I went for a walk today in the cold sun. The dirt road led me up and up; my feet slipped on treacherous patches of ice lurking invisibly under a thin layer of earth and sand. Water ran in the ditch alongside the road under winter skin, thin and glassy in the sun and opaque and layered in the shade.
The bones of the trees show clearly during this thin and aging time of year. We’ve had heavy wind in the last few days, and new, jagged wounds show where trunks and boughs snapped and splintered.
Winter Solstice is a strange time of year. Spending time among the bony, sleeping trees under the pale light of the low sun is such a contrast to the frenetic human activity accompanying the holiday season. The fields and forests sleep, letting the long dark hours and cold do what they will.
Nature has always been my best teacher, leading the way to faith, trust and renewal—the endless natural cycles of life and death. Even from my small, ant-like perspective, I find comfort in the ebb and flow of life.
I’m in need of comfort. Our woods are beginning to fall silent. Our bird feeders are full, but we see very few songbirds now, and when they do appear, they’re in small groups or single, rather than in flocks. Many insects are vanishing, which means the avian insectivore populations are diminishing fast. It seems to me we’re losing so many kinds of life—so many lives—as well as other things like trust, respect, dignity and integrity.
But I know that loss is just another word for gain. The dark is another kind of light. Good-bye is another kind of hello. All we know now is loss; our inability to imagine what might come into the empty spaces of our loss does not mean nothing will.
It’s easy to forget about the light in the darkness.
Yet I welcome the longest night of the year with my whole heart. Something in me loves the deep, cold darkness, unlit by flame or star. The darkness is like a womb, and in that womb is a glowing seed containing rebirth, transformation, and the new cycle.
As I celebrate Yule, I sit in the darkest place I can find and open myself to it. I call up the shadows in my heart and mind and embrace them without fear or resentment. My eyes are blind, but inside me something old and primal listens and watches, waiting for guidance or wisdom, waiting for the light to return.
This time of year I do the ancient women’s work of sorting one thing from another. How do we discern the difference between natural cycles of darkness and light and the frozen, unending darkness our choices and behavior can lead us into? What habits of thought and action keep us groping, blind and despairing, without a star to light our way?
What offering can we make to the dark? What can we let go of? What is ready for recycling and transformation? What do we need to do in order to greet the dawn of the new cycle less burdened?
When I have rocked in the cradle of darkness long enough with these questions, I light a candle and tell that small flame of all my gratitudes, great and small. Each one is like a prayer of thanks, an offering, a guiding star in the dark night.
The candle flame is a spark of life cupped tenderly in the hands of the dark. What might grow out of it? What new paths might we tread; what terrain might we explore? What new intentions have rooted in our hearts? What can we call into birth and being within ourselves? What undiscovered guides and friends wait in the year ahead? How can we keep the flame of our courage, love, and strength alive?
What is waiting to be born in the next cycle?
A winter blessing on you, my friends. May your Yule be dark and the following dawn be bright.
For each of us There is a desert to travel A star to discover And a being within ourselves to bring to life. –From an Iranian Christmas Card
Yule, the winter solstice, is upon us once again. This year, here in the deeps of darkness, I’m thinking about The Fool’s journey.
The Fool, by Emily Balivet
The Fool is an archetype, a recurrent symbol in mythology, folklore and story. Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk is a Fool. The Fool shows up as a simpleton, an innocent, one who is ignorant, inexperienced and silly. Archetypes have two sides, shadow and light. In modern culture The Fool has been reduced to its shadow, its most negative attributes, an insult, a curse and a contemptuous label.
But the old tales hint at a deeper, older meaning of the archetype. In fairy tales, The Fool is often the youngest sibling, the least able and powerful character, who nevertheless becomes the only one to successfully complete the task or quest. Often, The Fool has a good heart, or some extraordinary purity of character that allows him/her to be successful. The Fool has faith in magic, in talking birds and beasts, in the advice of old women, in objects given by peddlers at crossroads. To be a fool is to be held in a circle containing everything and nothing, to be without judgement, rules, expectations, cynicism or fear. The Fool is an archetype of youthful energy, bright, glowing and optimistic, filled with hopes and dreams.
Characters of this archetype set out, sometimes exiled or driven from their home, sometimes volunteering to go, with nothing but their shining confidence, intuition and willingness to do a task or find a solution. They rarely have external resource, but carry a great wealth of internal assets, including, interestingly, a kind of innocent cleverness that arises from authenticity and the simplicity of great integrity. The Fool has everything she or he needs in the form of untapped, chaotic potential.
It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the sacred role of The Fool. We kill foolish behavior with punishment, restriction, control, mocking and tribal shaming. We teach our children to avoid playing The Fool by making “good” choices. We avoid looking or feeling like fools. Foolishness is equated with immaturity, irresponsibility and naiveté. We resist being wrong or admitting we made a mistake. Playfulness is no longer a priority.
I see The Fool as an essential first step in The Hero’s journey. It’s where we all start as we undertake any new experience or endeavor. All Heroes start out as Fools, and perhaps all Fools are also Heroes. The Fool archetype creates space in which we learn resilience, strength, courage and creative problem solving. In the gap between The Fool’s happy hopes and dreams and reality is the place where Self is shaped, and the more fully we embrace this archetype, the more of our own potential we realize.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
That’s what I believe, when I think carefully about it, but that’s not how I show up in the world.
I hate to feel like a fool. Humiliation is one of the most uncomfortable emotions I experience. I dread appearing irresponsible or naïve. I’ve bought into the cultural definition of foolishness equaling stupidity, and I don’t want to be perceived as stupid. I’ve been warned at the beginning of every Fool’s journey I’ve embarked upon with head shaking, patronizing smiles and dire, ominous warnings: “You have no idea how hard marriage is.” “Boy, is your life going to change!” “You’re going to hate it!” “You’ll find out I was right!” “It won’t last.” “Nothing will ever be the same.”
As a parent, I shook my own head, smiled patronizingly and issued warnings. I wanted to protect my sons from “bad” choices, from danger, from illness and injury and from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment, the very things that help us figure out who we are.
The Fool is an archetype precisely because it’s so persistent and present in our lives. It’s our nature to go into the world and explore, seek, complete tasks and engage in quests. I wonder what it would be like if we all framed The Fool’s journey as sacred space, as a necessary and beautiful rite of passage, filled with potential and promise. In that case, revisiting this archetype throughout our lives at any age could be viewed as a chance to refresh our willingness, consent and curiosity about ourselves and what might be possible, a chance to apply the skills we’ve learned in our previous cycles as The Fool rather than stay frozen in bitterness, shame, regret and fear.
It’s true that every new journey is a risk. None of us could have imagined what it would be like to be an adult, to fall in love, to get married, to have children, to move across the country, to get the perfect job, to battle illness or injury, to age. Dire warnings and ominous predictions are pointless and useless as we navigate in our lives. Sincere and simple congratulations from others; faith in our own intuition, intelligence and strength and the experience of unconditional love and belief in our abilities from friends and family is what we need as we push forward in search of new horizons.
Yule signals the return of the light and new beginnings. We all embark on a new cycle, and none of us knows what it will bring. The Fool is tying together a bundle of food and setting out, following a new road into an unknown place, exploring, perhaps searching for something. Interested, curious, fearless and confident, The Fool walks into the future as the light strengthens once more.
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.