Today is the winter solstice, which means Annapolis only gets 9 ½ hours of light between sunrise and sunset–and the night is longer than any other time of the year. If you think of the seasons as a ride on a Ferris wheel (which I do), this means that today I am at the very top, soiling myself (because I am afraid of heights and all amusement park rides) as the rickety old thing stops to let more people on and my excited two-year-old (true story) rocks back and forth (“Wee!”), screaming “Binky!” which she dropped by my shoe and wants me to pick up.
Translation: I do not like winter. And I’m afraid of the dark.
But today I celebrate! Because as of tomorrow my days get longer, and I start descending from that scary place at the top of the Ferris wheel.
It’s not a coincidence that Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holidays are full of symbols of light. People have always honored and ritualized the victory of light over darkness on the days surrounding the winter solstice. What’s not to like about the advent of warmer weather (if it’s not due to global warming) and signs of life (tree sprouts, tulips, carnivals with Ferris wheels) all around.
Like many people who suffer from depression, I wither in the winter. Which is why I force Springtime by sitting under a mammoth HappyLite and running my six daily miles with lots of layers.
Tonight’s long night means my dawn is that much closer.
It’s probably no coincidence that I chose the poem “The Dark Night” composed by Carmelite mystic John of the Cross as the topic of my senior thesis back when I was a religious studies major in college.
The poem is about a soul’s movement into contemplation and perfect union with God via spiritual purification.
My advisor, who is still a good friend, made me memorize the stanzas so that the words lived in me.
I read them today and wondered how a Spanish mystic from the 16th century could express so eloquently the voyage from darkness to light that those suffering from depression make.
Here are the first five stanzas:
“One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings – ah, the sheer grace! – I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled.
In darkness, and secure, by the secret ladder, disguised,- ah, the sheer grace! – in darkness and concealment, my house being now all stilled.
On that glad night, in secret, for no one saw me, nor did I look at anything, with no other light or guide than the one that burned in my heart.
This guided me more surely than the light of noon to where he was awaiting me- him I knew so well – there in a place where no one appeared.
O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.”
Speaking of beautiful verses, I wept today, like I always do, when I heard my very favorite Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” The combination of its gorgeous lyrics and affective melody seep into the hardened parts of my heart in a way that only music can.
I closed my eyes (only for a second since I was driving) and sang the words in my very ugly voice as a prayer to the heavens. I thought about all those times I played the song on our upright piano in the family room–banging on the keys as a form of meditation to tune out my parents’ fighting, to console my scared fourth-grade self, to invoke God’s peace on a ruptured family.
This song had to be inspired by God himself, even though it was written by poet Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (yes, he’s French and sold wine…ah, maybe it was the spirits) and composed by Adolphe Charles Adams (Placide’s musician buddy) because whenever I hear it I immediately feel love. Especially when I get to the seventh line:
“Fall on your knees, O hear the angels voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!”
Those three lines are what Christmas is to me.
After I informed my college roommate and good friend that her goddaughter, my daughter, had been demoted from an angel to a star in the Christmas pageant, this is what she wrote back:
“Please tell my goddaughter that a star is so important. I’m proud that she got that role (no demotion in my eyes). A shinning star led the wise men to baby Jesus. Stars are the light that help us through the darkness. In these dark winter days, light is what gives us hope.
Living in a concrete jungle like Chicago and NYC, I never get a chance to see the stars. When I go back to Michigan to my small town roots, I always look at the sky to get a glimpse of what I am missing ever night in my fast-paced city life. Stars always bring me back to the beginning.”