I marked the Winter Solstice this past week, flanked by the Geminid and Ursid meteor showers. I have spent several frigid nights bundled up watching a clear, cold winter sky full of stars for those restless, errant ones streaking across the black. I was not disappointed, though on these magical winter nights of blue, silver, white and black I consider the shooting stars a bonus. The nights themselves are hauntingly lovely just to be stargazing.
Historically this is the time when folks gathered together to light candles and bonfires to push back the dark. It became a time to get together to celebrate the slow, gentle return of the light and pass the cold days and nights with loved ones as we held on for spring.
What we try not to acknowledge are the ghosts standing just outside the firelight, those we loved who are here but not here. How over the years maybe our tribe has gotten smaller, while the shadows beyond the firelight have grown in number. That we should sense this and the attendant melancholy makes sense, I believe the veil stays thin throughout the winter. Winter is a time for things to die back or go to sleep, of course spirits would be close by. What I would give to see them, not just out of the corner of my eye, or touch them, not just feel their presence like a phantom draft over my skin. I must be content with the sense that they are just beyond the firelight, watching and waiting. I light many winter fires in order to spend time with my lost loves…
Still, my winters aren’t all wistful and longing. Life writes a thousand stories in the snow and I am compelled to go out to read them.
I am a winter creature myself, the blood of Northern Europe flows in my veins. I waken in the winter when so much is bedding down. I love the cold, I love the stories written clearly in the snow by thousands of tracks and impressions. I love the silence and the stillness of it and also that there is still so much life happening. No other time of year am I able to see the impression of bird wings as they launched from soft snow, or the tiny prints of mice embroidering the edges of a meadow. There is poetry in the winter of the most subtle and delicate kind, exquisite poems about perseverance, resilience, adaptability and hardiness. The smallest birds are out in wind chills that have us under half a dozen layers. On warm days if you are very lucky you can find spotted salamanders on the snow (a rare but wonderful find!) enjoying the sun. If these seemingly fragile creatures can thrive in winter, surely I can too. They do not allow themselves to be compromised by things they cannot change, they don’t have the luxury of being melancholy. It simply does not occur to them to do anything other than keep on surviving.
Winter is a time when the balance of life and death is presented in stark relief. I can feel the chill winds around my soul and yet be enchanted by a world of prisms as sunlight illuminates the ice on the trees. It makes no promises, nor apologies for its harshness – it is up to me to write my own winter story of courage, resilience and patience.
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
but he’s restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds…” – Mary Oliver