We are just past the shortest day, the longest night. In the Celtic calendar the Solstice brings us to the still point of the year. So much in nature has died back that the flashes of green that remain become powerful metaphors for the journey through the darker, shorter days.
Perhaps we bring in a tree or make wreaths of holly or ivy or hang mistletoe. Holly was a symbol of the god Saturn and has a long association with protection. Mistletoe has links with both Norse and Druid traditions, a protection from storms and evil, this plant whose extracts are now used in cancer treatments, also became a symbol of peace.
But although we reach for these green allies and the light will incrementally increase after the Solstice, and although we may be in the midst of winter festivities, the dark will hold for a while yet. Winter is a season when we may also seek solitude or deep contemplation, mindful of the narrative of death and (eventually) rebirth that is being played out not only in the natural world, but in so many spheres of life.
And so we reach for greenery and we reach for light. In the Celtic tradition of Alban Arthan (the light of winter) the return of a Divine Child, the Mabon, is celebrated—his rebirth symbolised by the Solstice Sun, with its warmth, light and life. While in the Christmas story, the birth of a child, vulnerable and soon pursued by a mad king, symbolises salvatation and peace.
The Wheel of the Year turns and whatever the darkness, it is never the whole story. The glut of plastic fairy lights might sometimes seem excessive stacked against the suffering of the world, but it is human and humane to reach for the light in the darkness, to insist that the cycle will turn. And it is as essential that we feast and celebrate and make music as it is that we mourn with those who are grieving.
Greening our writing and our lives
Greenery is full of life. Green foods nourish us and, surprisingly, we share 99% of our DNA with the lettuce. We really are deeply connected to all things, as this poem by Lucille Clifton says with lyrical power:
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot. the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and i taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Evergreens dignify the cold, dark months. And ‘greening’ is a wonderful way to think about the creative life germinating within us.
Whatever your memories and/or associations of Christmas trees, wreaths and seasonal greenery (or not), pause this winter to ask yourself in what ways your writing is alive and green and in what ways it needs greening.
Pausing with the sun
The metaphor of the sun standing still, of all life holding its breath for a moment as the world tilts back towards the light, is a beautiful one. We need pauses.
As each year turns, so much comes our way — families and relationships (whether wonderfully supportive or not) take huge emotional energy, as do friendships. We face illnesses, sometimes life-threatening or stripping away the quality of life, in ourselves and others. We balance work and the fast pace of modern living with needs for an inner life and a creative life. We have domestic concerns and a thousand-and-one other things competing for ‘just a bit’ of us until sometimes we realise there are no bits left over for the next thing, yet still we have to keep going. Even if life is going extraordinarily well and we feel continually blessed, there can still be a pace to this that we need to rest from. Rest and restoration never become unnecessary.
These days following the Solstice can be good times to pause, even if only for an hour or two. Give yourself time to think in stillness and quiet; a time for spiritual nourishment (whatever ‘spirituality’ might mean to you). Going inward in retreat is not a rejection of the world or of out responsibilities and love, but a way of storing energy for whatever life brings — think of it as your stash of squirrel nuts for the winter. It’s also a way of giving yourself the space to process emotions, to absorb and contemplate what is going on in your life at the moment and how you want to move forward — by pausing for some deep reflection we become more considerate, less likely to be simply reactive in life.
Transforming ourselves within is continual work, but winter is a time to make space for this work, which is rich and fertile. This is Anne Lamott:
We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.
Change begins deep inside. What often prevents change is that we remain trapped in limiting conceptions of ourselves that we have little time to challenge. Writing our way out of the darkness, greening our lives and writing and bringing both into the light, is an opportunity to illuminate these notions and gently challenge and shift them.
Taking some time to contemplate the person and story you want to become is integral to this season. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saul Bellow noted:
Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.
And this is how Jeanette Winterson puts it:
Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world — it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level … Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all … We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.
[…] We do have an an inner life, and that inner life needs to have respect and needs to have some nourishment for itself. And that’s why art can never be a luxury — because, if it is, being human is a luxury; being who we actually are is a luxury. Life can’t be about utility — it has also to be about emotion, it has to be about imagination, it has to be about things for their own sake, so that this journey of ours makes sense to us and is not simply something that we’re rather fretfully trying to get through another day, another week, another month — that pressure that we so often feel … Reading books really does take your hand off the panic button, it allows your breathing to return to normal, it allows you to occupy the space isn’t entirely ruled by other people’s demands and by utility.
So during this winter season, take some time to green your life and your art as well as your home, to bring light within and take some time to pause and consider:
- How do you nurture your inner light and life?
- What part does your writing play in constructing who you are and who you want to be?
- What needs to die back to give your inner life the space it needs to flourish and green?
Here’s to greening and lighting our stories.