Nina MacLaughlin’s newest column, Winter Solstice, will run for four weeks, finishing on the solstice on December 21.
Hilma Af Klint, The Swan (No 17), 1915-1914
Two boys strung the lights onto houses in Ohio. When nighttime arrived in the afternoon, they climbed their ladders. One held the loop and fed the cord to the other who reached and fastened, line of lights between them. This way they did their festive work, strung bulbs under gutters, rimmed front porches, edged the roofline trim—there they were at the peaks, making arrow-tips of light aimed at the big black night sky. They helixed little lights around lampposts, around and around the oak tree and the evergreen, passing the lights between them, breathing in pine needle, branches catching the collars of their coats, pitch sticky at the tips of their work gloves. Some bulbs were sharp and thorny, others round-fat egg drops. They looped the lights around the trees, lights dripped and draped as though the constellations themselves had gotten caught in the net of branches. When they finished the job, they’d knock on the door, bring the family out into the cold, ready?, and they’d flip the switch, ta-da!, and sometimes kids would leap and cheer and turn around at their parents smiling, eyes glittering, to see if they saw, too. And sometimes the parents made a sound, joy, relief, firework glow on their faces like summer. But it wasn’t summer, it was coming on Christmas, as Joni Mitchell sings, and the boys saw their breath as they worked, lighting up the darkness.
Last day of November and the dark this year is darker. We’re moving into winter. Henri Bosco describes the moment in his fevered novel Malicroix:
It was already the end of November … a time of extreme balance between the seasons, a miraculous moment when the world was poised on pure ridge. From there it seemed to cast a glance back at the aging autumn, still misty with its wild moods, to contemplate deadly winter from afar.
We’ll contemplate this deadly winter from right close up, we’re already almost in it.
I’m listening to sycamore leaves rustle down the sidewalk in front of my apartment. It’s somewhere in the forties. The wind’s voice has changed and the leaves are at their loudest now, last rattle before long quiet. The river I live near turns black in November. A recent midday on its banks, first snow—early—of the season, the river black and the fat flakes fell and the sky was the thick almost-white of the sky when it snows, which is one of my favorite things of being alive, seeing the sky almost-white when it snows. From the west, a pair of swans appeared, flying above the river, white above black, white against almost-white, and close enough to hear the thwap of their wide wings against the air and a guttural croaking from their throats, more amphibious than avian. A mental stillness as they flew by, a feeling of such luck, then a churn of associations—the swan’s position in alchemy as an initial confrontation with the soul; Leda and a swan-beak speculum; the ten-starred constellation Cygnus caught glittering in galactic branches.
And the swans of the artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, a white swan against a black background in mirror image with a black swan against a white background, beak to beak and wingtips touching at the black-white horizon line between them. Dark and light, warm and cold, underworld and Eden. Not one without the other, when it comes to the major forces of this world. Somehow Han Kang echoes the image in her wintery The White Book: “that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof we are living … Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body, and is exhaled as perceptible form … out into the empty air.” Out of darkness, perceptible form, great swans of breath.
Dark makes its annual inhale of light. It seems night all the time now, and it’ll keep getting nighter as we spin toward the solstice on December twenty-first. If you follow the meteorological calendar, tomorrow, December one, is the first day of winter. If you follow the astrological calendar, calibrated by the position of the sun, winter begins at eight thirty in the morning on December twenty-first, when the earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, when we’re delivered the longest night of the year. These are lampposts to string your lights around, ways of managing your time, systems to agree and believe in. There are other winter signals.
What’s the start of the season for you? Is it: the first time you see your breath; the first potato-chip crisp of ice on a puddle; the first snow; tinsel; Menorah; mistletoe; mug of hot chocolate; when the river freezes; when you hear a Christmas carol in CVS; see a wreath on a neighbor’s door; a candy cane; a persimmon; a pomegranate; eggnog in the dairy aisle; scarf around your throat; a certain pair of socks; the changed quality of blaze in sunset sky? Is it a creeping spider of malaise? A vague and frightening fuzz-edged feeling of hopelessness when the sun starts to sink too soon, a bottom giving way beneath you? A shadow at the back of the brain that, if you find yourself in too quiet a moment, gives an electric sizzle of static you can almost hear? A snarled black nest of fear in your chest and the upped urge to have another drink? The first fire? The first frost?
Loss is in the air. Summer’s juicy verdure gives way to something crisped and husky. The colors dull and the plants fuzz, release last seed, go black. There’s something cruel about it. On a plane some years ago, the stranger strapped in next to me talked about winter in Chicago. “You never been to Chicago in winter?” he said. “I’ve never been to Chicago,” I said. “Well we got a wind so cold we call it the hawk,” he said. It sounded like a mean thing.
Heat slips off, chased by the hawk, and the smolder has to come from within. Winter makes us know the hollows. Darkness creeps in from both sides and pushes us to that pure ridge, all the way exposed. Peer over, scope the abyss. The fear is ancient, part of our human-animal inheritance, the surging fury of survival: will I be warm enough, will I have enough to eat, will it keep getting darker, will the darkness swallow me, will it swallow us all together?
The gap this year feels wider, the fear pulsing at a different frequency. Loss has been the dominant condition for months now. “In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact,” writes the poet Octavio Paz. And we lump it in with the rest. The full moon in December is the Long Nights Moon; strings of incandescent mini lights strung around a porch rail use 408 watts of energy; the snow-white sap of the milkweed pod is toxic to most creatures, but not to monarch butterflies; you, I, they, brothers, sisters, parents, pals, children, strangers, loves, God bless us every one, one day all of us will not be anymore. One more fact in a world of facts. Turn around while I press it down between the cushions here.
What’s death in a world of stories? Is it merely one more story? Maybe in a world of stories, there’s a door that leads to the possibility of a different ending. Maybe in a world of stories, death is infinite potential, just another means of moving on. And on we go, absorbed into the wet, warm belly of eternity, back here as a robin or a wren, a pelvic bone in someone else’s skeleton, riding the underside of a cloud.
No matter what, it’s scary, yes?
Here you are. And you’re confused and frightened like the rest of us, angry maybe, too, but that’s just the fear again. A little mixed up about where you are, dangling between two eternities like a drop about to fall from the faucet. Grab a beer. There’s wine on the counter and glasses on the shelf. You’re looking backward to a source, you’re looking forward (but not too far), you’re looking for the warmth of understanding, the warmth of being understood.
The opposites are right now in tension, twinned and twined, the great cosmic tug. The tug is never stronger than in this moment, as we sink into the deepest part of darkness. A bashing against, a blurring with, a pulling away, and a drawing in. The boundaries are beginning to dissolve. Khaos emerged at the birth of the universe, preceding the rest of the primeval gods. A state of disordered darkness, a void where nothing was named. Her name meant gap, chasm, yawn. Absence. Form was exhaled from the lung of the darkness. Right now, darkness takes a deep breath in. Hold tight. We’re riding the backs of the swans. There’s no flying without land, no emptiness without an edge. What world are we living in? And yet:
Here you are.
Here you are, the winter tells us.
An offer and a fact.
Read Nina MacLaughlin’s series on Summer Solstice, Dawn, Sky Gazing, and November.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice.
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