This week I’m looking at the ecosystem process tools I might use to manage my writing business plan. Savory defines them as human creativity, money and labor, technology, fire, rest, and living organisms.
Leaving aside all this terminology for a minute, how do we manage our lives and environment? I’ve just been housecleaning with a vacuum (requiring electricity), a dust rag, a broom and dustpan, bleach, vinegar, cleanser, rags, Windex and paper towels. These tools don’t represent much money, but I do need to use labor to optimize them.
Now I’m using my laptop and a wireless Internet connection. These technological tools require money, in addition to my creativity and labor.
Although Savory’s focus is on land management, his model continues to lend itself to virtually any kind of management situation, as though all our human endeavor is only a sidestep away from holistic land management. This, of course, is the case, as there can be no human endeavor if we destroy the planet. Whoever we are and whatever we do, our choices and actions have consequences for Earth.
I’m using the tool of creativity as I work with this model and explore all the levels and pieces. Supporting my own creativity as a writer is at the heart of my purpose.
Savory proposes that holistic management planning will always require at least one of the tools of money and labor. Now we come up against the limitations of our resources. We might have money, but no time, energy, or willingness to labor. Or, we might be working as hard as we can, but have no financial resource. Most of us have a mixture of the two, but how do we know how to use our resources of money, time and energy most effectively? This is one of the questions lying at the core of my own situation.
I suspect many of us operate out of scarcity rather than abundance, out of a sense of limitation rather than possibility. Our lives are busy and our days full. We have responsibilities and deadlines. We respond to one demand after another. We fight traffic, the clock, and an unending stream of messages, notifications, beeps, rings, and buzzers.
Using rest as a tool seems counterintuitive. If we’re already running as fast as we can and we can’t keep up, the sky will certainly fall if we make a choice to stop and sit still, even for a few minutes. However, I know from my own experience that none of our efforts are sustainable without rest. We can’t assess our resources fully on the run. We can’t think intelligently about our measure of money and labor and where to use them most effectively, and we can’t maintain juicy creativity without regular and adequate rest.
Fire is another tool we use to manage land, and I apply it metaphorically to my own situation. Natural creative forces like fire are terrifying, and we usually focus on their destructive aspect, forgetting that destruction always opens the door to something new. Sometimes we use such a force deliberately, and sometimes not.
If we are managing humans rather than land, events such as divorce, death, a spiritual crisis, a health crisis, or a wholly unexpected choice can have the same effect as a force of nature like fire. In a very short time, everything changes and we no longer recognize our landscape and landmarks. We feel terror and loss. We feel disempowered. At some point, we begin to shape a new life, adapt to a new job, put roots down in a new place, or learn how to inhabit a new set of circumstances.
Technology is the tool I’m least comfortable with. Unfortunately, in these days it’s a very important tool for an aspiring writer, maybe even an essential one. As I wrote last week, I’m being inexorably forced to make friends with it and develop some skill in using it. Sigh.
Lastly, and closest to the heart of Savory’s work, is the activity of other organisms as an ecosystem management tool. Collaboration. Cooperation. When organism meets organism, both are impacted. It doesn’t matter how large they are, or if they have a Latin name, or if we understand the full nature of that impact. It doesn’t matter if one organism is a cow and one a forb. It doesn’t matter if one is a human being and the other a virus. Life interacts with life, and both lives change.
The long tale of evolution is made up of infinite stories of these interactions.
My interaction with all the life around me, past and present, human and nonhuman, is my most powerful and complex tool for managing my business writing plan. Without my social shaping by family and culture, I would have nothing to write about. Without collaborating with others who have skills, knowledge, and power I lack, I cannot succeed. Without the inspiration and support from those around me, I would not be able to fuel my creativity sustainably.
Tools help us shape and manage our lives. We learn to make them, care for them, and wield them effectively. As humans, we have a long history of developing tools to help us master our world, and human endeavor often fails if we don’t have and know how to use the proper tools.
Questions I ask myself: What tools do I need to build a sustainable management plan? Who will teach me to use them effectively? How much money and labor will be necessary in order to use my tools well?
And what about people? People are not tools. How can I most effectively interact, collaborate, and cooperate with the people around me in order to work towards my goal of creating a more secure, sustainable life as a writer?
Thinking about ecosystem management tools. My daily crime.
After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.
Photo by Mark So on Unsplash
Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to master, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind, body and spirit is on any given day.
The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.
Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally, and building on the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center at the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.
Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.
Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.
Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.
Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash
Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.
Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.
All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.
Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.
I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.
We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.
Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.
Last night we danced. I’m patiently and persistently attempting to root a dance group into this community. It’s taking time, but I hope in the end to have a healthy core of four or five women with whom to share this sacred practice.
As I danced, I remembered an old friend with whom I danced in Colorado. She used to often say, at the end, as we sat in a circle holding hands, “It’s so good to be in the body.”
Not in the head, where family and other relationships, financial and political complexities, expectations, rules, to-do lists and all our internal voices reside, but in the body, right now.
Our bodies contain a childlike innocence and a wisdom beyond words. They communicate to us the truth about how things are with us via feeling and sensation. Patiently, they carry us through our lives, our most loyal and faithful companions. Persistently, we neglect, abandon and abuse them.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve learned to reject, be ashamed of and hate our physical being and experience. Now we’re to the point where bodily functions tied to being biologically female are a matter of political incorrectness and a hate crime. Social pressure is increasing to eradicate the very words that define female physical experience.
But dance is for everybody in every body, and the spiritual practice of dance has taught me to honor, protect and care for my physical self in new ways. There are no labels in dance, no gaslighting, no power-over that seeks to diminish or limit my physical history or expression. Dance is wordless, so there are no language police. Dance is the freedom to belch, to fart, to wiggle, to jiggle, to giggle, to cry, to shout, to play and to sweat.
Allowing my body to be and joyfully inhabiting it has been a powerful act of self-love. It means allowing my hair to grow as it will, where it will, in the color it is. It means moving with dignity and pride. It means gratitude, for my life is a journey mapped onto my flesh. Every mole, freckle, stretch mark, scar, lump, bump, line, wrinkle and vein holds part of my story, and I honor story.
Being in my body is a powerful act of surrender, not to what the culture says I must be or not be, not to what I think I should embody or not embody, but to what I am. Simply that. The unique, miraculous complex system of genetic material, living tissue, viruses, bacteria and chemical processes that I am.
Allowing my body to be is a peace treaty. My body is not for the pleasure or evaluation of others. It’s not for sale. My body and I owe nothing to anyone, not explanation, apology, conformity, obedience and especially not shame. I refuse to go to war over gender, sexuality or political correctness ideology. I decline to support or participate in self-hatred or hatred of other bodies. The power of my body transcends the judgements, criticisms and opinions of others.
The deepest language I know is of the body. Words are inadequate to my passion, to my love, to my creativity. Spoken and written language fails to convey the richness of my body’s capabilities.
The tick crawling high on the nape of my neck along my hairline, the feel of its tiny claws stirring each hair as it seeks a good place to fasten on, gives me a physical experience so vivid and visceral it cannot possibly be conveyed in words. My skin shrinks, telling me what the sensation is before I examine the cause with my eyes. Undisturbed hair around its path rises, quite automatically, in response to the small but ominous trespass. It feels solid and smooth as an apple-seed between my thumb and finger as I pinch it off. It hurries up and down a bookmark, chestnut colored, as I transport it down the stairs, almost as though it knows it’s been seen, recognized and a death sentence passed.
We come out of our favorite restaurant after a meal on a hot, humid day and find a snake clothed in brown and green, voluptuously twined around our right front tire. My partner stoops and grasps it and it curls and writhes as it dangles from his hand, twisting between the newly-laid black tar and the heavy sky, glaring with sun, humid as a steam bath. My partner takes it into a nearby field and as he comes back he holds out his hand with a rueful expression, showing me beads of bright red blood, dazzling as rubies, on his finger, and two parallel shallow cuts that sting, he says, like paper cuts.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Last night I danced with the tick, the snake, the rasp on my knee from falling on the front cement steps, their uneveness hidden by the encroaching hostas, blooming now on thick, fleshy stems, their lavender flowers plundered all day by bumblebees.
I danced with the rattling air conditioner lodged into a window of the recreation center activity room. As usual, we traded the rise in heat and humidity in the room with the lower and quieter fan setting.
I danced with a dead fly on the wood floor, trying to avoid stepping on it with my bare foot. I danced with a living large black ant, bewildered, crawling across what must have seemed like acres of flat, featureless terrain, also not wishing to step on it, but too involved in the flow of the music to stop and take it outside.
I danced with my breasts and belly and thighs, with my feet and elbows and wild hair. I danced with trickles of sweat and a wet upper lip. I danced with my tattoo and swaying earrings and sliding silver bangles. I let myself go. I let myself be. I let myself sink into my body as though sinking into a lover’s arms, for I am my body’s lover, and it is mine.
I danced, and remembered again how good it is to be in the body.
This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …” And the Artist sang a star. It was a shining star. “Color me a sun,” said the star. And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather. It was a red feather. “Weave me a tree,” said the feather. And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web. “Build me a fence,” said the spider. And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world. It was a glorious world. “Tell me a story,” said the world. And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …” It was a wonderful story. “Tell me some more!” So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories. They were strong people. The people said, “Teach us what love is.” And the Artist said, “Sing me a star …”
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash
What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.
It’s taken me a long time to come in peace to Winter Solstice.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Just a week or two ago, I wrote my mother that I’ve always felt desolate during the Christmas season, but I didn’t know why. I couldn’t say what would make it perfect. Somehow, in nearly fifty Christmases in my memory, I’ve never gotten it right. In the last years, without children or significant other, I’ve always chosen to work and just pretend it wasn’t happening.
This year, quite unexpectedly, is different.
Human beings are strange creatures. We create a winter celebration around the sun’s rhythm. We do fire rituals and tell stories during the shortest day of the year in order to woo the sun back for the next cycle of life and growth.
Then we superimpose a religious festival on top of that old pagan celebration and talk about miracles, new life, humble beginnings, peace, joy, faith, hope and all the rest.
Then we agree the season is really about commercial opportunity. We develop traditions and expectations involving food, drink, parties, decorations, lights and presents. We emphasize giving to others out of our own resources, whether it be money, time or kindness, but we don’t talk about whether we have any resources to give out of.
Then we build it up big with music, movies, stories, a guaranteed ‘vacation’ and a fat man in a red suit, and we throw all these elements together while we drown in advertising that informs us what we must have, what we want and what we must buy to prove our love for others.
We mix this all up with broken and dysfunctional families, loss, poverty, depression, addiction, mental illness, homelessness, hatred, bigotry, late nights, obesity, isolation, obligation, duty, over scheduling, exhaustion, health problems, insomnia, guilt, shame, debt and (in some places) winter weather, smile at strangers and say, “Merry Christmas!” Or, if we want to be politically correct, “Happy Holidays!”
Ho ho ho!
There’s nothing I need from Christmas. For years, I’ve been focused on being alone because I failed in my marriage, financial limitations (another kind of failure), having adult children who are living their own lives (because I taught them to!), and my introversion, which includes being uncomfortable with crowds, noise, stimulation and drinking.
This year, I’m laughing at myself. This year, I realize it’s not that Christmas doesn’t want me. It’s that I don’t want it!
Winter Solstice, however, is a different story. Today is Winter Solstice. I’m sitting in a small two-room second floor space at the top of a steep, uneven staircase in our one almost two hundred-year-old farmhouse. The sun is coming through a pattern of frost on the window behind me and shining on my hands as I type. A crystal hanging in the window throws glinting rainbows over the walls and sloping ceiling. A clock ticks at the head of the stairs. Now and then I hear my partner putting wood in the wood stove, directly below me. These rooms are unheated, but the brick chimney rises up through them and radiates heat all winter. I’ve a garland of twined artificial ivy, red berries and gold fringe, made years ago, hanging from a shelf. I have an old candle lantern somebody gave me with a gold pillar candle in it and another garland of red glass beads and ivy wrapped around it. There’s a simple string of red lights in the other room, where my work station is, and when the early dark comes I plug it in.
Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash
Outside the windows, one looking north and one looking south, are trees; the smooth snow-covered slope down to the pond, punctuated by stalks of last year’s cattails; the two-lane road, covered in a thick layer of ice, salt and sand; and the driveway, covered in a thick layer of ice, wood stove ash and cat litter for traction. Crows enliven the trees around us; the ravens grace the air outside my windows, coming to check for victims of our mouse traps, which my partner throws out on the slope for them; and jays call harshly, forcing the smaller birds away from the bird feeders by the driveway.
This week we’ve had snow, and then on top of the snow we had freezing rain and subzero temperatures. I had to run to the post office to mail a package to my mother for Christmas, and I floated gingerly over the icy road, feeling the tires slip. The patient sleeping trees were backlit by the low sun and every twig, every pine needle, every single stem and blade was coated in sparkling ice, preserved by the polar air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so beautiful, and I’ve carried the picture in my mind ever since.
It’s Winter Solstice in central Maine. No tree, no stockings, no pile of presents, no special food or drink. It’s Winter Solstice, and I’m alive. The trees are skimmed with diamonds, the low sun is shining, I’m writing and my hands are comforted by my mug of tea. A lifetime of favorite Christmas music plays from an iTunes playlist I created. I’m quiet. I’m at peace. I’m with two people I love — myself and my partner. I know joy. Later, when I go swimming, the sun will shine in the poolside windows and I’ll swim through sunlit rippled water as I do laps. If the pipes freeze in the kitchen sink again, we can do dishes in the bathtub. If the power goes out I can read by the light of my gold candle.
Tonight, on the longest night, I’ll lie snug in bed in our unheated room. We’ll read for a bit, our hands getting colder and colder as we hold our books in the frigid atmosphere, and then we’ll turn out the light and go to sleep while the house pops and cracks around us in the cold and whoever is moving around in the roof (Squirrel? Chipmunk? Mice? Wood rat?) scratches and scrabbles over our heads.
It’s Winter Solstice, and I wish you peace, and joy, and a still pause in which to be.