Today is the winter solstice, shortest day of the year for those of us living North of the Earth’s equator, also the longest night. Thus begins (for us) astronomical summer, a six-month march of increasing light capping off at the summer solstice (the beginning of astronomical winter.)
For Christians, it’s a short march from the winter solstice to Christmas Eve on December 24 and celebrations of the Christ child on Christmas. This year, however, church-goings and vigils and gatherings will be muted due to the pandemic. Strange moment, with the pandemic at its greatest winter howl just as the long-awaited vaccine is reaching its first millions. (A sort of solstice, in that.)
For many it will be too late, as for the eight Catholic nuns who succumbed to COVID-19-related conditions within one week of each other earlier this month at Notre Dame at Elm Grove, a retirement home for Catholic sisters in Wisconsin. They were educators, music teachers and liturgists, living out their remaining years in the residential facility after lifetimes of service.
A freezing, dark moment. Most of the state of California is under lockdown as daily new cases exceed 50,000 and ICU hospital bed capacity reaches a critical threshold. London and most of England’s southeast are now on lockdown as more-transmissible mutation of the virus is fast afoot. France’s premier Emmanuel Macron is out with the disease. Black country music legend Charley Pride has died of it. A few days ago a man boarded a flight from Orlando to Los Angeles, and though he noted no COVID symptoms in a pre-flight checklist, he died of the disease in his seat high above the living world. Zenith and nadir: solstice bears both.
Neo-pagans would have gathered around Stonehenge today to celebrate the winter solstice in the old-school way: But due to the pandemic, festivities have been cancelled. (A live-stream of the solstice at the 5,200-year-old New Grange tumulus will be available here.) And at my father’s Columcille there would also have been some of that, lighting a fire at daybreak up on Signal Hill and later singing carols in the St. Columba chapel in the woods he and I used to love walking in. In keeping with our patron saint Oran, pagan and Christian co-abide there.
But nature alone this solstice will have abide, as human absence takes the place of presence.
The yule-tide season begins today, lasting from now until the New Year. The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas or Yuletide roots in older pagan Germanic festivities involving a Yule Log (a tree sacrificed to the flame), the Wild Hunt, worship of Odin and the Night of the Mothers. Twelfth Night celebrations echo with the rites of reversal from the Roman Saturnalia, so it’s a jolly weird time. (Next week’s challenge will jest that way in the name of Earth; who shall be crowned Fool King? Worm or fungus or butterfly?)
This year’s solstice is auspicious another way, astronomy-wise, at least from the perspective of life on Earth: for two hours after sunset today, Jupiter and Saturn will pair on the southwest horizon. It’s the closest the two have been in our night sky since the Renaissance (1623, seven years after Shakespeare passed into the bourne from which no traveler returns). Of course, the two planets will only be close to our eyes; the two remain millions of miles apart.
What can we truly see? Humans always envisioned death and rebirth at the winter solstice; the bears just hibernated on through. Awareness is a tricky thing, and the mind plays all sorts of tricks on itself. Especially when it fears. In Norse myth, the goddess Frigga gives birth to her son “the young sun” Baldr. This post launches mid-course of Mother’s Night (Modranecht), with hope and trepidation that all will come to pass safe and sound. (Remember, the leading cause of death — bar none — is birth.)
And what if there is death? BJ Miller, a hospice physician, wrote yesterday in a New York Times op-ed,
Nowadays, being dead sounds like a lullaby compared with the process of dying. Given a steadily awful diet of stories about breathing machines and already-disenfranchised people dying alone, we’re told to imagine the worst, before cutting to commercial. Our choices seem to be either to picture a kind of hell — that could be Mom or me, breathless and alone — or to distance ourselves from the people living those stories, not just in body but in every way, to de-identify with our fellow human beings.
But this is how we make hard things harder. Maybe our fear of death has more to do with our perceptions of reality than with reality itself, and that is good news. Even if we can’t change what we’re looking at, we can change how we look at it.
Longest night or return of light? Depends on how you stare at the glass.
So much vanishes out of human sight and care because we won’t look. This past year, the Earth has taken some pretty hard hits. As temperatures steadily rise, wildfire has become an avenging angel, wreaking havoc on coastal Australia, in South America’s wetlands, in the Siberian Arctic and in California, where fires wiped out entire forests of the state’s oldest and most beloved trees—Joshua Trees to the south, giant sequoia and redwood to the north. It was record 125 degrees F in Baghdad in June, 100 degrees F in the Arctic Circle. Athens now suffers 120 heat days (when temps rise above 99 F). Heating oceans whip storms up with especial froth, as America’s Gulf Coast was hit by four tropical systems and Nicaragua was belted by two late-season monsters just two weeks apart. A quarter of Bangladesh was flooded in July, and 70 million Chinese were affected when more than 700 rivers flooded. Humans are on the move from vanquished homelands into uncertain futures and animal habitats are eroding from sight. The monarch butterfly has almost vanished, as has the wolverine and blue whale and the Sumatran orangutan. These signals of cataclysm must be part of this year’s winter solstice, indicating that the year’s rebirth is fraught and endangered.
Our pandemic suffering is a synecdoche of climate catastrophe, the way a star over a distant manger should have meant outpouring from the Earth’s golden womb rather than a door away from it. We can’t see the forest or the trees, and so we continue to get it wrong. There is a growing numbness or vacancy in the human imagination. Why is reality becoming so hard to accept? Times columnist Paul Krugman put it succinctly: “Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss. What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.”
I’ve deeply believed that humanity won’t adjust in time to the climate crisis simply because it derives too many of its comforts and conveniences from the fossil-fueled lifestyle; in my country, such an embrace of historic and increasingly cataclysmic selfishness drives us off the cliff of relevance. Slavery 101 devolves easily to Earth Rape 202. All you have to do is nothing.
Enough. The traditional moment is lush and quiet, a defining stillness. But this Yule carries an added, fraught resonance. This is a separate, solemn time for homo sapiens, stocked up for lockdown, distanced from the past and unsure where to go. The bells that ring in this silver darkness are both halcyon and icy.
Thus we come to this week’s challenge, which finds its essence in a poem by Canadian Robert Bringhurst. Sherry quoted from it in her poem posted to our open link weekend, and she shared it with me in its entirety. Here it is:
I will tell you how it was the world
changed, she said — and darkness
wrapped us round.
I heard her clearly, though I barely
heard the words. It was nearly — yes —
as if she were singing.
Our job, she was saying, is not
to change the world — nor even
to keep it from changing.
No, she was saying (the story
was over already): our only
job is being changed.
– from Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2012.
Being changed: That is the earthweal challenge for this week of Yuletide hallows. Ring a solstice bell for the change we are. (Be sure to take a look outside before using the word “we.”) What is the change revealed in this seasonal moment, and what does portend for the coming year? Out of darkness, what stirs and wakens?
And on that silver note— season’s greetings to all. And thanks for a great year of earth poems.