Salisbury, Solstice and 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 reveals 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 one 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. 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 in exploring 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. No one stood behind me, no one stood beside. There were only the rocks, the sky and the hush of wind, singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as 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 be graced with the vertiginous joy which connects us to creation.

 

 

A second recounting of a wonderful experience. Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

8 thoughts on “Salisbury, Solstice and Song

  1. Hi Linda:

    I hear you. Since I was a teen I have lived alone due to circumstances. During my high school days, I lived in a room-and-board house. I enrolled myself at school, bought my own clothes, signed my report card, assisted to my teacher’s meetings, contracted my bus to school and so forth. I was living in Panama City and my parents lived in Bocas del Toro—about 500 kilometers away. Something similar happened when I traveled to Costa Rica to continue my college education. Alone in a foreign land.

    I know exactly what you mean by listening to the sounds of silence. Me, and me, and silence are one. Yes, it makes feel alive to be alone, without distracting noise, just me and silence.

    Yep, Linda, I hear you loud and clear…crystal clear. Thank you for your inspiring posts. Can’t wait till the next one is penned (or typed) down.

    Merry Christmas Linda!

    Omar.-

    Omar,

    I think it takes all of us some time to learn that solitude and loneliness aren’t the same. You may have learned that a little sooner than most. It’s a lesson we probably don’t appreciate until we meet solitude and begin to come to terms with it. Of course being alone – that is, without support – can be extraordinarily difficult for the disabled, the elderly, the young. But even difficult situations can be eased if we’re not terrified of solitude.

    As for silence – it’s a wonder and a gift. Here at my desk this evening, with no television, radio or music, I hear so many things that would pass unnoticed otherwise – a dog, the ducks, a few fish, a heron, a power tool, a helicopter, mockingbirds chattering to one another. And when all of that falls silent, there still are night sounds that are the perfect accompaniment to reading, thinking or writing. It’s probably no mistake one of my favorite carols of the season is “Silent Night”.

    Thank you so very much for your kind words – and Merry Christmas to you!

    Linda

  2. Thank you for sharing. I so enjoy your posts. The comment about “just a pile of rocks” reminds me of so many things in our lives that the judgement of others keeps us from enjoying, the things in life that really are the treasures or adventures in life.

    Hi, Lori,

    Isn’t it the truth? There are so many wonders in the world that go unseen – and more often than I like to admit, I’m the one looking right past them. On the other hand, I think it’s even more painful to discover a wonder and not have anyone to share it with. How many times have we seen a child come running with this or that, only to have it brushed aside by a busy or inattentive adult?

    I actually remember one of the first times I stood up against ridicule to claim a treasure. I was driving from Salt Lake City to Houston, and in the process of cutting across Nevada I found a huge tumbleweed lodged against some cactus. I’d never seen one, and I was entranced. I put it in the back seat of the car and started reconstructing the lyrics to the Sons of the Pioneers’ classic song. At one gas station a guy did ask what I had in my back seat. When I told him it was a tumbleweed he gave me a look and backed away.

    I’m so glad you enjoy my posts – I certainly enjoy the process of creating them. Stop by any time!

    Linda

  3. Thanks to a once-in-several-lifetimes event, a total lunar eclipse will take place tonight, coinciding with the winter solstice for the first time since 1638. For some looking for that “experience of deep connection” you wrote about, that should do the trick. Thank you, Linda, and Merry Christmas.

    Bronxboy,

    No experience of deep connection for me early this morning, but I did get to connect with some neighbors I’d not met as we stood around watching the eclipse. Viewing conditions were good, and there were some added pleasures for us city-dwellers – extra stars in the darkness of totality, and even a meteor or three. It was altogether worth setting the alarm for.

    Speaking just for me, one of the lessons of my Salisbury experience is that the best moments in life often come with the least publicity and preparation. I’ve never read C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy”, only excerpts, but it hardly matters. I think the title says it all. The best experiences, the most profound truths, the most satisfying adventures, often surprise us completely. We’d better be paying attention!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, as well.

    Linda

  4. Thanks for the reminder… The first Christmas took place in an obscure and deprived environment, no fanfare, no tweets, no emails, silent night. It’s becoming more and more difficult, as you point out, to attain a moment of quiet and solitude in our festive frenzy. And thanks to blogs like yours, we can enjoy some respite in the midst of hectic activities, allowing us time to ponder human mystery like the Stonehenge, or divine mystery like Christmas.

    Arti,

    I was very much struck by your simple distinction between human mystery and divine mystery. As I’ve followed various postings about solstice and the accompanying eclipse, I’ve been struck by the obvious hunger for “spiritual experience” expressed in them, as well as the tendency of folks to create new, complex rituals to substitute for Christian practices they’ve rejected. Sometimes I just shake my head, as I did when I found a description of Santa and Jesus as two separate but equal manifestations of the solstice.

    Perhaps it’s enough to say that all of us experience mystery. It’s identifying the source that can be tricky. I have my own convictions about that source, but at this point in the season I prefer celebration over explanation or argument.

    A blessed Christmas to you!

    Linda

  5. I like the idea of the winter solstice as “midwinter” instead of just its beginning. It’s wishful thinking, of course, especially here in the Northeast where you can count the number of overnight Fahrenheit degrees on two hands. But wishful thinking is what the heavens are for. So now the days start getting longer, even as the temperature continues to drop and the snow continues to pile up; snow on snow on snow.

    Al,

    What a gift you’ve brought. The phrase resonated immediately – “snow on snow on snow” – but I couldn’t place it until I saw the song. I don’t know quite how to say this, but that song always has seemed to me like a distillation of silence. It doesn’t fill the space where it’s sung, it enlarges it. That’s a poor way of putting it, so I’ll just say it’s a favorite, and I thank you for bringing it here.

    Mid-winter or only its beginning, I hope you find the season not at all bleak, but filled with light and warmth.

    Linda

  6. Linda,

    The winter solstice is very special around here. My grandson was born on December 21. This post makes me think of how quiet and centered he is. He’s only three, but he has a long attention span for a child his age. He’s always holding something or other in his hand and examining it. You can tell that he’s attempting to understand how it works. He often watches others and figures out how to do what they’re doing. We know this because he does it when they leave the room. We seldom even realize he’s doing it at the time. He’s so quiet about it.

    My granddaughter is his opposite. She’s all over the place, working the room, interacting and shaking things up. She sizes people up immediately. He’s inside his own head. Children are so interesting. I’m very curious about who they will turn out to be.

    Oh, my. See where your interesting post has taken me.

    Have a wonderful holiday with your mother. All the best.
    Bella

    Bella,

    With the wonderful week you have ahead of you, I’m not surprised the grandchildren are taking center stage in your mind. Your comment does make me smile. I started out very much like your grandson, veered into a life more like your granddaughter’s, and now I’m heading back to quiet and hidden.
    Perhaps we’re all a bundle of those possibilities, but of course can’t live them out all at once. I’ll say this – I’ve known one five-year-old who could “work a room”, and it was a wonder to behold!

    Enjoy the festivities and your family in the coming days. Merry Christmas to you!

    Linda

  7. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there in need of some time out from the holiday season rush by now, Linda. Wonderful words from you, as always.

    Interesting that you mention the solstices here. I have recently checked up on why it is that in most countries the seasons change on the 21st of a month (as here in Chile), and of course, it’s round the time of the solstice. Can’t find a real explanation of why the seasons change officially on the first of a month in Australia, though. All the best for the holidays…

    PS. Just as I was writing this, I got some enforced quiet time of my own, when the lights suddenly dropped to a very low level in our area!

    Andrew,

    Our seasons, too, are determined by solstice and equinox (vernal and autumnal). That’s very interesting about the Australians. I went looking and found a bit of an explanation here. As so often happens the answer raised more questions, about things like the “First Fleet”, but I’ll save those for some other time!

    Is the dimming of your lights a regular occurrence? Is it related to supply, or something else? You remind me of my days in Liberia, when we always knew if someone had failed to fuel up the diesel tanks for the generator – the light would slowly, slowly begin to dim as the fuel ran out!

    I hope your Christmas was lovely – I’m eager now for the New Year, which probably is my favorite holiday.

    Linda

  8. Well, you know me. I get hung up on a line that resonates and makes me pause and well up in some way. Here it is, right at the beginning: “I loves me some Christmas!” And then the following comment about the cookies. Sums it all up.

    Love Christmas, still loving it and thoroughly enjoyed your Eliot post though haven’t commented there cuz I gotta watch the video first! And then I think I have a compelling fact to add about Prufrock…!

    Happy, Happy Christmas week, Linda.

    oh,

    One of the best things about at least being aware of the liturgical calendar is that I manage every year to “make it through Christmas” with less stress and more enjoyment. After all – most of the world’s declared Christmas dead and buried, but we’ve still got nine days left to us! I don’t worry one bit about cards not arriving before the 25th, or not having all the baking done. There’s plenty of time to celebrate and to love the season and enjoy all the decorations and music and good food and drink. I will not allow the American retail merchandisers to tell me Christmas is over!

    I even thought this might be the year I’d get a post attached to one of my best titles ever – “The Ineffable Oh!” But I guess you’re going to have to wait until next year for that one. ;-)

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the little Eliot piece. I’m still astonished that he sounds so purely British, having come from St. Louis. But it’s been suggested he converted to England as much as the Anglican Church – perhaps it’s true. While he cherished his American roots, he clearly “became British” in the same sense that I’ve “become a Texan”.

    But I’m dying here – what do you know about J. Alfred?

    Linda

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