The Longest Night

Next week the solstice will manifest as the longest night of the year. Now that some of my social circles have widened recently, I am learning about new ways to think about this dark, cold time. For most of my adult life I have dreaded the coming of December, when the sun sets so early, stealing my daylight to get outside, forcing me out of my bed when the sun has yet to rise. I never liked how the world seemed to freeze over with the oppressive darkness that gave me such terrible cabin fever. I’ve known people who celebrate the solstice as a happy time, a cheerful welcoming of the lengthening days, and yet to me it always seemed to take so long for the sun to return. January has never been easy for me. How could I be happy about all the cold and dark? The sun’s return came so incrementally it didn’t make an impact until long after February. Lately I have shifted my mindset about it somewhat. It might also help that I’m taking vitamin D now, but I’m working hard at changing the way I think about things, a daily attentiveness that seems to be making a difference. Recently I also noticed a few people posting things on social media about nature-related celebrations which sort of take stock of the year, a look back at what has been accomplished. Rather than making new year’s resolutions, I think I like the idea of taking stock of what I’ve completed. Things like writing a novel, moving to New Hampshire, tearing the guts out of our Airstream so we could remodel it, seeing a couple of National Parks, creating a new website, starting this blog…there’s a lot on my list this year.

Taking account of my year sounds like a good way to check in with my intended goals. I never worry about comparing myself to what everyone else is doing. Mostly, I compete with myself. Am I in better shape than last year? Did I improve my writing skills? Am I closer to my desire to live on my writing so I can quit my day job? I like thinking about how I can improve on what I’m doing so I can do it better. Maybe this year I should start a new tradition of doing something outdoors in the dark with lights and have a little quiet contemplation. Maybe I’ll build a winter fairy house out of pine cones and bark. One thing I will not be doing is celebrating the holiday which has become a carnival of capitalism, a holiday which has never really been my favorite: Christmas. Well, except for making cookies. I’ll do that.

Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and not everyone who celebrates finds this time of year fun (I think I wrote that same phrase last week, but it bears repeating). I’ve grown up being aware of this fact simply because I wasn’t Christian, but the rest of our extended family was. We celebrated Baha’i holidays in our nuclear family, but still observed the Christian holidays with the extended family. I don’t remember minding the doubling of celebrations—if anything, it made life a little more exciting—but I do remember being excluded at school because I was different. Most of the time I felt keenly aware of how different I was, and sometimes my “friends” could be cruel; more than once I was told I would go to hell because I hadn’t been “saved.” My usual response was to say I didn’t believe in hell, which was satisfying, but the hateful comments still hurt. In my adulthood I no longer feel obliged to care what people think if their main goal is to exclude. Too many religions preach their intention to be peaceful and compassionate, but then their members willfully look down their noses at anyone who does not prescribe to their beliefs. At this point in my life, I would rather spend my time being kind than wasting my energy fitting into capitalist or religious culture. Most people I know don’t really need anything, thanks to the internet shopping era, but few people know how to bake anymore. I pay homage to the past by giving cookies, and that’s my contribution to the holidays of Christianity-ish.

A couple of days ago at meditation I found out about a candlelight vigil to honor the homeless and those who passed away, so I thought it might be one thing I can do differently around the solstice. I should say I realize a vigil isn’t going to solve any problems for the homeless, but at least thinking of the people who tend to be invisible is a start. Awareness is a good first step to begin changing anything. Here in Keene, NH there is apparently a large population of homeless people, many of whom live in several make-shift camps in wooded areas in various locations. I know some people choose that lifestyle purposefully, but I worry for the people who must be struggling with the recent cold temperatures dipping into the teens. When it drops below zero, I can only imagine what they must do to stay warm. It reminds me of the first night I walked the streets of Savannah, GA, alone with my backpack, surveying the park benches as I walked by and wondered how I could sleep there safely. I knew I couldn’t. Only by chance did I find a spot to take shelter for a few nights, thankfully because a kind man took pity on me and let me stay in an empty store front he rented. I shudder to think what might have happened to me if he hadn’t been so kind. Not everyone is so lucky. I’ve come such a long way since then, and every day I spend in the woods now is a day I can be grateful for a warm home, plentiful food, and a full closet of clothes.

I know the light is coming, and I know I can choose a new way to celebrate this time of year. No one can tell me to celebrate a holiday that doesn’t belong to me. It’s never been a particularly happy time of year, and my family was such a disaster over the holidays (like so many families in the world) that I don’t have many fond memories of Christmas past. Why continue the misery? Instead, I can decide to honor the sun’s return and maybe I can finally see the hope others see in the longest night of the year. Maybe I’ll make a bonfire or an effigy in the woods—I could burn my memories on sheets of paper and give them back to the stars. I’ll figure it out over the weekend. I hope you are all finding comfort, my cherished readers. You deserve to pamper yourself with a cup of hot cider or a warm bubble bath, a good book or podcast, or maybe just to sit for a while under the night sky to appreciate the sight of Orion, who makes his appearance now that winter has come to the north. One wonder of the cold, clear nights is that the stars glitter brightly without the haze of humidity, so step out for a stroll on a dark road and say hello to Orion, remember the people you love, give a little extra to the food pantry, or buy a homeless person a new coat.