Winter Solstice

Today, on winter solstice, I realize that I have been less aware than usual of the encroaching darkness this year. True, I begin my walk home from work each day under glowing street lamps, but unlike other years, I have not minded the lengthening night. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am happy with this development, because my lack of reaction stems from a lack of noticing. This story is one of preoccupation, not equanimity or acceptance.

Most winters, I have groaned at the loss of daylight. I’ve watched with a touch of melancholy as the darkness crept relentlessly forward and the sun retreated deep into the southern sky. I’ve long loved solstice, however, because it is a literal and figurative tipping point. I go joyfully to the wonderful and thoughtful celebration hosted by our dear friends, who offer an evening of community to reflect on night’s zenith and the beginning of daylight’s inexorable march forward. There, we are invited to let go of something within us that is unwanted, to put it into the past, and to welcome something new as we look ahead to increasing daylight.

I am particularly eager for the celebration tonight.

This past semester of teaching has been among my most difficult, though I am convinced that I offered my students an excellent experience in the legal clinics that I teach. Inside, though, I felt like I was careening along twisty roads at a breakneck pace, just barely hanging on. Week after week was filled with late nights, early mornings, weekend work, and certainty that my life was out of balance with no chance of change within the semester’s demanding confines. It all ended well, to be sure, and this post isn’t so much about work as it is about the importance of noticing and intentionality and balance.

I miss my moaning and groaning about the plunge into ever-longer darkness, because I miss being a person who notices things. For me, ignorance is not bliss. Rather, it signals that I am damped down, preoccupied, closed off. And my failure to notice the lengthening night raises questions of what else I’ve overlooked. What flew by unappreciated? Was I present enough for my family and friends (alas, I’m sure the answer is “no.”)?

This winter solstice is a chance to wake up.

I’ve found myself noticing again the past couple of weeks, probably because classes ended and some big projects came to fruition. Even as my mind was going a mile a minute for the last few months, portions of it fell into dormancy. The lead-up to solstice has been like an alarm clock, and the parts of my mind that have been sleeping are now throwing off the covers, sliding out of bed, and revving up to meet the day. I need these parts to be “on” in order to balance the more work-related parts, the parts that are forced into overdrive every semester, a trend that seems only to be increasing. One sign of my recent awakening is that this month I’ve turned my attention back to writing (more on that in a forthcoming post). For me, that means turning my attention back on, because I am at my most attentive and open when I am writing regularly.

So, what will I welcome into my life this solstice? A daily writing discipline and the increased sense of being present that this brings. Being more efficient during the work day (not that I’ve been lazy, but there’s room for improvement), so I can let go of my work in the evenings and on weekends. More time talking and corresponding with friends and distant family. Richer and more frequent connection with my wife and kids. In other words, as the hours of daylight increase bit by bit, I want to be more open to those things that bring joy and balance into my day to day life.

What do you hope for in your life on this solstice? If you’d like, share through a comment to this post.

I wish everyone reading this piece a contemplative solstice, happy holidays, and a healthy, joyful new year.

The Quiet Season

With a decisive “click,” the glass of the storm windows locks into place, and the quiet season begins. The sounds of the outside world recede, muffled for the rest of the fall and winter, and I experience my usual mix of feelings at the start of this hushed time: peace and comfort in the relative silence of a warm home, a sense of loss with the passing of summer and fall, anticipation and resignation about the cold, gray winter ahead.

After growing up in Los Angeles, with its stunted sense of seasons, I appreciate the yearly cycle in the Great Lakes region, even though it can be hard. Winter is long and demanding. We sometimes have a week-long thaw in February, and eager faces turn toward the southern sky like sunflowers. Then the thaw ends. Winter returns. We scurry back indoors. When spring finally comes in earnest, I marvel at the bravery of snowdrops and crocuses and await the early-season tulips.

But long before the first buds of spring start to swell, winter turns us inward. Even by Halloween, a few cold, damp, blustery days have sent snowflakes or ice pellets sideways. Wind and hard rains hammer the colored leaves out of the trees, scattering them across lawns and walks and streets. We see neighbors less often; their children don’t play outside as much, and the street is no longer filled with their piping, excited voices. There are fewer spontaneous meetings on front lawns and porches. House lights glow through closed windows.

When winter weather comes to stay, all becomes quiet. Snow covers trees and bushes and earth. Walking outside, my boots crunch in it. The sound travels only a short distance before the snow sucks it into silence.

Indoors, sealed against the weather, we watch the darkness come early. The fire crackles. Cars whisper past. The sound of the traffic on the big cross-street a couple of blocks away, heard easily through summer windows, cannot penetrate the storm glass. It is as if the traffic has been diverted, though the cross-street remains one of the busiest thoroughfares in town.

Our lives settle into an indoor rhythm. The dog, burly and bear-like in his winter coat, spends more time curled up and snoozing. The two cats spoon like quotation marks. Flannel sheets go on the bed. Even they are quieter, rustling less than the smooth, cool, snappy sheets of summer. Soup burbles on the stove. The furnace hums to life, roars out its hot breath for a while, then sleeps again.

When I take the dog for his bedtime stroll, he sticks his nose deep in the snow, and I look up at the stars, waiting for him to be satisfied. A neighbor comes out of his house to rummage in his car. After he finds whatever he’s looking for, he straightens and notices me. We have known each other for a decade. In warmer months, we chat about yards and bikes and his retirement travels. Now, he only nods and hurries inside. His front door clicks shut, and I return to the stars. Orion hunts in the cold winter sky.