages of my life in them, the ecology books that I’ve had since college, my scripture and liturgy texts that guided my through theology school, and I can see the life I’ve lived and am living now. To let them go is letting that particular part of the journey go as well. Which is really OK, but not easy! (I also worry about whether or not they’ll find a good home!)
    Peace and Light to you!

    • Books are among the hardest things to let go for me too, because as you say, they trace our journeys through life. My rule is that if I haven’t opened them in years, they need to go to new homes. Sometimes I will keep one or two that fall in that category anyway, because they represent part of my journey, but in general, when I visualize how little space I’ll have in my cottage, and think about storing books where no one sees them, I can let go. Mine go to the local library, where some of them end up on the shelves, and the rest go to the book sale, which seems like a good solution to me. It’s harder for me to let go of the archive boxes of my late husband’s work I’ve carted from house to house for the past ten years. Recently though, I realized that the pieces of paper they contain–journal articles, class syllabi from his teaching years, files from his expert witness days, and even sculpture books–don’t represent him as much as the sculptures he left behind in various public and private places do. So I’m winnowing those boxes down to only his actual writings and other person papers. Those I’ll keep, because my step-daughter may someday want them. Happy Solstice to you and Jeannie!

  • I love reading your writings,especially “Bless the Birds…” Do you know a writer cousin of yours by the name of Kristen Kirby and did you know she is a relative? Merry Christmas and Happy New Year….Dave

    • Thank you for the lovely compliment, Dave! I don’t know Kristen Kirby, but I’ll look her up. I am not as diligent at connecting with the Vennerstrom family as you are. 🙂 Have wonderful holidays!

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