In the predawn darkness I am awake, snuggled in a warm cocoon of blankets, hearing the small, insistent voice that tells me to get up and go outdoors to greet the dawn—or the darkness, on this longest night of the year.
Rising from the bed and pulling on clothes, I nudge up the thermostat in the hallway and make my way to the darkened kitchen where, without turning on a light, I set the cobalt blue kettle atop a hissing flame to boil. In the front room, I switch on the tiny lights of our miniature Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and then strike a match and hold it to the wicks of two candles on my altar nearby. In the soft glow, I pull back the sheer linen curtains—fabric much too thin to offer much insulation against the winter outside—and feel the chill coming through the panes as I peer through old glass into the darkness.
Donning the blue, button-up cardigan that I generally wear around the house, and picking up a black pottery bowl from the Santa Clara pueblo in New Mexico, I open the front door and step out into the cold air. For a moment I stand with the carved vessel held against my heart, offering silent thanks to the powers that be, then I set the Blessing Bowl gently down in front of the stone praying frog from Bali. The wooden boards of the deck feel frozen beneath my bare soles, bringing me wide awake with a softly screaming jolt, yet I linger silently for a minute, observing the faint pattern of moonshadows cast by the outstretched arms of the Grandmother Monterey Cypress, a lacy pattern of silver and charcoal in a blanket thrown down.
In my usual way, I spring senses wide, welcoming whatever comes; there is the low voice of the sea in the distance, and a resinous, almost lemony fragrance of cypress, the passing rumble of a few early cars along the main road, a twinkle of bright dawn stars in the clear sky, the imposing presence of the venerable tree that watches over this little cottage, and the relative hush of the surrounding world before it wakes to noise, activity and busyness.
Crossing the deck, my breath forms frosty clouds in the air, and with the further shock of even colder bricks underfoot as I approach the Grandmother, I step gratefully onto the bare soil that feels less freezing than the masonry, and then lay my hands upon the roughened grey bark.
Breathing in, breathing out.
All the front garden rests in shadow and night guise, but turning to the east I raise my arms to the familiar lineup of trees silhouetted against a blue ribbon of light stretched across the sky in promise of the coming dawn. Through the front windows, the lights of our little faux tree and the candles flickering on my altar offer a welcome, cheery glow that beckons me back inside to warmth and a cup of tea.
Silently, I offer my litany of gratitude, giving thanks for the blessings of the day and those already on their way, while feeling my connection with earth underfoot in a tactile reminder of the Larger Story. Then I step nimbly across the cold deck and, with a final inhale of darkness and coastal air, cross the threshold into warm, human realms.
My mate and our English Whippets are still fast asleep, tucked into respective beds, loathe to rise from deep winter dreaming, but I am up in my typical fashion to greet the holy and spend some solitary time seated at my altar. It is December 21st, the morning of the winter solstice, and it always feels especially relevant to offer thanks on a sacred sabbat.
In years previous I have written about the solstice, how it became my chosen winter holiday, along with my tradition of a feast with friends or family gathered around a festive table—welcoming the essential gifts of darkness, as well as those of light. In these past weeks and months, it seems that I’ve penned more than a few words about the hidden worth of shadows and the transforming nature of our challenges, all alongside our blessings.
On this shortest day of the year, winter arrives fully upon us, spinning a dark chrysalis woven equally of mystery, constellations, and strange grace. The time of in-gathering and harvest has passed, like the painted leaves fallen from the trees, and now as a dormant seed in a dreaming time we wait… imagining what we may become.
Seated in the comfortable, high-backed chair that each morning I turn to face my altar, with chilled hands wrapped around a warm cup of tea and feet enrobed in thick wool socks, I find myself nostalgic for years past when friends gathered round our well-traveled table on this night, recalling the cheer of good companionship with those who are dear to us. Instead, my partner and I are navigating another period of transition, with little sense of community or roots, and unclear where the painted gypsy caravan will roll toward next. And we find ourselves letting go of old roles, work, and attachments—just like those failing leaves—while still tending a few precious dreams wrapped in the silk of prayers. All the while quietly listening, waiting, for guidance and opportunity to move us forward into the next chapter of life.
Later this morning, we will stroll our favourite oceanside path just south of town, perhaps with the dogs or not, there to sit on a familiar wooden bench and gaze at the flashing blue waves for a while, watching sea otters cavort and float in the surf, grateful that the winter day is fair enough to allow such an outing. There is little better than a dose of wild nature and a wide horizon to uplift the soul, to inspire and keep us dilated to possibility.
Yet here, now, is still my time for silent reflection. A passage into the day with a heart ajar and welcoming as the morning sky outside.
I feel a soft sigh of relief in my belly when the noisy furnace finally shuts off and, for a few minutes, the house lapses back into sweet silence. This 1940’s cottage is poorly insulated, and with its thin, single pane windows, it quickly loses heat; I know that the old, inefficient furnace, loud as a military tank, will soon come rumbling on again, but I relish the intervals of quietude… like the cold air outside as dawn approaches with its promise.
Silence for breathing in, breathing out… holy, holy.
Given that friends and family live elsewhere, as nomads we are celebrating these year end holidays in a low-key fashion—embracing both the challenges and blessings. And because we long ago bowed out of the gift exchange (other than with each other), we are pleasantly removed from the chaos and crass materialism that Christmas has largely become; instead the holidays feel non-pressured, simple, and pleasantly non-commercial (aided even more by the fact that we don’t watch or even own a television). To me, somehow the season is both homey and elegant; really, what could be better than that? Repeatedly, at any moment of the day, I find myself awash in gratitude for all the ordinary treasures of life, of which there are always too many to count.
Tonight’s solstice dinner will just be three of us, and so too at Christmas, though at least a half day of cooking and baking awaits in preparation. To eat there will be a fresh spinach salad with dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and crumbled Stilton, followed by little mushroom hand pies and a bubbling gratin of butternut squash and red onions. And I have been dreaming of a gingerbread cake—fragrant, spicy, moist and dense—with sliced pears fanned on top, and soon I will set about baking that (my anticipation heightened further by the thought of it as a perfect accompaniment for tea in the days ahead). And there are chestnuts to roast, albeit in a cast iron pan rather than on an open fire, for warm, slightly sweet nibbles to eat out of hand.
The dark reaches its zenith tonight, the longest night of the year, and the light slowly begins to return. While I have spent the past decade celebrating darkness, learning not to push it away or simply wishing it to end, but appreciating the unique gifts, challenges, dreaming-magic and power of it, somehow this year, in our latest passage of transition, it feels especially right to welcome the light returning.
Changes are coming. Soon. Significant ones. I feel it on the air and in my bones, but unlike any storm, it seems more like the dawn approaching after a long, dark night—or perhaps as if we are emerging from a troubled, disturbing dream. Once again, the Gregorian calendar year draws to its close and we spiral on, dancing with mysteries of fate and the destinies we have chosen.
I sometimes reflect on what is asked of us in life. A few weeks ago, sitting in my morning meditation, I was suddenly enfolded by the strong perfume of lilies, as if an angel was near. (Angelic visits have been a repeated revelation for me over the years.) And in my mind’s eye I had a vision of the archangel Raphael, the healer, saying to me, “Each day, shine your light into the world.” It was a message that filled my entire being with warmth rippling like waves, a sense of wonder, and deep humility. My sense was not that he was instructing me personally, as if I am someone special, so much as it was a reminder for all of us—to spend even a few minutes, consciously sending luminescence into the shadow that engulfs much of the planet right now.
Surely this is what is asked in return for the gift of being alive: some sort of sacred reciprocity, breathing in and out, with a soul full of gratitude for the tangled beauty of it all whilst striving to offer a measure of beauty and goodness in exchange.
The light returns, my friend. And a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.
Whether you celebrate the solstice or Yule, the Christ’s birthday, Hanukkah, or something else entirely, here’s hoping that your heart is unlocked and welcoming, not only for gifts of grace and light, but for the challenges and curious treasures of darkness, too. And may you carry an ongoing gratitude for the miracle of life, as equally in those small, hushed moments of the day as while being swept along by the great noisy wave, traveling onward… following tides of breath and the cyclical seasons.
Shine your light in the dark, and blessed be.