I’ve celebrated the solstice for nearly thirty years. Or, to be more accurate, nearly thirty years ago was when I became aware that it was the solstice I celebrated at this time of year.
The first three years of the eighties were not kind to me. I was tossed about by the fickle seas of relationships and the economic downturn. Three relationships ended because the hes weren’t ready to make a commitment, and then immediately got involved with women whom they married within six months. I was unemployed on and off for pretty much half of the first three years of the decade. Once, I was second choice for a job; another time, I was the first choice, but the funding got pulled; a third time (this is true), the woman who interviewed me didn’t choose me because she thought the banking environment would hurt my soul.
It was a weird time.
By the time Christmas 1983 rolled around I was feeling like a colossal loser. My family’s tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Christmas day was a leisure morning followed by a celebratory dinner. We alternated between our house and my aunt’s for the celebration: Christmas Eve at one, Christmas dinner at the other. There were always two days.
The tradition continued after my aunt died. My mother just opened the door to more people on Christmas Eve. The family of my mother’s coworker joined us and soon, we were alternating houses with them.
But, in 1983, someone, for some reason, decided that enough was enough and we’d just have Christmas Eve together. That left my mother, father, and me alone on Christmas day. I knew it was coming, but didn’t realize how lost I would feel that day. My parents did as well. My heart was breaking at the sorrow of their empty house. I felt bad for them, especially my dad, who seemed particularly sad.
And then, the words that a 34-year old single woman, alone, unemployed, and unsure of her future least wants to hear spilled out of his mouth: “You’re such a pretty girl,” he said, “I don’t understand why you’re not married.”
My father sipped his drink, sad and clueless. My mother was horrified. I was devastated — even my father thought I was a loser.
I fled the house to return to San Francisco. First I stopped at the local Lyons for a patty melt. At least there, I thought, I would find other lost souls, all of us quietly and anonymously eating whatever for our lonely Christmas dinner. I sat at the counter.
Alas, Lyons had it’s own community. The patrons seated at the counter were conversing in the familiar way regulars do. The waitress called everyone by name.
Except me. I sat eating my lonely patty melt as “I’ll be Home for Christmas” played in the background.
I vowed to never have another Christmas like that again.
That decision sent me down the road of understanding why I can’t ignore this time of year.
Although I think the story of Jesus is compelling, I do not believe that he died for my sins. His message that no matter how bad we feel about ourselves, redemption is ours for the taking is compelling. What I took away from all I had learned in Sunday School was about compassion — compassion is what allows us to connect. It is our immortal self meeting with our mortal self.
Since he was not the only great teacher to deliver that message (Ghandi, Buddha, Martin Luther King, for example), celebrating his birth (Christmas), but not others, did not resonate.
And yet, I knew I felt — something — at this time of year. It usually involved a deep sadness, which totally didn’t fit with the conventional sugary view of the season. I don’t even remember how I started delving into the solstice. But as I did, I began to understand that my deep sadness was a natural reaction to what was happening in the natural landscape around me.
Then, on the solstice in 1987, I went to a Paul Winter Consort concert at Davies Symphony Hall. After playing “Wolf Eyes,” which included a recording of a wolf’ howling accompanied by his alto sax solo, Paul Winter invited us, “Please join me in the Howlelluja chorus.” The audience in Davies Symphony Hall, the site of many a staid classical concert, broke into howls. I wept as I howled. People left the hall howling.
It was cathartic. It was visceral. It was an ending and a beginning. It was sorrow transforming into joy.
I understood there was reason to celebrate. But it wasn’t all sugary and spice. It took travelling through the dark to find the light. It was a celebration of life — the bitter with the sweet — but life. It’s the celebration of darkness giving way to light, of fear giving way to love.
A dog who was part wolf had wandered into my life in 1986. He had a magnificent spirit. I had him for barely five years when he died rather suddenly. A tumor on his aorta took him away. I was heart broken. It taught me to hold love firmly in my heart, and let go lightly when a life comes to its inevitable end.
My solstice poem came out of the journey to understand what I celebrate, and the lesson I learned from having a magnificent spirit grace my life for so short a time.
Read it aloud and howl if you wish. Please feel free to forward it to others if you are so inclined.
© 2000 Karen L. Hogan
He waited as he did every year on this night,
It grew darker and darker and colder and colder.
And still he waited, knowing she would return.
Darkness reached his deepest pitch.
The birds, the trees, the ocean, and the rocks grew still.
Wolf gazed deeply into the eyes of Darkness as
Wind wove her cold fingers through his rich, thick fur.
He closed his eyes,
Held his breath,
And listened as Wind whispered,
then felt her caress as she flew away.
Wolf knew it was time.
He opened his eyes and saw her
— a glowing luminous ember
emerging from the opening
between the earth and the sky.
She did on this day
what she did on this day every year of Wolf’s life.
On the hill overlooking the ocean,
Wolf circled three times, lay down, and took his rest.
Light wove her warm fingers through his rich, thick fur.
Before he left,
Wolf whispered to me what Wind whispered to him.
He wanted me to share it with you.
Here’s what she told him:
“Expect to be loved.”