The winter solstice, which we're just leaving, is my winter holiday. It's generally a pretty quiet event, since no one else I know celebrates it. I usually manage to spend most of the evening alone, turning the year over in my mind since the solstice is when the year turns. I've just checked the etymology of solstice; it makes its way into English, by way of Middle English and Old French, from the Latin "solstitium," which breaks down into "sol-" (sun) and "-stitium" (stoppage). Sun stoppage. It's perfect, since the solstice is (if one thinks of the earth's and sun's respective motions in a perversely unscientific and just plain wrong way) when the sun stops dipping toward one pole and starts creeping back toward the other. From now until June 21, my other holiday, those of us here in the northern hemisphere will pick up seconds more, then minutes more, daylight each day. In Gambier today, according to the weather site from which I obsessively glean these details daily, our length of visible light was ten hours and nineteen minutes; last June 21, it was sixteen hours and six minutes. I am a heliotrope, a sun-turner. It matters to me when the daylight is longer than the night.
When I say that the solstices are my holidays, I always think of two stories. First: when my friend Isabelle was pregnant several years ago, she told me that the baby's due date was June 13. "We were hoping for a solstice baby," she said, "so that we could raise her wiccan." (She was kidding.) (Tone is hard to read.) Second: a couple of years ago, I shocked my mother by announcing on Christmas eve that I was an agnostic. Later, I got a chance to clarify that I'm not an atheist, and I think that soothed her a bit. I regretted the way that I had blurted out my news, which was something I'd been mulling over for a long time, but without warning, there in the family kitchen, I found myself facing the choice of concealing a belief for the sake of comfort and continuity or proclaiming it even though it wasn't quite finished in my mind, and the right choice seemed pretty obvious.
I'm telling you these anecdotes as a way of staving off suspicions you may have that I run with wild animals or dance crazily under the moon in December and June. I'm often not quite sure how to talk coherently and unembarrassedly about what I believe, or about why I don't like going to churches anymore, unless it's to sit quietly by myself with no one else around, something I used to do when Cornell's Sage Chapel was a landmark in my daily comings and goings. Generally, I resort to a terrific passage from Victorian badass Harriet Martineau's autobiography. Around her twentieth birthday, Martineau decided that religion is a "monstrous superstition" but also simply "a great fact in the history of the [human] race"; consequently, she found herself, chains of tradition and doctrine snapped, "a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe." I could tell you right where I was sitting when I read those words.
The winter solstice is always the day when I breathe my biggest sigh of relief and feel my most sublime rumblings of hope, even though my semester's work is usually still not done when December 21 rolls in. My sophomore year in college, I took my last exam, in intermediate Greek, at 6:30 p.m. on the solstice. My teacher, still one of the most beloved people in my life, brewed earl grey; I curled up in a near-deserted reading room and translated for three hours, overcome with the sheer, stripped-bare, exhausted, half-fearful gratitude of finding myself still alive and finishing the semester and the year's deepest darkness at the same time. On my way back to the dorm, I looked east to see Orion walking me home, as he did most winter nights.
This year, in part because I'm writing again, I find my miscellanies collecting into patterns, narratives, quick tries at significant designs; today, I've been meditating on the solstice and lights. One of the things I miss about Catholicism is the advent wreath, with its four candles parceling out the wait for Christmas. Growing up, I loved the fact that the third candle signifies the hope and joy attendant upon having almost finished waiting out the darkness; on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of advent, the candles lit are purple (or blue, now), but the third candle is pink, light, hopeful, a respite. One of the things I envy about Judaism is the ceremony of lighting the menorah; in fact, I nearly bought myself a menorah last year, before deciding that instead of appropriating another culture's tradition, I would simply exercise the meditative part of that tradition on my own.
I have long been a candle-lighter. I lit votive candles for my grandparents most weekends after church; I have lit votives for them all over Europe, just as I've tied prayer knots for them in Japan. Tonight, I've lit the oil lamp I bought for myself in Ithaca when I was preparing for my master's exams so that I could truly burn the midnight oil, and as I'm typing, I'm thinking about the things that have altered over the past year. I won't be able to write them all here, and I'm not even going to venture beyond my immediate circle of experience. But: one student contacted me today with wonderful, wonderful news, news that neither of us could have imagined for her a year ago; another, who has grown so much in these twelve months, wrote to say that he's just experienced a loss that he could never have imagined would be so difficult. My favorite baby, the one for whom I learned the suffix of endearment -eleh, has learned to walk and is searching out new words all the time, specializing in onomatopoeia and page-turning. His mother, one of my truest mainstays even when we're both too exhausted to do much more than instant message, has now been in my life for four and a half years and is living in the third residence she's had in that time (as am I, come to think of it). Two of my beloved friends officially became doctors in August and promptly moved to completely unfamiliar places (a one-two punch that I remember all too well and didn't envy them a bit); two more wore their red robes for the first time at the beginning of the summer (I wasn't there to see it but loved the pictures); still more are in transition at this very moment. Two of my friends got married, beautifully, and many of us were privileged enough to see it happen. I exchanged jewelry with someone for the first time, around the time we both turned 29, and continue to be grateful that she's in my life even though I don't get to see her every day. One acquaintance grew steadily into a friend and confidant I treasure, and I've gotten to watch her from afar as she has landed a job and fallen into a love she richly deserves. My brilliant father got a promotion and has been using it to innovate even more bravely and boldly than before; my brilliant mother received a group of kids she loves and has been giving them the firm affection they need every day; my brilliant brother has won even more prizes for his work. I have attained some modicum of permanence where I am and can finally start working through some of the happy, long-term ramifications of being able to pause for awhile, geographically. Big things are afoot; everything is in flux.
For all of these things, and lots of others I haven't named, I've lit my lamp in recognition, even though I usually light it only when I'm working and need to keep my head clear (a trick I learned years ago from yet another beloved friend, whom I've had the good fortune of getting to see a bit more this year and will see again next week; "one flame, one focus," she told me, back when we were both battling serious incompletes). No wreath or menorah, the lamp is the equivalent of the innumerable votive candles I've lit over the years, the candles that came to mean so much more to me than almost anything else even vaguely religious, and it's helping me to rove this night's broad, bright breezy common, marking the slow beginnings of our slow turning back toward lightness in my own quiet way.
And it is silent here tonight.