“…This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath, the door of a vanished house left ajar…”
Margaret Atwood Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995
Today marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It’s been observed by many cultures all over the world since time immemorial. It’s also the beginning of Yule, celebrated by the Norse and Germanic people of the past (including my own ancestors) and many pagans today.
It’s no accident that many of the religious winter festivals — Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, St. Lucia’s Day — focus on light. Our restlessness in darkness and our deep human desire for light are ancient things.
In my house, we’re celebrating all the holidays this year — making yule logs, lighting candles, learning about Hanukkah, listening to Celtic and Norse music, ponder Advent — basically doing everything we can to keep the darkness at bay. I usually get reflective during the winter, but month has been brutal.
But every little of bit of light helps. (I suspect the people who put up their Christmas lights on November 1 discovered this lesson well before I did.)
2020 feels especially dark for so many of us. I know it has been for me and the people I love.
So many of my friends and family members are out of work. Even more of us are working for less money, but feel grateful to have money and food and shelter at all. The stats on hunger in the U.S. are horrifying. I’m writing about people worried about eviction, their next meal, their depleted savings. So many people seem addicted to division, to hatred, to sowing anger wherever they go. I know I’m not the only one who feels lonely, isolated, sad.
I know at least 30 people who have had COVID. Some of you are still fighting it, weeks and months later, becoming long haulers in a race you tried so hard to avoid. It’s every bit as vicious and unpredictable as the experts have been telling us for months. It’s laid low some of the fittest and healthiest people I know.
It also stole the life of my friend and radio mentor Bob earlier this month. I’ve started to text him twice. And then I remember.
I’m not okay. Neither are the hundreds of other people his life touched and changed for the better and the thousands of listeners who will miss hearing his voice. I can’t even imagine how his family must feel.
If you’ve lost someone this year — to COVID or for any other reason — I’m so sorry. My thoughts are with you. This is a hard time to grieve. You’re not alone.
The deepest darkness in my life this year has come from covering these stories of loss while people tell me that this disease isn’t real or isn’t serious and mock those who suffer from it. The ugliness and refusal to believe provable facts is wearing me down. People can be hateful and cruel when they’re scared.
I’m tired of fighting false information and hostility. But I know my friends and colleagues who are publishing academic papers about COVID, staffing labs, writing about the pandemic and working in the medical fields have it much worse. They don’t deserve hostility. My friends and family members with preexisting health conditions deserve it even less.
I wonder if these folks who heckle those on the front lines would dare to to tell a doctor treating COVID patients that the disease isn’t real. I wonder if the could look my friend — a long hauler who has been fighting the after effects of COVID since this summer — in the eye and tell her that she’s not that sick, that this is just like the flu and she should buck up, get over it.
When people talk like this, I know that COVID hasn’t touched their family and friends yet. I know they’re cobbling together these comforting beliefs — telling themselves it’s not real so they’ll never get it, that life is normal, or sick people somehow deserve it, so they’re safe — into makeshift suit of armor because that’s easier than facing an uncertain reality.
I get it. This is hard for everyone. So I try to be understanding when they say that all the people who died of COVID — a truly mind-numbing 318,000 souls at the time of this writing — would have died anyway.
But I can’t. It’s heartless. And it makes me furious.
In normal times, would they go to the funeral, greet the family and tell them people die every day, so what’s the point in trying to prevent it? Would they hug a grieving widow and tell her that her husband had a pre-existing condition, so what could she expect? Would they stand up at the wake and say that their right to a haircut or dinner out or school sports matters more than the life of the person everyone is gathered there to mourn?
I hope not. Yet they sit at a keyboard and type those exact words.
And if we wouldn’t say it to a grieving person we shouldn’t say it online either. To minimize this pain, to look away from this loss is an insult to the lives of every single person we’ve lost and everyone who loved them.
There is darkness tonight. It’s not just around us. It is in us.
But there is wonder too. There is light. There is change. I’ve seen hundreds of people coming together to help bring love and light into this awful year.
My local senior center’s Secret Santa program was funded just days after it was announced. Support for small businesses is off the charts this holiday season, a simple act of commerce that is keeping people in their homes and businesses. A nationwide examination of economic privilege and systemic racism is underway.
I personally know five different people who have started major efforts to combat food insecurity at a time of unprecedented need. I know dozens more across the country who are sewing masks for those who can’t afford them, knitting hats and gloves for those who need them and setting up meal trains for their ailing neighbors.
There’s more kindness than division. There are wonders too. But kindness and wonder are quieter than hate, so you have to look for them.
Tonight, on this longest night of the year, we can behold something not seen by human eyes since 1226. Saturn and Jupiter will nearly overlap in a celestial event called The Grand Conjunction. It’s also known as the Christmas Star, since some astronomers think this is the same light that shone over Bethlehem at the birth of Christ. It won’t reoccur until 2080.
This is a strange and dark and unprecedented time. But light will emerge from the darkness. That’s the lesson on the winter solstice, this moment suspended. Nature is cyclical. The light will come.
If nature can change, we can too. We don’t need to wait to be kinder, more considerate, more merciful. We can choose to protect and honor others with our words and actions any time. But a rare celestial event on an ancient holiday seems like an auspicious time to start.
Just getting through a dark day is a thing to celebrate. Doing our best to be better tomorrow is enough. I wish peace, health and light to you tonight and always.
What about you? How are you doing, really? Let us help. How are you celebrating the season? What light-bringing activities (either literal or figurative) bring you joy?
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