It has been a particularly rough week here and a particularly rough year everywhere. Looking through my records I notice that last year at the winter solstice (a month and a half after the election of Donald Trump), the image I led my post with was that of a dying, red sun in a gray and gloomy forest.
We knew we were headed for hard times then, and now hard times have come. Wild fires raged across dry areas all autumn and areas that are not usually dry were parched with unusual thirst. More innocent people were shot down. Racism became more brazen and public. Several countries started violently fending off waves of refugees from worse-hit regions.
The state of the outer world mirrors my intimate life this week. As many of my readers know, one of my children struggles with neuro-diversity that takes a toll on the health of the whole household. This week was particularly difficult--a lot of screaming, meltdowns multiple times per day, extreme stress and a lot of glass shards.
I feel like I'm fighting for my life and the only thing I can fight is a person even more vulnerable than myself, who is not to blame. If that is not a mirror of the outside world, I don't know what it is.
I hear the stealthy "scritch!" of a match struck across the table while I'm getting dinner and my hand automatically lashes out, ready to grab, knock something out of her hand if necessary, defend the home...
My hand freezes with inches to spare. The tiny flame catches on the wick of first candle in the Yule wreath. Anxiety wars with guilt within me and nearly drowns my little sigh of gladness. I am so tired of fighting disasters moment by moment and of being on guard every second in between.
I stifle the yell in my throat and say, my voice shaking a bit, "Thank you for lighting the candles, honey. Please be gentle."
And for once she is. I watch closely, pausing in the midst of loading plates. There are moments like this. That's one reason I have to be on guard. I never know what to expect. I can no more relax in my home than we can let our guard down in the world beyond these four snow-proof walls.
It is trite to take such a small, glowing thing--a literal candle flame moment--and expound upon it to fabricate a message of hope. "Don't despair for even a struggling child lit a candle."
But it does bring me a moment of gladness. It is more in the noticing that there are such moments, not the act itself.
After a morning of getting the kids to school for one of the last days before break, I walk up the hill to let the chickens out. Snow crunches under my boots and I have to give the door an extra tug against the frost.
I turn back to the trail down the ridge and take a long breath of crisp, cold air. The solstice sun is still below the horizon but pink and gold light sparkles on the ice crystals that adorn the bare branches of the fruit trees. A moment of beauty.
I give thanks for the cold. It will help a bit to beat back the climate-change-exacerbated invasive pests that plague our region. And I hope against hope that this is a good and natural cold snap, not one created by melting ice and shifting currents. I pray for more snow, ballast against another summer of drought.
In dark times, you never know when the next moment of beauty or respite will come again. It's about noticing--taking that breath and noticing.
The winter solstice is about hope. It always has been in northern lands. Here on the 50th parallel where we get only seven short hours of real daylight at this time of year, the return of the light is a big deal.
But we won't see much difference for weeks yet. The hope of this season is symbolic and a bit forced.
That's okay. We hope because we must.
My friends, many of you write that you are certain that climate change has already passed the crucial tipping points. Many of you are aghast at how bigotry and hate have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, proving that the relative civility of years past was a result of suppression rather than deep social change. Many of you despair of finding common ground, even with those you love, let alone with people in other regions of the country or the world.
And there is no denying this darkness. I will not try to tell you it is not real or that I can promise some sort of supernatural hope. I do not know for sure that the light will return in these areas, as it does in the sky.
I know only that without hope, you fall and die or become so angry or jaded that you feed the roots of pain and suffering.
The winter solstice and essentially every holiday modeled after it by various religions--Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah, Dong Zhi et al--they are all at the core about hope--not because it is real, but because it is necessary.
Hope because the alternatives are not feasible.
Embrace those near you who are willing to embrace. May the holidays you hold dear bring you joy and peace and some much needed comfort.
But above all may they strengthen your most necessary capacity for hope.