[This essay has been shortlisted for the first annual Utopia Awards. Public voting opens Aug. 1; thanks for your support!]
Today is the Winter Solstice, and the reality of days getting longer and the sun returning is heartening, here in depths of a darkness not merely seasonal but most clearly psychic, moral, spiritual, ethical, cultural.
To dwell upon these passing seasons is to get caught up in the science of celestial mechanics — of axial tilt and solar orbits — and also in the real magic of this Earth: How life, in all its complexity and mystery, grows itself around these rhythms of light and dark, of cold and quickening, of fecundity and dieback.
Our culture gives so much meaning to these altogether objective scientific realities.
Consider the names we give the full moon, so full of poetry and metaphor, each the mother of a million stories, endlessly and adaptively relevant with every new year.
The Cold Moon, most recently, has been climbing over North America. And it is a deep freeze in our souls, as the omicron variant [and illiberal democracy] sweep the continent and the world.
In January, in the historic time of Northern Hemispheric hunger and scarcity, it will be the Wolf Moon. Find meaning where you want in stories. In the United States, this moon comes on the jackbooted heels of the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. These wolves are ravening — and rabid. They’ve moved past hunger into a place of mad-eyed, indiscriminate appetite. They are at the doors of our democracy, and will gather there every year, ever more desperate and dangerous as they feed on the red meat of lies, paranoia and demagoguery.
I’m tempted here to carry on about each of the moons, but, like metaphor, they’re all slippery, and have many mames.
February is the Snow Moon, when we make play with our skis and boards and sleds, our snowballs and snowmen (snowpersons?) out on the frozen, crystalline precipitation. But it’s also the Hunger Moon, and the Storm Moon.
April brings us the Pink Moon, and a promise of spring, unless you’re a Nick Drake fan, in which case the “Pink moon gonna get ye all,” and the tune might actually be about nuclear fallout.
Like the ever-changing, ever-reborn moon, the winter solstice is laden with metaphor and meaning. Adapted by various religions over the millennia, our powers of storytelling have turned this season into one of miracles — and rightly so, for is the spark of our lives, in the vastness of this living Earth, and its dance with the fiery sun, anything less than miraculous?
One needs no religion to find in the solstice time for reflection upon our relationship with the natural cycles of our world and solar system; and to experience the season’s turning as consequential in our lives: An occasion for ritual, for hope, for abundance and community in defiance of the shortness of the day and the dark, cold nights.
Our world — not the Earth, mind you, but the world of culture, metaphor and meaning which we have brought about within the life-systems of this Earth — is, of course, wildly out of balance.
The promises and stories of peace and hope of the great religions are belied by the violence, greed, false pieties and gross hypocrisy of so many of its leaders, who pander to the worst fears and impulses of their followers, our fellow humans.
In a similar manner, our secular stories of Democracy are made a mockery and a sham by the posturing, divisiveness, and naked ambition, of politicians and political parties that serve only their own ambition and wealth, and that of their power-brokering patrons.
Mass media, meanwhile, have monetized our divisiveness, grown rich on our divisions, and facilitate the spread of hateful narratives and false information.
So data are distorted, facts have “alternatives,” paranoid conspiracies enabled by demagogues drive grassroots politics to dreadful ends, and the cost is in lives, sanity and hope for the future.
Consider this awful holiday story of a doctor who quit his medical practice after being assaulted by the QAnon-spouting, politically radicalized spouse of a patient who died of COVID-19. A patient who begged for a vaccination on his deathbed after it was far too late to do any good.
So also narrative — tall tales, really — told by greedy corporations and their political spokepersons have thrown our relationship with the Earth and its seasons into terrible disharmony, as arable land turns to dust, as forests are clearcut for profit, as climate change is called a hoax, as the oceans are fished out and acidified by carbon emissions …
Thus the fertile summer becomes a time of apocalyptic drought and wildfire due to climate change and a century of misguided forestry.
Our stories connect us to the Earth, but Earth will keep turning, with or without us.
The great cycle of this solstice, and the return of the sun, is an opportunity to reflect upon our place in this world, on this Earth, and to tell better stories about it all …
Stories that we can live by.
[This essay has been edited since publication for grammar and continuity.]