The Longest Night

Solstice2013I spent much of the weekend with friends celebrating the Solstice. On Friday one of the small local hill towns had their annual bonfire with singing, stories, and a little dance out on their common, and then most people headed back to the General Store for warm drinks and food, maybe a little singing, and some dancing- sword dancing, that is. Saturday I joined a large group of friends caroling out a bit, singing in their tiny local library, and then returning to their home for a long evening of food, drink, companionship, and music.

Both my Morris team and my choir performed Friday, which made for a slightly challenging but extremely enjoyable evening. This is the only time I have been with the two groups at the same event. Well actually it’s the second. The first was a year ago, at the same celebration. That night I came up to sing with the choir I had just rejoined, an old family welcoming me back, still very raw and numb. I ended up sitting at a table of folks from the Morris community after being introduced by a mutual friend. By the end of the night the team had recruited me to join them for the next season.

There is always a little talk out at the bonfire about the history and meaning of the solstice and why communities gather at this time of year, both to educate the young ones and remind the rest of us. Our choir director gave it this year, and he spent a bit of time talking about the derivation of the word, which means “sun stands still”. In earlier periods, before people had accurate ways of measuring time, it was quite hard to detect the transition from shortening to lengthening of the days, as for a few weeks around the shortest day the changes are measured in just a few minutes, or even seconds. It’s not surprising, then, that traditional celebrations of this dark season run eleven or twelve days. It isn’t just the longest night we mark, it’s the longest nights, the darkest weeks of the year, where time itself seems frozen.

One of our favorite holiday shows when the kids were growing up was “The Bells of Fraggle Rock”. Of course it involved Muppets, we met over a mutual affection for the Swedish Chef, after all. The Fraggles have an annual celebration at their coldest time of the year where they all dance and ring bells, in order to keep the Rock where they live moving as it slows down. The stories have it that there is a Great Bell at the heart of the Rock, and that the Fraggles must ring their own bells to keep the Great Bell going through the coldest day, or it will stop, freezing the whole Rock and everybody in it.

This whole past year has been something of a solstice for me, a long dark night to be endured, where everything seemed frozen even on the warmest days. But like those Fraggles, I kept company with my family and friends. We rang our bells in the spring and summer, we clashed our sticks and swords and antlers in the fall and winter.  All year we sang the ancient songs. Family and friends endured more losses as grievous as mine, and celebrated births as well. The Rock did not stop, and the light is starting to come back,  slowly and gradually.

It has been a year since I started this blog, first just as my journal, and later as way to share this process with family, friends, and whoever else might want a look into this thing we all sign up for in marriage, but hope to never see. I am now looking back on my firsts without her, instead of my lasts with her.

At last year’s Yule feast event, I stumbled through with the choir, barely a month after she was gone. This year, she was present yet absent in quite a different way. Most of the items at the silent auction table were donations I made from her medieval craft library. It was odd going by the table all day seeing long familiar books looking for a new home, but at least they were popular and all found new homes while we raised some money for the travel fund. Still, it somehow felt like one more bit of dispersing the remains. The feast was excellent, court was really fun, and overall it was a good day, but there was no getting around the hole in the heart of it.

1-TurkeyKnightThe experience at the Solstice year to year was an altogether different thing. Last year I came with a few old friends, really my second family, looking for a way to get through what I knew would be a very long night ahead. I had no idea I would be adding another clan to my extended family that night as I watched the team outside performing the Abbott’s Bromley horn dance I had seen so many times, and then watched them pull off a sword dance inside a rather crowded general store later. This year I wasn’t a numb spectator, I was one of the guys with the antlers and swords. I was among friends, trying to juggle my time between them all, knowing that this community of family and friends, old and new, had pulled me through that year that I thought would never end.

This is the reason we perform rituals, over and over every year, whatever kind of community we are part of. We sing familiar songs, see the Nutcracker over and over, go to midnight Mass, decorate a tree, watch the same old movies, bake the holiday cookies, send out the cards, or go out for Chinese food. Whatever we do, they remind us of the continuity of life, they give us fixed milestones to measure our selves against. They let us know that even in the dark times, life does go on.

At the bonfire every year they pass out candles to the people gathered around, and give everyone who wants to a chance to offer up an intention for the coming year. I wasn’t quite around the fire right then, I was coming back with the team as they got ready to do the Mummer’s play, but I was close enough to hear and think about an intention. It started there, and formed a little more fully over the weekend.

PostCarolRevelry1.Saturday night we gathered at a friend’s house before the caroling, and then again afterwards for more general merriment. The house was overfilled in the ways ours had been so many times, and it solidified my intention from the night before: to build a home as welcoming and open as those I had experienced over the last year. I know how to do this, I did it once, and really I haven’t completely lost that. All this past year, I stuck to something I said before last Thanksgiving: as long as I am here, I will keep hosting the family get-togethers. A week ago I had the choir over for one last tree decorating party. The family will be here for Christmas, one more time.

One thing I have been trying to sort out over the last year, as I tried to put the previous thirty years in perspective, to pack up the lessons learned, to realign myself for the life ahead without her was simply this: What went right?  We were lucky to find each other for sure, but we also did a lot of things right, and I wanted to process that before I lost the thread, before the memories got distorted by the passage of time.

A lot happens in thirty years, and you can shorthand your memories to the point where you lose track of little things that you didn’t realize were important. As I formed that intention to create a welcoming home for my friends and family, I thought back, all the way back, to those first few weeks when we were dating, when we just fell almost instantly into effortless conversation that we never tired of.

We both came from large extended families. For both of us, fourteen around the Sunday dinner table was the norm growing up. We had so many cousins we lost track of them. Our houses were the ones the extended family came to on the big holidays. It was what we remembered, it was the thing that stuck with both of us. After four years of living alone to get a taste of personal space after sharing a room with two brothers, I knew what I wanted. Nine years after losing her mother she knew what she wanted, and it was the same thing. Before the kids, before the chaos, before everything else what we wanted was very simple: to provide the place where things happened, to be in a home that regularly was filled with laughter and song and silliness.

Christmas is at my house this year. And wherever I am next year, it will be there too.

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