A Silent Singing

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in this more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her notebook in the checkout line.  “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 lie with the woman. My own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years. Still, I occasionally find myself thinking, while pulling trays from the oven or standing in line at the post office, I could stand some peace and quiet.

Some quiet would be especially nice. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing Justin Bieber’s version of All I Want For Christmas piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself.  While seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss, and the noise made by impatient drivers circling the shopping mall parking lots sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.

Even the hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning: What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   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 seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas, when what we’ve just had has left us exhausted, disappointed, or drained?

Seasonal excesses aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — to be well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though often hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world some years ago, while on holiday in England. After stopping in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn where I could settle, and soon came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. Cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns should be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge — “that pile of rocks in a pasture,” as another guest put it. Aghast, they implored, “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might be better visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that probably meant, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying.”

Acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations are more publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of a cold weather visit. “For one thing,” they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” At the time, that was true.

Lured by twin promises of unclogged roads and good conversation, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore.

While I knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and that on that day the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word itself — solstice — comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one legend recounted by my hosts, not only the sun stops his movement at the time of solstice. Those who happen to be in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, may hear the earth herself pause: taking time to catch her breath while she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old “pile of rocks in a pasture.” When we arrived, crowds that had gathered for celebration on the day of solstice were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds,  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence so complete I could hear blood beating in my ears, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me. There were only the rocks, the sky, and a hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that 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.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

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, 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 the sun is lowering, and the pause will come; soon enough, the solstice will arrive. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our over-filled lives to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing for ourselves a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may well find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing silence over our world’s cold-singed plain will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

Comments always are welcome.

111 thoughts on “A Silent Singing

  1. How fortunate you were to have hosts of this kind! I love the image of the earth stopping to take a breath before starting the other way. I might panic if I knew exactly what second that would be. . What if it didn’t turn? Good that I don’t know.

    1. The innkeepers were delightful hosts, and did their best to amuse us. Especially amusing was the night they lingered a bit too long at the pub, somehow misplaced their keys, and had to pound on the door of their own inn to rouse their guests to let them in. Good times!

      Thinking about that moment when the earth turns is like contemplating the present: the moment when the future becomes the past. Even though we can’t pinpoint the exact moment, time keeps flowing, and the earth keeps turning. Now and then, it’s good to stop and pay attention to what we naturally take for granted.

  2. Two powerful places separated by a few miles and several thousand years. As it happens, I was there — not intentionally — at the summer solstice, more than 45 years ago, when one could walk into the stone circle and touch the standing stones. I found the cathedral to be as evocative as the circle of stones; something I didn’t expect. Thank you for “vertiginous joy.” A happy phrase. Since this is my season to reread good ol’ Sir Gawain, I have to think that Guinevere — if not Arthur — were just as beset by the task of entertaining a couple hundred guests at Camelot during Kristmasse. They expected CONSTANT entertainment. More games, more food, more jousts, more drink, more gifts! That tradition of “hospitality” is ingrained into the season, long, long before we inherited it from our grandparents’ era. Be merry.

    1. It was an interesting experience to see stone put to such different uses. In a forced choice between the two, I’d choose not to make a choice. The juxtaposition of Christmas and solstice experiences in such a place was remarkable.

      As for hospitality, my innkeepers understood how to make travelers feel at home. On Christmas morning, an orange and a peppermint stick were lying outside each door. I wasn’t the only one who remembered oranges in the toes of Christmas stockings, and a candy cane looped over the top.

      As for excess: it has its place. For years, I’ve been trying to find a poem I clipped from either The New Yorker or The Atlantic and then lost along the way. I can see its placement on the page, and remember a few phrases, but the title and author have escaped me. I’m about to put a reference librarian on it, since I know I clipped it between 1977 and 1987.

      The heart of the poem is a son’s reflection on the poinsettia he buys his mother every Christmas, and her resistance to the gift because of its extravagance. As he says (more poetically), why shouldn’t we light candles, share food and drink, offer one another gifts? After all, “they help to make the season stay.” I suspect Guinevere and Arthur understood that, too.

      1. That’s a happy phrase, “make the season stay.” Of course, we get Arthur and Gwyn as told by any number of tale-tellers imagining a court of wealth and luxury at the edge of imagination, but, yes, they were making the season stay in high style. An excellent thought for today. Thank you.

    1. Often, the best travel experiences aren’t planned. I can’t even imagine why I wasn’t intending to go to Stonehenge — there must have been a reason — but I’m glad that circumstances sent me there, and I’m glad for the experience.

  3. For some reason, I have read the poem twice with an ever increasing appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s very meaningful words. I tried to decipher the exact meaning of his words and with each reading, I discovered a profoundness and an insightful and imaginative creation.

    Visiting Stonehenge in the winter seems an ideal time with little to no tourists about to distract ones appreciation of the site and experience. The photo of Stonehenge that hangs on your wall is surely memorable.

    Here’s wishing you a lovey holiday season that will leave you happy but not exhausted. Be well.,Linda and know that you are appreciated for your well crafted blog that soothes, delights, and inspires.

    1. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” the series of four poems from which that excerpt was taken, might be enough to keep me happy on a desert island. I’ve never tired of them, or failed to be re-inspired by them. I can’t read them fast, though, and I can’t take large chunks of them at one time. They’re like a rich dessert; they need to be consumed in small portions.

      From what I’ve read, Stonehenge has suffered the same fate as many of our national parks and wilderness areas: a huge increase in the number of visitors has led to changes. It’s no longer possible to walk among the stones without purchasing a special permit. A gift shop, a shuttle bus, a museum and café — all of the usual services are there for a million visitors each year. By the time I finished reading the current information about how to plan a visit to Stonehenge, I was grateful beyond words that I was able to visit when I did. I can’t imagine going back.

      Thanks for your good wishes, Yvonne, and for those kind words about my blog. I hope your Christmas is delightful.

  4. I’ve seen a lot of photos of Stonehenge but never one taken in the winter with snow. The above image is truly breathtaking. I’ve always imagined the place would be filled with tourists on the winter solstice coming up soon. Have a good holiday season, Linda, doing whatever it is that makes you happy and content.

    1. I was surprised by the number of winter photos online. Given the million or so yearly visitors and the number of camera phones being carried, I suppose it makes sense. Some of the tour sites remind people that time of year no longer makes a difference; it’s always crowded, and special access permits that allow small groups to wander among the stones have to be purchased months in advance. Things have changed, and I’m not sure the kind of experience I had is possible now.

  5. Speaking of “a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans,” seven years is older enough to make a world of difference. When I looked back at your version of this post from 2011, my first reaction was to wonder what led you to make the minor changes that you did. Then the the idea came to do an experiment, and I started clicking on the names of commenters. Of the first four who had blogs of their own then, I found that all have reached a solstice in posting; for all I know, one or more have reached a solstice in their lives. Then I began to find commenters who are still posting. And of course you’ve acquired many new readers since 2011. Sometimes we would like the world to stand still, but it doesn’t. One constant in our lives is change.

    1. It’s always interesting to look at comments from several years ago. Of the group who commented on the post you mentioned, three have died and are no longer with us. Another three made conscious decisions to stop blogging, but most still are around. There were only one or two I didn’t remember. Probably the most poignant comment was from the woman who edited the collection of poetry where I first was published. She and Ella Ella were as close to writing mentors as I’ve had, and now they’re both gone.

      As for making changes, it seems I’m in good company when it comes to that. I recently read this delightful article about Charles Dickens and his propensity to change A Christmas Carol — over and over. He did it for different reasons, but it still tickled me.

      One of the nice things about a blog is that revision is possible. Once a novel or series of essays is published in a book, there’s no changing it, so it’s best to have it ‘right’ before proceeding.

  6. Oh, and in the world of etymology, where everything is change, at ancestry.com I found this for the origin of Salisbury: “habitational name from the city in Wiltshire, the Roman name of which was Sorviodunum (of British origin). In the Old English period the second element (from Celtic dun ‘fortress’) was dropped and Sorvio- (of unexplained meaning) became Searo- in Old English as the result of folk etymological association with Old English searu ‘armor’; to this an explanatory burh ‘fortress’, ‘manor’, ‘town’ was added. The city is recorded in the Domesday Book as Sarisberie; the change of -r- to -l- is the result of later dissimilation.”

    1. The ‘Domesday Book’ intrigued me. I wondered if it were a misspelling of ‘doomsday.’ In short: no. ‘Domesday’ is an archaic spelling of ‘doomsday,’ and (as you probably know) the Domesday Book is a manuscript record of the Great Survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror. The Wiki entry for the Domesday Book notes that “the word ‘doom’ was the usual Old English term for a law or judgment; it did not carry the modern overtones of fatality or disaster.”

      I wondered, too, about the dish known as Salisbury steak. I was surprised to learn that it was invented by an American physician, Dr. J. H. Salisbury. The term “Salisbury steak” has been in use in the United States since 1897, but it doesn’t have any connection to England’s Salisbury, unless the good doctor’s ancestors lived there or took the name.

  7. Your beautiful piece has brought to mind a similar experience I had in England on a wintery day. I was at school in Durham taking a walk on a snowy Sunday, when the cathedral bells began to ring. The sound brought me to the doors of the building and then inside. The next thing I knew I was seated and listening to a service in a building where people had worshipped for centuries. Like you, I felt a connection to those that came before me.

    1. I can imagine the scene you’ve described, and how moving it must have been. There is something about a cathedral — the space, the beauty, the hush that comes over people when they enter — that points us beyond ourselves. To have all that combined with a walk in the snow and the sound of the bells would have been lovely — and it clearly gave you a wonderful memory.

  8. A fine bit of writing. I especially enjoyed the mention of both Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge at Christmas/Solstice. Aside from the simple agrarian practicality of Stonehenge, sacred sites deliver a message, “the world is about more than you… a lot more” and inherent in that message is another, “you are more than you… a lot more.”

    1. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I can’t help wondering whether the refusal of those messages isn’t responsible for some of our troubles, both as individuals and as a society. One thing is certain; it can take a lifetime to fully appreciate them.

  9. Go outside and lay down late at night looking up into the universe, and you will feel that same feeling of connectedness as you first experienced at Stonehenge. Often while backpacking in the mountains alone it brings me to the point of tears.

    1. I rarely see that kind of night sky, living as I do in the middle of urban light pollution. But I have seen it, and remember the sense of wonder it evokes. When you share photos and descriptions of your trips, I’m always glad for those glimpses into a world that’s so much closer to us than we imagine.

  10. I love to hear the choir(s) singing in (English) cathedrals!
    Have a wonderful pre-Christmas week,
    P.S.: I’m happy that Mary has been very busy baking cookies so that I can eat them soon.

    1. There’s nothing like a pile or two of cookies to make a man happy — or a woman, for that matter. Christmas and cookies go together like Santa and his sleigh, but I hope you don’t have to wait until Christmas to begin enjoying them!

  11. You have reminded me that I have felt this presence, too. First, of course, was at the feet of a redwood as a child. Many years later I found it at Illinois Beach State Park. It amazes me that in this crowded world I can be utterly alone walking on the dunes along the lake. Alone, and very much accompanied. Thank you for the reminder~ I know what I am going to do on the solstice!

    1. “Alone, and very much accompanied…” That’s it, isn’t it? People have asked from time to time whether I’m not lonely when I’m out in nature by myself. It’s quite the opposite. I’m not sure we can be lonely when we’re taken out of ourselves, and when I’m walking the prairie, focused entirely on what surrounds me, the refreshment it brings is substantial. I’m sure it’s the same for you on your dune walks, or at Grant Woods. There’s a place for thinking and learning, but that comes later. First comes the experience, with all its surprises and joys.

      1. I couldn’t agree more, and I am so happy that you have places too where you can experience this. It would be awful if we had to travel to some distant and crowded spot!
        A couple of days ago Pete and I were walking a relatively new trail. I like it because there is a hill to push myself up, and because there is a loop that matches my endurance at about a mile. A series of small ponds nestle within the loop, and the trail is graced with a few very nice oak trees and a long, gracefully curved boardwalk . Otherwise it isn’t much, in terms of natural quality. Just a nice place to walk. So as I stood admiring one of my favorite trees I noticed a man doing the same. It turns out he is a landscape architect, working for the Forest Preserve District. I was so pleased to meet him. I had the pleasure of telling him how much we enjoy the park he designed. What your said echoes my thoughts~there are places and times for learning, but there is much to be said about a place where you can simply be in the experience. This is such a place.

  12. What a lovely reflection… I feel this presence often when I am anywhere outdoors. It’s fairly powerful at times, or a minute wonder – you never know what will present itself.

    I just finished making 1330 sugar cookies for gifts. This year it took me five days from dough making to frosting and decorating. I’m cutting wax paper today, and boxing them up Wednesday for Forrest to deliver on Thursday. I don’t know how many more years I can manage such a massive project, but I am still enjoying it

    1. Your sensitivity to the world around you shines in your writing. It takes practice to see what is, as opposed to what we expect to see, and your willingness to take the time to practice ‘seeing’ yields great benefits.

      I’m trying to imagine 1330 decorated sugar cookies, and I must say I’m impressed that you managed that in five days. Of all the cookies in the world, though, decorated sugar cookies are the most fun to make, and it doesn’t surprise me that you’re still doing it and enjoying it.

      My mother used to use red plastic cutters that were about a half inch deep for my sugar cookies. You pressed the dough into the cutter to get 3-D cookies. She always made some Santas for me, with a coconut beard and raisin eyes. I still have the cutters in their original box, and something was nagging at me. I just pulled down the box, and sure enough: the recipe for “Aunt Chick’s Cookies” is on one side, and information about what I assume was the company on the other. The company, “The Four McB’s” was in Tulsa. The four McBs were the four children of Nettie McBirney, who inherited the company after Mrs. McBirney retired.

      I wondered if the company still was around, and a quick search showed that it’s been transformed into Gramma’s Cutters: of course they have a website. You can even see a photo of the wonderful Santa cookies here.

      1. Wow! Those are fancy cookies! Is Aunt Chick’s Cookie recipe an easy one? Years ago I found the easiest, most tasty sugar cookie recipe from a 1980’s cookbook, The Orange Bowl Cookbook. Every recipe I have ever tried from that book has been a winner! I have a few photos from this year’s cookie production and I plan to do a blog post soon!

        My cookies are not so fancy as the ones in the link you provided. I used to pipe a lot of detail on cookies, and they were beautiful and fancy, but it just takes too much time. I just frost and then sprinkle sugars on. Today I’m boxing them up for gifts for Forrest to deliver to his coworkers tomorrow. I’ve broken two so far… and I promptly ate the evidence!!

        1. The recipe is easy. I think the dough might be a little stiffer, since it needs to be pressed into the cutter. I’ve been meaning to add the recipe from the side of the box to my collection. When I do, I’ll send you a copy.

          Mom only went all out with a few Christmas trees and stars, and of course the Santas. Those were the cookies I put out for Santa every year, with the glass of milk. I think I was convinced they’d make Santa more kindly disposed toward me!

          I just looked, and found the original cutters on Etsy and eBay, so they’re around.

            1. When I got out the box, I discovered that I have an extra star, and a stocking with toys sticking out the top. You can have those, and I’ll keep one star, the tree and the Santa.

  13. I feel that the best response to your post is to observe a “moment of silence” right here and now. And then to read Eliot’s verse again. Your experience of Stonehenge is just as seems fitting to me. When my daughter and I were in England in 2005 we visited three stone circles, but the one on Salisbury plain was not on our list.

    At the ones we did visit, that sense of connectedness was primary for me. I wrote about this on my blog once, the feeling that we share so much with our distant ancestors who also sought the Absolute, the numinous. I think of the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” which I think we sing at this time of year, too, in my parish. Thank you, Linda!

    1. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is a favorite of mine. For years I knew it only as a hymn meant for congregational singing. Recently, I found that it has quite a history. One site says that “evidence suggests the Greek text of “Let All Mortal Flesh” may date back to the fifth century. The present text is from the Liturgy of St. James, a Syrian rite thought to have been written by St. James the Less, first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is based on a prayer chanted by the priest when the bread and wine are brought to the table of the Lord.”

      Like stone circles on a plain, chant can draw us into a different kind of silence, as well as a sense of deep connectedness with those who’ve worshipped before. The chants from your tradition also can provide an opportunity to experience the numinous. I think this is one of the most beautiful versions I’ve heard.

    1. You would have been a fine traveling companion, John. I think we would have needed to leave the girls at home, though! We’re so used to thinking of the solstice in terms of darkness and light, it’s interesting to consider it in terms of a mythical stop. To paraphrase an old and somewhat worn saying, it’s easier to curse the darkness than to stop and appreciate it.

  14. I love this! Especially since I’m in the grip of Christmas mania (it’s not cookies, it’s YARN that I might have to forswear!). I envy you your trip to Stonehenge. But I’ll heed the notion that I can create that same experience for myself!

    1. I can hear the clacking of those needles from here. Once I was older and had moved on from dolls as Christmas gifts, I heard my mother’s tales of sitting up until 3 a.m. to make doll clothes, certain that she’d not get it all done in time. Of course, she had one advantage you don’t — she didn’t have to be at work the next day.

      Since the solstice arrives on Friday afternoon this year, you might have a better shot at finding an hour to pause. Well, ok — a half-hour?

  15. I always find myself looking forward with eager anticipation the arrival of the winter solstice. My mood lightens considerably when I realize that winter’s darkness soon will give way to spring’s sunshine. I suppose that’s why I tend to gravitate to a sunny window during the winter months. Or to a bright light. Gee, I sound like a moth or a ladybug, don’t I?!?

    This is a beautiful post, Linda. I think the church wants us to s-l-o-w down during Advent, to prepare our minds and hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth, and to forego so many of those hectic trappings we’re prone to — the shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, etc. I love how you’ve expressed it, listening for the earth’s pause. We probably should pause and breathe, too!

    1. Although I don’t favor hurrying the seasons along, I do enjoy longer days. A friend and I were going to make a trek last weekend to a spot about two hours from here, when we realized we couldn’t manage it because she had to be home before dark to feed her horses. When “dark” arrives so early, running-around time sometimes gets curtailed.

      The call to slow down in Advent certainly is opposed to the pressures our culture puts on us to speed up in order to cram more purchasing and partying into the season. Many people assume the Christmas season ends on December 25 (or December 26, for those who celebrate Boxing Day). But for the faithful, December 25 is only the beginning of those famous “Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s the best of both worlds — we get to anticipate for four weeks, and then extend the celebrations for nearly two more!

      1. I’m one who really enjoys the “after-Christmas” continuation, too. Not the sales so much, but the ongoing celebration — the story of the Wise Men following the star, for example. And I refuse to take down the decorations until Epiphany!

  16. Very good, Linda. I can feel the Christmas better. Your description of the Christmas as exposed in shopping and canned ‘silent night’ music in the Meccas of consumerism was happily relieved by your visit to Stonehenge. Oh, that lovely dusting of some snow.

    Christmas in the heat of summer, with the migration of millions of Bogong noctuid moths darkening the sky often is a sign we have reached the longest day in Australia. That, and the cacophony of nature’s orchestra of cicadas doing their bit within the barked eucalyptus trees.

    It is Christmas indeed.

    1. I think one of the best things about experiencing Christmas in quite different places is that it helps to place focus on the meaning of the holiday more than on its external trappings. You no doubt had snow and cold in Holland, just as I did in Iowa. Now, you have Australia and I have Texas, and I suspect your definition of “a real Christmas” has changed as much as mine.

      Your mention of the migrating moths did give me pause. I wondered if Santa and his reindeer find them problematic, like chaff released from an airplane. Probably not, but it’s still fun to think about.
      Our cicadas carried on rather long into the fall, but they’ve fallen silent. I’m glad you have them; their singing’s as sweet as any carol.

  17. You have given me a different and personal feel to a visit to Stonehenge. Who would want to go when it was full of tourists? I like the image of Earth taking her breath to pause for a moment. Your words guided us along on your visit and made it seem magical if one stops to listen.

    For Christmas I do less and less but remember the days when I was ready for the whole season to be over – too much stress. Now I seem to enjoy it more by taking shopping, decorating and baking less seriously and focus on family and friends and what I have. Like the presidential campaigns, the Christmas season begins way too early! A lovely post that makes us pause and ponder!

    1. Today, it seems that Stonehenge always is filled with tourists; it’s necessary to have a ticket and a timed entrance. Only a few can wander among the stones, and no one is allowed to touch them.

      It’s the same dynamic that’s caused a reevaluation of things even in our area. I read a most interesting article by someone who pointed out that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and social media have made some of our most fragile spots magnets for tourists. Many of them want nothing more than a selfie in a pretty place, and the disregard for the history or nature of the spot isn’t helpful. Lost Maples is one of the places that was mentioned, as well as more well known traffic jams like Yellowstone.

      I’m not sure how so many traditions transformed from “I’d like to” into “I must.” Some Christmas preparations I grew up thinking were necessary — especially when it came to decorating and baking — probably were a response to the deprivations of WWII. My dad once told me that when my mother could get her hands on all the sugar, butter, flour and eggs she wanted, she went a little crazy. That explains the flood of cookies, candies, cakes, and bread that always showed up at our house.

  18. Beautifully written Linda. A fine gift for Christmas. Thank you. And I was truly amused by: “sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.” –Curt

    1. Thanks, Curt. I knew someone would respond to my demented geese — of course it was you! Geese have been more rare around here in recent years as fields have been taken out of rice production, but I found hundreds — nay, thousands — of them in a field filled with sheet water about two weeks ago. They were giving each other the business, and it was impossible not to laugh.

  19. It’s good from time to time to stop, stay still and re-form or re-clarify our perspective. Your post is a good reminder that the winter solstice may be an excellent time to do it. There is a lot of clarity available on a cold winter day.

    1. I smiled at your comment about winter clarity. After a strong frontal passage, when the humidity drops and the wind lays, I can see across the entirety of Galveston Bay from the top of a local bridge: past the freighters in the ship channel to a spot known as Smith Point that’s fifteen miles or so away. On some days, it’s even possible to see the stacked cargo on the ships.

      As for stopping, staying still, and taking the lay of the land, I’ve learned to do that even on marked trails. It’s not a bad approach to our path through life, either.

  20. My husband asked me just this morning when the Winter Solstice was. ” This Friday,” I answered, “…you mean the darkest day of the year?” “Yes,” he answered, “…because everyday after Friday, the sun will be out just a little longer.”

    You’d think for a couple of people approaching 70, we wouldn’t have such a conversation, one that has been repeated year after year, when the days shorten, when the sun slides behind our mountain by 3:00 or so, when we look at the clock at 9:00 pm and head to bed.

    And yet, like the predictability of the seasons and the sun, the tides and moon, that quiet moment when the world and busyness seem to play freeze tag for just a second, we all know that warmer, sunnier days are ahead.

    I go into the basement and tell my Begonia Tubers this same story. They seem to appreciate it.

    1. Those repetitive conversations are as predictable as the cycles of the sun, and as cheering. They’re reminders that we’ve been here before, and that, if all goes well, we’ll be here again. It’s like the conversations between old farmers in front of the store. “Looks like rain.” “Yup — sure does.” “They say it might.” “Guess we’ll see.” Fade out.

      I’m glad you passed the word on to the begonias. I knew we were coming up to the turn when my Christmas cactus started putting out buds. It took me years to figure out their bloom is triggered by light rather than temperature, but so it is. There still are begonias blooming outdoors here; they’re welcome bits of color among the pansies and snapdragons.

    1. The world is a big, beautiful, interesting place. I’m glad I’ve been able to experience as much of it as I have, and I’m glad you enjoyed the telling of the story.

  21. Ah, Linda, how eloquently you state the case for silence, for the possibilities it reveals to us. These lines of the poem, ‘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.’ reminded me that New Zealanders have a deep connection to a place very close to Stonehenge; Sling Camp. https://www.noted.co.nz/currently/history/bulford-chalk-kiwi-carved-into-english-hill/ Apparently, when the New Zealanders were training at Sling Camp they had to be careful not to desecrate tumuli.

    1. I presume there might have been a tumult, had the tumuli been desecrated!

      That was one of the most interesting, most convoluted stories I’ve read in some time. What surprises me is that, given the amount of reading I’ve done over the years about Stonehenge, Salisbury, Avesbury, and Wiltshire, I’ve never once heard of this. You would think that someone might mention a huge kiwi on a hill, even if only in a postscript. I’m glad that it’s got some protection now; it’s quite a memento of a difficult time.

      1. Yes, you would think it would be hard to miss a huge kiwi. I would like to see it, simply because Sling Camp is mentioned in letters from my grandfather, although I don’t think he actually trained there. If I recall correctly, he visited his brother at Sling Camp.

  22. that was lovely. there are many sacred places, the whole earth in fact if we just pay attention. maybe not the teeming cities but just about every place bereft of humans. if you are quiet, if you open your heart and mind, the hum of existence, the energy or power that imbues it all can be felt.

    1. Even in the cities, there can be experiences of connectedness, or even awe. Granted, 4 p.m. on the 610 Loop probably isn’t going to provide such, but we never know. As for that hum of existence, I still think from time to time about how empty and silent the house felt after Dixie Rose’s death. There is something about every form of life that is discernible, if only we attune ourselves to it.

  23. I am all in favor of simplifying the holidays. Often there is more frenzy than peace. Thanks for sharing the beautiful description of your visit to Stone Henge, and the lessons you took from it.

    1. I’ve never been frenzied because of the holidays, but I certainly have been over-extended and exhausted at times. I’m glad those days are behind me, and I’m glad I’ve learned that abundance and extravagance aren’t precisely the same thing.

      As for Stonehenge, the experience became a touchstone for me, and it pleases me to share it.

  24. We live in such a noisy world anymore, a world that has forgotten how to be, not just quiet, but still. People don’t know how to simply sit still and be quiet and entertain a meditative frame of mind. There is an immense presence to Stonehenge, a gravitas of place and time. What most people don’t know is that the solstice Stonehenge was built to celebrate was not the summer, but the winter. Prayers must be made to make sure that, after the interminable darkness of the longest night, the light came back.

    1. In the context of your comment, it’s interesting to ponder the verse from the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.” If being still’s the first step, we may increasingly be cutting ourselves off from something important to us all.

      Quite apart from the people of Stonehenge, even our grandparents’ generation was more sensitive to the falling dark and rising light than we are today. We grump about daylight saving time changes, and moan about shorter days in winter, but then we turn on the lights, and the stars disappear. I suppose turning on a light is easier than waiting for a turn of the earth.

  25. Thanks for the lovely juxtaposition in pictures of the cathedral and Stonehenge, both sacred places in their own way. We were at these sites some years ago, although in summer, and found them touching as well. It is interesting how sometimes a place just grabs you, and as you note, you know not when or how. These experiences cannot be orchestrated, but we can remain open and attentive for their arrival, it seems.

    1. I think it’s perfectly possible for us to fall in love with places as well as with people. You’ve reminded me of those wonderful lines from the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “Some Enchanted Evening”:

      Who can explain it, who can tell you why?
      Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.

      Of course, it can go the opposite way, as well. Places (or art, or experiences) that others rave about may not touch us at all emotionally, even though we may be interested and appreciative. Remaining unmoved isn’t a fault; it’s only a reality of this complex thing we call life.

    1. Even if in daily life we’re not privy to the sort of extraodinary experience I had at Stonehenge, the truth is that we can find — or create — a little peace for ourselves in the midst of a chaotic world. There are people and groups who profit (in one way or another) from keeping us fearful, angry, and resentful, and learning how to resist them is important. It’s better for our blood pressure, for one thing!

    1. Well, we’re in the same boat then, because I’m often wishing I could travel to some of the places others visit, or see other wonderful sights. On the other hand, remembering even a handful of such experiences is delightful — and who’s to say such an experience couldn’t come in a kitchen or on a dock? We never know!

  26. Greetings, Linda,

    I loved this meditative post and am about to share it on my Facebook page as we await the Winter Solstice. I grew up on the Island of Lewis off Scotland which has its own world- famous stone circle: the Standing Stones at Callanish. I recall wandering alone, fascinated, round those stones at various times during my childhood. There was nothing there then but the Stones, the wild weather that often scoured them, and their potent, mysterious atmosphere. I’m glad to say that when the inevitable tourist upgrade arrived, it was done sensitively in a secluded area away from the Stones so that one can still, on a wild winter’s day, partake of an uncanny atmosphere lost in Time’s mists.

    I have been to Stonehenge…would never go back…

    And – I just loved Salisbury Cathedral when we visited it two years ago.

    May you find peace and silence as the seasons turn.


    1. Every time I think about your childhood, it seems impossibly wonderful to me. Every childhood has its complications, of course, but an early introduction to the Bronte sisters left me certain that anyone who had contact with a moor was blessed. Like you, I’m not drawn to Stonehenge these days. I’ve seen the photos, and prefer visiting places that still are less populated than many good-sized towns. A friend is convinced even the spirits that have dwelt at Stonehenge have fled, and are more likely to be encountered in places unknown to the tourists.

      In any event: here’s to a year of unexpected encounters, and a world blessed with more peace and stability than we currently enjoy!

  27. What a remarkable experience, Linda. How fortunate to find not only a place to stay at that time but also hosts who would actually take you to Stonehenge and tell you about it. It’s never called me. But you might make me reconsider! I can imagine at Solstice, it would be particularly special.

    Which reminds me, I need to get my Solstice tree out. I could use a little of that solitude tomorrow but it’s going to be shattered as we will have to go to Detroit to do Christmas with the kids and I’m not looking forward to it. I fear that on the 23rd (Festivus) there will be the airing of grievances — if everyone can wait that long. It doesn’t help that I’ve been sick for two weeks and keeping going — even having fun with enough meds, but it got ugly (because I didn’t go to the doc till Monday). Believe me, that silence sounds really good right now. I’ll get my holly jolly back because I didn’t study theater four years for nothing. Comes in handy.

    I long for that experience where you think someone is behind you but they aren’t. And they’re not even hiding in the bushes or shadows. That alone but not alone. That sounds incredibly special.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Stonehenge seems less appealing to you than, say, central London. I did have to laugh at the mention of your solstice tree. I was going to say I only have one tree this year, as opposed to your collection, but that’s not strictly true. In addition to the primary Christmas tree, I’ve also put out the white ceramic one that my mother made (remember those 1960s trees with little lights?) and two metal trees with copper tipped branches. So: four trees for me. How many for thee?

      Clearly, I didn’t watch Seinfeld closely enough. What does the airing of grievances have to do with Festivus? All I remember is that it’s the festival for the rest of us, and that there’s a pole involved. Maybe it’s time to refresh my memory — except, I don’t have any grievances to air. At least, not that come to mind. I’m grievance deprived right now! I certainly hope that you’re feeling better — or at least that, once the trip’s over, you have a little time to recover — and that no one’s aggrieved at you!

      I wonder if that alone-but-not experience isn’t part of what draws us to cemeteries, and to places like cathedrals. Supposedly empty spaces so often aren’t.

  28. I’d love to see Stonehenge at a solstice but if I could get there, the crowds these days would probably put me off. But as you say, one can find a quiet place to mark the turning just about anywhere – I hope yours is peaceful.

    1. Exactly. I’d never go back to Stonehenge, because of the crowds. Once a place begins shuttling visitors in vans, and requiring timed tickets, I might still go, but I probably wouldn’t. The world still is filled with magical places, places marked by silence and beauty — as your photos so clearly show. Seeking out those places provides a different but equally satisfying experience.

  29. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking post. I’m reminded of something John Metcalf, a composer I met in Wales many years back, said about poetry: about the importance of the silences between the words. And I love the way you pull back from the present to this: “What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans.” Isn’t it the truth? I am reminded, by all of this, Wallace Stevens’s poem, The Snowman:

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    1. I’ve not read that poem before, and it’s exceptionally interesting. It took a few reads to figure out what I was feeling, and I finally got it. It’s like watching snow swirl downward, until it comes to rest in a drift, or watching someone walk away during a snowstorm (even just to the end of the drive to get the paper) until they disappear into the flakes. The poem’s like a deep sigh: audible, then fading into nothingness. Wonderful.

      There’s plenty of silence between his words!

    1. And a merry Christmas to you, Bella. I want you to know I enjoyed your latest post, despite your second thoughts about posting it. A little genial grumping is good for the soul, so just know there was at least one person who sympathized. I am hoping there will be photos of the grands post-holiday. It’s amazing to me how they’ve grown — time does race by.

  30. Oh Linda! You have set my hair on end, skin all a-prickle; lasting through the post and beyond. E’en now it tingles, while Ave Maria flows all around – auld, yet nowhere as ancient as the energy that flowed from The Stones, to you, to us…

    1. There are some experiences we never forget, and some stories we never tire of telling. I’m glad this one touched you, Deb. May we all be blessed with a similar experience or two in the coming year.

  31. Peace and quiet is what you’ll find at the Pond where the only sound is a pebble being thrown in. Thanks for the T. S. Eliot poem, that name has an additional meaning now. Can’t imagine but it’s real that Arti has a grandson now (3 weeks old) and his name is Elliot Levi. A passing mention in my current Christmas post but you know me, I treasure my privacy most dearly. :)

    1. One thing is certain. I’ll never forget your grandson’s name, because my mother’s maiden name was Elliott. That’s quite a coincidence, and a delightful one. Christmas surely will be even more special for you this year. I did notice that little mention, and was so happy for you. It’s quite a blessing, and will enrich your lives for many years to come.

  32. We have to find our own peace and quiet, each in our own way. Seems to be more difficult to find such environments as more and more people flock to places as you describe, like Stonehenge. Appreciate your descriptive words.

    1. It can be harder to find that peace and quiet you mention, although we have more control over it in our day-to-day lives than many realize. Of course, what’s most special is when that same heart-soothing quietness, that same peace, finds us. That’s not so predictable, and not at all controllable. The only thing required of us is receptivity.

  33. I know those old stones on the Salisbury plain from books (Iris Murdoch and John Cowper Powys), but I’d love to experience them directly and connect in some uncanny way with the people who shaped them long ago. Hope your solstice was peaceful!

    1. I hope you do have the opportunity some day: although, from what I’ve read, you’d best try for off-season, and very early or very late in the day. A little bad weather wouldn’t hurt, either, since the popularity of Salisbury plain has soared of late. Still, bad weather at dawn or dusk seems just the right setting for a meeting with the people of the stones. I wonder what they’d think of us?

  34. Many people believe that Stonehenge was built as a solar calendar… so maybe you just chanced to be at a certain part of it at the correct moment to feel what you felt. Despite not having been there since childhood, I love the place and have a lot of family photos taken there at the time (1950s) when it was freely possible to visit without any hassle from ‘officials’.

    But you’re right that this kind of experience can be had at different times and in different places – a lot of it is in our hearts and the way we are bound to our planet and the timestream.

    1. How wonderful to have such a place in your back yard, so to speak. I still remember my first days in London, and how permeated with history everything seemed to be. To see Roman ruins was remarkable enough, but those Roman and medieval times are certainly bested by Stonehenge.

      The beauty of those moments of connectedness we experience may well lie in their unpredictability. We like to think we’re in control of nearly everything, these days — while we hardly can control ourselves, and certainly don’t control the movements of the heavens. It’s no wonder these fleeting glimpses of that earlier world intrigue us as they do.

  35. The solstice in the tropics is not felt as strongly as in the temperate zone, although the shadows always speak for themselves in either places. I always think of impermanence when witnessing these events, but in a positive way. Transition can be a very good thing.

    1. It’s interesting that while seasons, solstices, and equinoxes suggest impermanence and change, the cycle itself is stable and reassuring. Even the variations we see in such seasonal occurences as bloom time are just that: variations that result from any number of factors. Day and night alternate; the seasons proceed in order. The earth tilts on its axis, and then moves back. It really is remarkable, and a pleasure to witness.

  36. Those moments of peace and quiet are worth striving for — and a struggle it is! I don’t always succeed, but like you, I find I’m aiming for simpler in Christmas celebrations and elsewhere, willing to miss “a deal” or “opportunity”. I’m so glad you could experience that moment of connection in the silence.

    1. I’ve thought from time to time that I’d not be able to live your life. It can wear me out even to read your work and flight schedules. Of course, I’m at least three decades older than you, if not more, and that makes a difference. There comes a time when “faster, higher, farther” doesn’t sound quite as good — or as realistic –as “slower, lower, nearer.”

      Still, whatever our stage in life, the need for simplification and openness to change never goes away. One of the great gifts of the church’s festivals and seasons is that they help us clarify our priorities, and remember the true nature of our journey.

      I hope your Christmas day was peaceful and joyous, and that the continuing Christmas season will be a delight.

  37. As always, I’m late for the party and catching up on the reading I’ve let lag. Fortunately, home for Christmas and New Year’s, the pauses are letting me creep up on what I need to read. On the holiday days, we were able to relax and hear the ticks of the wood stove. Your meditation quietly hit the nail on the head.

    1. Early January’s one of my favorite times of year, precisely because the celebratory chaos is over and a little catching up can be done. I’m glad you enjoyed my musings. I’m hoping to carry a little of that silence into the new year.

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