We have reached the solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. At the summer solstice my impulse is to say keep this light alive, but now I want to chant bring more light back into my life!
This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath, the door of a vanished house left ajar
–Margaret Atwood, from Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995
Last year as I began to write my decembrance notes I imagined it to be full of new things, insights about a new life ( based on Larkin our grandson who had just been born). Every year I hope by writing I will find new ways to appreciate the season. Sometimes I am embarrassed by how much I retell family stories.
This fall I lost another important friend, fellow potter, journal keeper and correspondent, Douglass Rankin. With her husband and fellow artist Will Ruggles they composed the duo of Rock Creek Pottery. Today would have been Douglass’s 74th birthday. Our lives became intertwined through pottery. She taught me to love the mountains of North Carolina through pots, walks and gardens.We shared ideas, food, stories and laughs as well as many letters full of images and insights.
When she and Will moved to New Mexico we always intended to visit their new digs. It was still on the list when the pandemic hit. It’s like our lives were vines that twisted for a moment and then growing from a similar root base took off in their own directions. Recently I have paged through my archive of our correspondence. Today I looked back through a slide show I made about a magical visit to their house in 2007.
It seems as if life is full of absences these days. It seems as if I can reach back and taste the light in their mountain cabin. I stretch back in my memory for the spaces that Douglass created. I will struggle to grow around the gaps in our life that she has left. But she is dearly missed as we go forward in our lives full of holes.
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
So much of my decembrance project is based on making friends with the dark. My heart thaws as I write and pay attention to the darkness of the season. This week I have been walking at sunrise and sunset. There is a balance in these strolls. In the morning I admire the first light on the trees in my neighbor’s field. Again at sunset my focus lingers on the orange light on the other side of the same trees. As the shank of the afternoon settles I rest in the uncertainty of the season. I plan to put out my garden mystery squash along the fence line for the night critters to encounter a bit of unexpected bounty.
So I am teaching myself to rest in uncertainties, to revel in the secrets of darkness. I welcome the hungry creatures, cold and wild, that find their way in the dark to this unexpected bounty, but I don’t need to know who they are. Let them live out their lives in mystery. Let the cold nights hold them. Let the cold nights hold me, too.
—Margaret Renkl, Falling a Little Bit in Love with the Dark, New York Times, 12/19/2022
Ever since Zoë was born Warren and I debate whether or not to get a tree. I remind him the tree is really a pagan tradition. So some years we call it our Hanukkah bush. This year we once again debated when Zoë requested a small tree. After lunch we all loaded into the car and made a short trip to a farm we have enjoyed over the last several years. We chose what I thought was a small tree. However once in the house it was not so skinny or tiny. Lights on the tree will poke little holes in the blackness. This tree only has to last another eight days. We are hoping there are no minor pet/tree disasters. We will reminisce over holidays from other years, eat well, maybe gamble and remember the miracle of light.
Season of Skinny Candles
A row of tall skinny candles burns quickly into the night air, the shames raised over the rest for its hard work
Darkness rushes in after the sun sinks like a bright plug pulled. Our eyes drown in night thick as ink pudding
When even the moon starves to a sliver of quicksilver the little candles poke holes in the blackness.
A time to eat fat and oil, a time to gamble for pennies and gambol around the table, a light and easy holiday.
No disasters, no repentance, just remember and enjoy. The miracle is really eight days and nights without trouble.
–Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance, Knopf Doubleday, 2006
“shames” [line 3] is the middle candle that lights the others every night
I feel like I have been jumping through hoops for both art and family. Our daughter, her husband and our grandson arrived this afternoon. It is a great relief that we all made it this far. Now we can relax and retreat. Our winter metamorphosis results from good meals, deep sleeps, conversations, fires and time spent shoulder to shoulder.
Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
–-Katherine May, from Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
We drove home from New York City today. It was a rainy drive with limited visibility. We were happy to arrive back in our local landscape despite the wet, icy view. After a couch nap in the gray light I walked the dog in the icy mist. Often when I return from the city it feels like I have shifted time zones. Today it felt like a different sound-scape. Dripping branches and the beating wings of the pond’s diving ducks accompanied my damp walk. I remember years ago coming home after a New York trip and being surprised during the dark dog walk to hear the sound of a beaver chewing the bark of a tree. I think of myself as a city kid who carries the silence of the country. Today I carried the light of my city friendships in the quiet of my more rural life.
There is a Light in Me
Whether in daytime or in nighttime I always carry inside a light. In the middle of noise and turmoil I carry silence. Always I carry light and silence.
–Anna Swir, in Talking To My Body, co-translated by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press
It’s been a night in the city sleeping on a fold out couch with a baby who doesn’t feel well in the next room. The night has been interrupted by cries, a car alarm, a voice on the street. Features of the room have drifted in and out of focus as I slipped back into a deep December sleep. Flashes of of what I should have said, shadows of conversations, midnight memories unresolved all mix with my heartbeat and waves of breath. I remind myself of Thich Nhat Hanh and shift my inhale to calm and to exhale with ease. The morning comes. Our grandson is happily babbling in the kitchen while his dad makes coffee and eggs. The window sill comes into focus, the deep blue fades into dawn, edges become clear. The sunlight insists on the solid knowable facts of the day.
But it’s the sun’s light, insistent, interrogatory, that tricks us into believing in the knowable and solid. In those long nights, perspective is not skewed, but opened wider. The moon’s silver quiet light allows for these encounters with the parts of ourselves that hide in caves, the banished parts. The moon knows: we need to see.
After installing a group of pieces in the clay show at Steve Harvey Fne Art Projects in New York City Warren and I drove to Brooklyn to see our daughter and her family via the Williamsburg Bridge. It was that magical moment, when the urban lights feel warm, the blue of the sky is cool and the sunset shifts with each second. There were reflections and deep reds, the shimmery river water and the stark structures of buildings and bridges. The relationship of human-made and natural does a kind of dance shifting between grit and gorgeous.
Hymn to Time
Time says “Let there be” every moment and instantly there is space and the radiance of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance. And the gnats’ flickering dance. And the seas’ expanse. And death, and chance.
Time makes room for going and coming home and in time’s womb begins all ending.
Time is being and being time, it is all one thing, the shining, the seeing, the dark abounding.
This morning I took a brisk dog walk. It was chilly and the light was bright with a particular winter brilliance. The field across the road had a pale yellow tone and beyond the sky was deep gray. The contrast made me feel like I was seeing like a painter. It reminded me of a college moment when I wondered if feelings of inspiration were something that I would only feel as a child. Later, when I went to painting school in the south of France I met a tribe of people who felt that same jolt from examining how the sky meets a hill. There was a drive to paint based on what we saw, to translate vision through our hands. Seeing the moon in Virginia resurrects visions and inspirations of moon sightings in other parts of the world.
Wherever we are in the world, we see the same moon. It’s the same moon earliest humans would have seen, waxing and waning, rising and setting. Depending on where we were thousands of years ago, we would look to a full moon to mark time, to tell us when to plant corn, when to lay the rice to dry, and when to expect the ducks back. Now we look to the moon and marvel that men have traveled there in unlikely contraptions and actually set foot on its surface. It is our stepping-stone to the vast universe, and looking at a full moon can make us feel very small and very young. But it can also remind us to make the most of our time here on earth, to pop corn and throw rice and watch for ducks.