This is the final installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s column Winter Solstice.
It’s dark. I am up early enough to see the stars. The porch light on the house across the street shines bright enough to bring shadows into the room. The neighborhood is still. The rattling newspaper delivery truck has not yet been by, the morning news not yet tossed on stoops. Frost not dew, the grass is stiff; a woman scrapes ice off her windshield and I feel it in my teeth. Mothwinged darkness opens itself widest now. Today is the shortest day of the year.
Wasn’t it just summer?
Or was summer a thousand years ago?
Now it’s now. Here we are. The Winter Solstice. The close of the year, the opening of a season—welcome, winter—the longest night, and light gets born again. Today is tied with its twin in the summer for the most powerful day of the year. Light a fire. Light a fire on this day. Let something burn. That is what the solstices are for. Summer flames say, Keep the light alive (it’s never worked, not once). In winter, a more urgent message: Bring light back to life (it’s worked every time so far).
The summer solstice scene is loose and dewy, flower-crowned crowds in debauch around the bonfires. People leaped over flames and the tongues of flame licked up high into the night. In winter: private fires. Home hearths. These fires “have such power over our memory that the ancient lives slumbering beyond our oldest recollections awaken with us …revealing the deepest regions of our secret souls,” writes Henri Bosco in Malicroix. The Yule log didn’t start as a cocoa confection with meringue mushrooms on the top. It was oak burned on the night of the solstice. Depending where one lived, the ashes of the solstice fire were then spread on fields over the following days to up the yield of next season’s crop, or fed to cattle to up fatness and fertility of the herd, or placed under beds to protect against thunder, or sometimes worn in a vial around the neck. The ancient cults cast shadows in our minds, shift and flicker, their fears are still our fears, down in the darkest places of ourselves.
We’re on the edge, teetering toward the other side of something. But what? Winter? It’s more than that. On the solstice, all the oppositions are alive, not in tension, but melting together, joined in the rolling-tolling ring of things. Tonight, there is space for all of it at once, the irreconcilables, the rival forces, the great dualities. Tonight, it’s not either-or, but both and and and. Light and dark and night and day and winter and summer and love and love and beginning and end and pleasure and punishment and tension and relief and abundance and lack and fear and fear and union and despair and stillness and revolution and illness and health and endlessness and end and tenderness and anguish and creation and destruction and flame and snow and thinking and doing and nothing and all and here and gone.
For some moments at the end of the year, space inside expands. Cupped hands hold all of it and we are brought outside ourselves. To watch a flame is to see something inside happening on the outside; the fire makes visible the force we feel in ourselves, and it makes visible the force in the silent sweeping stars above us. Gaston Bachelard writes of “intimate cosmicity,” and of uniting “the outside cosmos with an inside cosmos.” With fire, in this potent hinging moment of the year, we’re granted access to the inner cosmos and outer cosmos, the “chaosmos” as James Joyce puts it, our chaosmos—it’s inside of us and we’re inside of it. Such is what flame offers. Such is the charge of this day of the year.
It’s a dark charge. As anyone who’s grabbed a fistful of snow barehanded knows, the cold burns, too. As Inger Christensen writes:
Every child knows that snow and fire are no longer opposites. Not in a radioactive world.
So. It’s snowing. The snow is no longer snow, but it’s still snowing.
We’re now so fearful that we’re not even fearful anymore, but the fear is spreading anyway, and the closest word for it is sorrow.
She is writing of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, but her words resound right now. We’re so fearful it no longer registers as fear, but it continues to move inside us and between us, reverberating across this country and around this whole globe. “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love,” writes Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, “the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” What we can see is born of love; what we cannot is born of fear. What’s born of both? Could fire be the result of the friction between the two sticks of love and fear? Visible, swaying on the candlewick, dancing in the hearth. Invisible, the warmth, the burning heat that lives inside and glows unseen between.
A strain of fear has lived in us this year, we’ve spread it, not intentionally, we’ve absorbed it from the people closest to us and from strangers, from the blizzard-static crackle of the atmosphere. Over time, the fear has mutated, grown to something one barely recognizes, shifting into something other than it was and, as Christensen said, the closest word for it is sorrow. This is the season we’ve entered and there is no telling how long it will last. “Snow would be the easy / way out—that softening / sky like a sigh of relief / at finally being allowed to yield. No dice,” writes Rita Dove. Simple winter, the way snow softens a day, not this time. No dice, not yet, and even when we are finally allowed the sweetness of the yield, the sorrow won’t take its crumbling leave of us so soon.
Darkness, silent envelope, hold this sorrow.
We are in the fire now. We are moving through it and it is changing us and we don’t know how we’ll look or who we’ll be out the other side. Metamorphic symptoms “may look like breakdown or derangement,” writes M. C. Richards. “Ordeal by fire is ordeal by all the holy sparks that multiply.” The holy spark of each moment. The holy spark inside every person you love. The holy spark inside every person, all of us, burning with and for each other.
I have been trying to figure out if there’s an opposite of fear. The easy answers come too quick and aren’t correct: hope, comfort, calm, love. One can hope and fear at once; one can feel comfort or calm and the black snarl of fear still trills at the back of the skull. Love and fear are bedmates. The opposite of fear—maybe it’s stupidity.
It feels mean-spirited to say it, or a way of patting the back any of us who’ve felt an unfamiliar wavelength of darkness and unknown, who, in unsleeping night, have wondered, Are we going to be okay? Or, more accurate and more grave, Are we going to survive?
In this way, right now, on this winter solstice, perhaps the glowing strands that connect us to who and what has come before glow brighter now than usual. In this dark season, we are more kindred with the long-gone farmers, lighting their fires, collecting the ash, trying to bring light and warmth back to the land to keep the human scene around, there on their mountainsides, their desert camps, their swamps, hills, plains, forest glades, wherever they were, shivering with cold and the chill of not knowing: are we going to make it out of this alive?
The answer, no matter what, is no.
That’s always the answer but it’s been harder to press it between the cushions, to bury it into the shadows. That answer comes whiteblinding out these days. Let it. Let it light the dark. Here you are. Here you are! In pain, confused and frightened, and lit from within.
Come. Come closer. What now on this longest night? What now as Holly King surrenders and Oak King takes charge? What now as the wheel of the year tips to its lightening side? What now in this season of sorrow? What now as the solstice fire opens a doorway to our secret souls? The soul is thicker in winter, stretched between mind and body, which are, we kept getting told, by MDs and mystics alike, the same thing after all.
What now? Now it’s now it’s now it’s now and we are burning. Light the fire. We move through flames. We clutch hope in our palm like a tiny burning globe of snow. It’s painful, the flame of the snow of the hope that you will be okay and I will be okay and we will be okay, we will be here to see another season, to see, second by second, the light return to the world. In this small city where I am, today, the shortest day, light lives for nine hours, four minutes, twenty-nine seconds. Tomorrow, darkness begins to exhale. One two three seconds more of daylight.
We stand in the dark with strands of light between us. Feel the warmth, the heat, the glow, it’s yours to know. I want to give it name and say it to you, but I don’t know if I know the words. The soul doesn’t let us know, not all the way. We flail and give name to simpler needs. Here, sit. Get warm.
On a bridge I used to cross, a bit of graffiti in small neat letters read: Look at it all, it is all end full. The river and the coats and the fruits with all their colors. The bookcases and the blankets and the branches on the trees. The cardinal, shoulders, the moon. Look at it all. The brothy golden glow of the kitchen in winter with a soup on the stove. Every embrace. Every spoon. The fire and the frost. It is all end full. Everything that hurts and everything that makes our hearts soar. The evenings, the mornings, the weather, all the shifting weather. Look at it all. All the hellos and see you soons, brothers laughing. Look at it all. The oceans and the shovels and the milk. The naked press with another body, wanting, baths, bridges, feathers, fear and love and all the different kinds of light. Look at it all. Look at it all.
It is all end full.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice.