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Notes from Solstice Dark

I wrote last year a little about my family’s winter solstice observance of three days without electric light, about its role in making us pay attention to the changing seasons, feel the dark in order to better celebrate its return. This year it coincides with another winter season—flu season. Add in a much larger household than usual, as we have some family living downstairs from us for a while, and a job that has me traveling more, the whole season feels rather more fragmentary and in-the-moment. In that spirit, this is going to be more of a collection of thoughts than a coherent column.

I didn’t get to see the lunar eclipse, even though I was awake with a coughing child during it, as it was cloudy over my home. But I read so many things from so many people who caught some or all of it, or went on a more sustained search for clear sky, or woke up especially for it, or saw the cloudy skies and gave a disappointed thanks for the excuse not interrupt their night’s sleep, that not seeing it didn’t fall flat the way that dragging myself out in the hopes of catching sight of meteor shower through the perpetual glow over Manhattan did. These are the moments when social networking shines (no pun intended).

Our older daughter had been anxious about the impending solstice and the dark time. Usually a lover of ritual, all year she had declared her intention not to participate, bringing it up on her own whenever anything reminded her of it and fretting, working herself up into dread. We agonized, not wanting to be rigid about an invented tradition, but also not wanting to let her give in to an irrational fear and lose a chance at a tradition that she would later treasure as going back as far as she could remember. We debated possible kid exceptions. And then my wife suggested to her that we have friends over for dinner and playing during the candlelight time each of the three days. Immediately, all fear and reluctance vanished, never to return, replaced with anticipation.

It is no accident that the old songs about gathering together during the winter holidays talk about putting aside grudges, gathering around the fire, and making merry. In my house it was not just for the children that the arrival of friendly faces bearing lanterns and food and games transformed our first night of dark into something much warmer and less heavy.

I have a superstition that one of the reasons the flu has (so far) hit me less hard than some is that I was still well enough to make it to the annual wassail singing party of our folk music crowd. Though I arrived late, left early, and lost my voice anyway, the power of joining in song at the top of my lungs with a group of familiar faces felt far from a luxury.

I’m reminded of the year someone brought along a recent arrival from Burma to that gathering, who asked, reasonably enough, when the singing paused and the lights were dimmed for the ritual lighting of the super alcoholic spiced “glerg,” “Is this when you pray?” It was good for many chuckles from a crowd that knows more than your average number of pub songs in praise of English ale, Scotch whiskey, “beer that tastes like beer,” and so on (and whose actual relationships to alcohol fall along the whole spectrum right down to non-drinkers).

But I was thinking this year that the right answer would have been, “Actually, that’s what we’ve been doing all night”—whether the song at the time was traditional or new solstice, old or new Christmas, secular schmaltz, or anti-Christmas parody.

There is so much light, technically speaking, in an urban neighborhood night. We never do get to know total darkness. The windows of the firehouse next to me pour out fluorescent glow all night long. This year a new streetlight pokes its face right up to my front bay window, and security lights from the back of the school glow from across the street into my back kitchen window. Inside, clocks and sleeping laptops and charging cell phones and the glow-in-the-dark patch on the top of the cheap cold water humidifier (better for croupy cough than hot-water vaporizers) all gleam.

If I were a cynical type, I would call our ritual “solstice dim” rather than “solstice dark.”

But inside, a single taper candle puts all the white and green pulsing glowing technology to shame. And outside the rising full moon is still bright enough to quietly take center stage.

Happy solstice to all.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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