Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Winter Solstice

Dear Ellie,

I want to talk to you about the Winter Solstice.  But before we get to that, I want you to imagine that you were a person that lived before the written word.  Before numbers before cities and before bronze.  There are no books.  Not even letters, and so there are no vast libraries of human knowledge.  There aren't many distractions in this time, either.  No computers and smartphones and books, so you spend a lot of time looking up at the sky.  And when you look at the sun and the moon and the stars, you can only wonder what they are.  The sun, perhaps, is a ball you could touch were you to climb a mountain tall enough.  Perhaps you could hold your raw food on a long stick and cook it upon a solar flare as the sun passes by.  The moon, perhaps, is a stone you might dislodge were your arm strong enough to strike it with a rock.  Clever child that you are, perhaps you might then roll the moon about on a hard surface to crush hard grains.  The stars, perhaps, could be swat from the sky if you were to climb to the tallest branch of the tallest tree and brush them with a palm frond.  Once upon the ground, you might collect them together and tie them into a twinkling necklace.

You know the Universe, at least, is a fairly big place.  It might even take a few weeks to walk across: a thing you might prove if every moment of your day weren't spent surviving the perils of a paleolithic world.

You are wise and observant, so you know that this Universe you live in conforms to certain rules.  Things that come up must come down.  Dark clouds come before rain.  The earth beneath your feet is solid, and unshifting.  The sun and the moon rise every day, and set every day.  Yet despite these comforting consistencies, sometimes forces tear through the the web of rules that define your world.  Sometimes the ground shakes violently beneath your feet.  Sometimes a finger of clouds comes down from the sky and feasts on the soil.  Sometimes the sun or moon vanish without warning.  What does this tell you in the end?  It tells you that, regardless all of your observations about the world's rules, nothing is for certain.

And so every year after summer as you watch the sun rise each morning, you notice that it is a little bit further down in the south than the day before.  You notice that each day grows shorter and shorter, and with it, the world grows colder.  Each day, there is less time to find food.  You begin to worry.  Even though you remind yourself that the sun eventually reversed its course in prior years and trekked back toward the center of the sky, you wonder--- just as the earth sometimes shakes and the moon is swallowed by darkness in a lunar eclipse--- whether this time there will be an exception to the rule.  Whether this time, the sun will continue to fall toward the south.  The more you think about it, the more logical it seems.  Shouldn't the sun continue to fall, just as a rock thrown skyward returns to the ground?  Maybe the sun is more fickle than you thought.  Maybe, this time, the sun will go off to find a new world and disappear behind the southern horizon, leaving the Earth in darkness and cold forever.        

This wouldn't at all be an unreasonable thing to worry about.  After all, while you are wise, your understanding of the Universe is like a tiny spec of light in a sea of fog, and the primal forces that move existence all churn about amid that fog, beyond your vision.

So how marvelous it must be--- what a tremendous relief--- when the Winter Solstice arrives.  When the sun decides, for at least one more time, to reverse its course and climb the mount of blue.  Perhaps you might even exalt and praise the invisible forces that be for having given your world another year of warmth.  I can't help but to think, for all the eons that our hunter gatherer ancestors watched the Winter Solstice come and go, that this time of year has imprinted a sort of mysticism upon the human psyche.  That our minds are disposed, just like the land, to melt from a frigid white to a verdant green.

Maybe this is the reason why the Winter Solstice is a magical time for me.  It seems to put me in touch with some deep, primal part of the human psyche.  So many religions, from modern to extinct, have built their most important holidays on the elemental scaffolding of the Solstice.  Should we be surprised that, in Christianity, the birth of Christ--- who will bring peace and warmth to the world after ages of darkness--- is so analogous to the winter having reached its harshest night, and that only greater light and warmth lie ahead of us?  In a way, to be in touch with the Winter Solstice is to be in touch with some important common ancestor of the world's great religions.

But beyond this fundamental mysticism, the Winter Solstice reminds me of the limitations of my own knowledge.  It reminds me of the fog that swirls just beyond the faint aura of our knowledge, and that great mysteries still abound.

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