Solstice Silence, Solstice Song

There’s no escaping the scent of gentle chaos wafting through these last days before Christmas. “I loves me some Christmas,” says the woman to her companion in the checkout line, squinting at her notebook . “But I swear. If I never make another cookie it’ll be too soon.” I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies are all with the woman. Even as I’ve pulled out angels and garlands, decorated trees, wrapped gifts, sent cards and done my own baking I’ve found myself thinking, “I could stand some peace and quiet.”

The quiet’s as important as the peace. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season can be noisy to the point of distraction. Grandma doesn’t go quietly when she gets run over by that reindeer, and hearing the Chipmunks’ version of Jingle Bell Rock piped through the produce aisle at full volume is more annoying than festive. While the carols and seasonal songs blare away, families squabble and impatient horns fill shopping mall parking lots with the honking of a thousand demented geese. The decible level of life rises perceptibly.

Even at night, the peace and quiet of hours meant for sleep is disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning. “What have I forgotten?” “Who will be offended..?” “Can we afford..?” “Will there be time..?” If dawn brings nagging children and snappish adults, it’s little wonder that by Christmas Day many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas, stretching on to the Feast of the Epiphany, seem a horror. Who needs more Christmas when we already are exhausted and drained?

The Scrooges of the world, cynics and misanthropes alike, describe these seasonal excesses in terms that range from “pathetic” to “evil”. Obviously, they are neither. Gathering with family and friends, luxuriating in the beauty of worship and enjoying the exchange of gifts can be sheer delight. Most people find these Christmas pleasures to be well worth the time and energy they require. But as we anticipate our celebration, it’s worth pausing to remember we prepare in the context of a world far older than our customs and far larger than our plans. The world in which we celebrate Christmas travels an ages-old path and turns on an ageless axis with no regard for human intent and purpose. It is a hidden world, though imperfectly so. It can be searched out and surprised, and it can reveal itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world one Christmas holiday in England. After a stopover in London I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral. Arriving without reservations, I discovered a wonderful inn where I came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. They were cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating, just as keepers of inns should be. Best of all, they were full of practical advice to make my English sojourn perfect.

Discovering I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge (“that pile of rocks in a pasture”, as another guest put it), they were aghast. “But you must go to Stonehenge!”, they implored. Laughing, I asked if Stonehenge wasn’t better visited in summer. Giving me a look that clearly translated, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying”, they replied that while the summer solstice celebrations are more publicized, the winter solstice has its own good qualities. “For on thing”, they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists to clog up the roads.”

On the slightly ironic basis of there being fewer tourists about, I agreed to make the trip with them. As we traveled, they unraveled strands of solstice lore. I knew the basics – that the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, with the sun descending to its lowest point in the sky. What I didn’t know was that the sun’s noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the event. The word itself, “solstice”, comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of “sun” (sol) and “a stoppage” (stitium). According to my guides, legend has it that at the very moment of solstice, it is not only the sun that stops. If you are in a silent place, with a quiet mind and a stilled heart, you can hear the earth pause and catch her breath as she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend and intrigued by the science, I’d finally become truly interested to explore the “pile of rocks in a pasture”. We arrived at Stonehenge not at the precise time of solstice, but on the day after. What crowds had gathered were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only emptiness – a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds, cold gray rock and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. There was a wind that sighed, and a single bird, circling above the plain.

Moving away from my companions toward the stones, I found the silence so complete I could hear my heart beating in my ears. A sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Anxious, no longer certain of my solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. There was no one there. There were only the rocks, the sky and the hush of wind, singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, days grow shorter and the sun hastens his journey toward the solstice turn, I remember Salisbury Plain – the stones, the silence and the song. My first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last. Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

When the mystery of connectedness surprises us – in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a grove of Redwoods shrouded in mist, at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave, in an empty classroom or an overflowing church, near a dawn-touched shoreline or in the fading shadows of a suburban yard, its nature is unmistakable, and the poet’s words apply:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But still the sun lowers and still comes the pause, and once again Solstice has arrived. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our celebrations to embrace its coming and its promise. If we dare to stop – preparing for ourselves a room built of those moments of solitude and silent attentiveness that so often elude us – then as surely as the sun stops, and the earth breathes, and the cold wind sings over the silent plain, we will sense the vertiginous joy which connects us to creation.

 

 

 
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Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 2:49 pm  Comments (11)  
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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. How I wish I had been able to read this this morning! It is too beautiful for words. Thank you for your solstice song.

    ds,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was one of the most lovely experiences of my life – one worth remembering and sharing.

    Linda

  2. The rarest of opportunities presented itself today,this afternoon, I was able to sit in a quiet house and read your work, each paragraph – slowly and carefully – delighting in your choice of words and thoughts.

    I had opportunity to be still and fall in sync for at least a moment with the earth during Solstice… so glad your words led me this moment of peace, calm and stillness.

    SURFMOM,

    There are days when even the waves lie down, no? The natural world constantly is trying to remind us – there are rhythms to life, and we need to attend to them in order to tend to ourselves.

    Thanks so much for stopping by.

    Linda

  3. It’s ironic that this is the Season when we have to strive for peace and comfort. You’ve reminded us that ‘moments of solitude and silent attentiveness’ are indeed what we need to sculpt out of our busyness.

    Your post and the pictures have also conjured up fond memories as I too had visited the Stonehenge on a December day, two years ago. (Dec. 11, 07 post) There were quite a few visitors despite the howling wind. But the stones stood oblivious and silent, and it seemed like they had mastered that solitary calmness we all long for.

    Arti,

    I just smiled – I’d never thought of the stones as nature’s “strong, silent types”, but so they are.

    Was the fence there when you visited? I was shocked to recently see photos of Stonehenge with fencing. I suppose the point is to protect it, but it doesn’t seem right. It needs to be experienced as its been for centuries – open to the wind and sky.

    Linda

  4. When I saw Stonehenge in February almost 3 years ago, Linda, there was a misty rain falling. For me it was Gibran’s “tear and a smile” for the loss of innocence and the promise of spring. I circled the path to view her from every angle. I closed my eyes and saw the cloud of witnesses.

    Solstice IS a time of silence and of song. You have expressed it so well and your photos are perfect for both. Thank you.

    Ginnie,

    Here’s how truly bizzare my imagination can be – I see your “fishing man”, moved from his island and perched atop one of the stones, line dangling into the centuries. In a way, it’s the perfect way to approach these remnants of our history as a race – not imposing our meaning but casting around to see what meaning we might pull up from the depths.

    I wonder if the great cathedrals don’t appeal for much the same reason as Stonehenge – they’re one of the few things left in our world that can provide that same combination of silence and song, even in the midst of great cities.

    Blessed season to you and Astrid!

    Linda

  5. Hi Linda

    Thanks for restoring some of the magic of Stonehenge for me through this solstice post!

    Many years ago, I paid a visit in the summertime, coming away repelled by the high wire fencing, the hordes of mainly bored children being dragged along by their parents, the plastic replicas on keyrings, the shoddy commercialism. There was a palpable absence of any sense of the numinous – in total contrast to the ancient Standing Stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis which I visited in all seasons as a child – captivated by their starkness and ancient power.

    If I ever visit Stonehenge again, it will definitely be according to your timing!

    Anne

    Anne,

    How lovely to have you stop by. I’m so glad I could revive some good memories for you. The human ability to commercialize everything in sight can be truly breath-taking, and has ruined a destination or two for me in my own lifetime.

    Your mention of the numinous makes me wonder ~ have you read any of Loren Eiseley? His “The Star Thrower” is extraordinary. A naturalist with a poet’s soul and sensitivity, his reflections on the intersection of the human and natural worlds are marvelous.

    The year I visited Wiltshire was one of the loveliest Christmas celebrations of my life. Blessings to you and best wishes for an equally lovely season.

    Linda

  6. I am so sad I missed reading this yesterday – I need to start subscribing to blogs via RSS feed but if feels so, I don’t know, mechanical that way…lovely, lovely writing.

    S and I are actually traveling with his family and while I wouldn’t choose to be away from home every Christmas, it has felt like a lovely break from all of the chaos – few presents to give, nobody to bake for, nothing to do but pack a suitcase tonight and hop a plane…it’s a lovely change!

    Courtney,

    I may have the answer for you – subscribe via email. There’s a place on the sidebar to enter your email address, and new entries will arrive in your inbox about two seconds after I post them. Then, you either can read them as an email or click over to the site itself. I subscribed myself to be sure it was working properly, and it’s just great.

    It really can be a lovely break to travel on holidays. The years I was working in Liberia I went to Europe every Christmas. It was possible, through the kindness of a German corporation, to fly to either London or Frankfurt, and three weeks later to return to Liberia from either London or Frankfurt. It was such an opportunity – I spent one year just in London, one year primarily in France, and one year primarily in Germany.

    I do love Christmas, but that word of permission to let go of the trappings and just enjoy time with people we love is so wonderful. Enjoy the rest of your trip, and a blessed Christmas!

    Linda

  7. If you are in a silent place, with a quiet mind and a stilled heart, you can hear the earth catch her breath and pause, as she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

    These words really touched me. I think we often forget that our earth is a living, breathing form. We’d better start taking care of it just like we strive to take better care of ourselves.

    I also appreciate your response to Surfmom – The natural world constantly is trying to remind us – there are rhythms to life, and we need to attend to them in order to tend to ourselves. You just gave me permission to not feel guilty for sitting here most of the day. I’ve been on a go-go-go schedule lately, and it feels good (yet not quite right) to just sit for a while!

    Karen,

    I spend more time than I sometimes think I should, just sitting. I start to read – a blog, a comment – and my thoughts begin to wander or I get curious and start researching – suddenly I realize another hour is gone. But the truth is, it isn’t really gone, and even if there’s still dust on the bookshelves or an unmade bed, it doesn’t mean I’ve been “unproductive”.

    There are some things that just take time. Understanding, insight, personal transformation are among them, and they have their own rhythms. Just as our Christmas cactus lie dormant for a bit after their spectacular blooms, we need our own times of lying fallow before the cycle begins again.
    This may be our greatest misunderstanding of Advent and Christmas – we’ve turned an essentially meditative season into a frenzy of activity. It’s hard to hear a “still, small voice” in the midst of so much racket!

    Linda

  8. Brava. I hope this becomes an annual posting tradition.

    Nanette,

    As much as I love winter and the solstice, and as powerful as the experience was – why not?

    I like Andrew Wyeth’s words: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

    And after all, isn’t fleshing out “the whole story” what we’re after? Taking a good, clear-eyed look at the bones never hurts.

    Linda

  9. What a marvelous thought, “the earth pausing to catch her breath.”

    Stonehenge is wherever we may be if we let it be so, but it helps to be in such a place, at least once, to be made aware of it.

    This past October I visited the Three Rivers Petroglyphs site, in New Mexico. Up on a ridge surrounded by rocks covered in ancient drawings by a lost people I could look to the west and see the long expanse of white that is White Sands. At the north end of this is where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The juxtaposition of this with the petroglyphs as I stood under the deep blue sky and with the 12,000 foot peak of Sierra Blanca to the east was humbling and left me with a new perspective–a Stonehenge-like experience.

  10. My 14 year old brain is racked with your words; with what you truly meant. Then, I realized, you meant Silence.

    You made me smile today with all the irritation I’m starting to feel. I have appreciated silence and it’s beauty long long ago. You unveiled it’s beauty in a way that I can’t.

    It never passed to my mind that the Earth could breathe though I know it’s living.

    Thank you for your beautiful words. It touched my heart.

    (I hope you don’t mind if I link this on my blog. It’s too good it deserves to be read by others.)

    Belching Words

  11. Linda,

    I live in these lovely lines of prayerful thought. Your words reminded me of my own trip to Salisbury: The cathedral, the quaint town and the towering stones.I was so moved by my visit that I followed it up by reading the book Sarum.

    Leaning against the aged circled stones, thinking of all the people who had trodden the circle before me — the experience of being there somehow shrunk and expanded me all at once.

    It sounds crazy I know that this circle of stones could do both, but it’s the same with all of life — we play and we pause — we fast forward and we rewind — we breath in and we breathe out. There is a tension of opposites about life. And to fully experience life, we must do both. There is no choice.

    Ultimately, the biggest tension of all is that the born must ultimately die. And those words of T.S. Eliot about the dead praying tongued with fire — I pray in the silence that it may be so.

    Janell

    Janell,

    On my “about” page, I pose a series of “choices”, with my own preferences indicated. One choice is “either/or” vs. “both/and”. For decades now, I’ve understood “both/and” to be the only possible choice if we are to fulfill our humanity. Just as you say, we breathe in and we breathe out, we experience infinite longings and we’re confronted by immutable limits. It’s the way of life. To try to eliminate the tension in order to avoid the terrors of life is to miss the awe-filled beauty of life. Or so I believe.

    In any event, I’m never one to let go of Christmas easily. Eliot’s one who lets me hang on, just a bit, while the world goes on its way.

    Linda


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