Lately I've been thinking about what is basic: the very minimum we need to survive, or at least to keep on keeping on, and I'm not talking about coping beverages or chocolate or bad tv, or even bloglines and typepad, as much as I consider those things personal necessities.
I'm talking basic: it applies to shepherding, and to most farming, where "stress" on an animal means that there is a deficit in their basic needs. I'm slightly stunned, in retrospect, to realize that it's largely how the medical world thinks about infants: they're either hydrated or dehydrated, thriving or failing to do so. There's no consideration of comfort, no care for emotional states, no namby-pamby how do you feel about that. It's about whether you will survive, long-term, in that state. And between that, and where I and probably everyone reading this lives, is an unfathomable gulf.
There's a lot of whining lately on the part of people who claim Christianity that we're forgetting the real meaning of the season. And since there seems to be ample evidence that the date of this Christian festival was chosen to coincide with much older pagan festivals, including Yule, I'm going to have to agree with them. Because waaaay back then in the day, before Jesus was the reason for the season, this here little festival was about staying alive.
I have central heating. I have two winter coats (actually four, if you count the dress one from back when business attire was formal and the navy surplus pea coat that's a pinch too small in my current, um, physical configuration). There's a car with a blasting heater and an office at the top of a 100-year-old building with steam heat. I have electric lights, a stove, and a microwave. Hot water at the twist of a knob. A toilet conveniently located just next to the heating register. Down comforter, over wool blanket, over soft cotton sheet.
I complain about the cold. Also the dark. It's hard. I'm not saying it's not.
But how much of that stuff was available to my great-grandmother? How much to hers? How much to the witchy chick who must have gotten my family named after a tree back in Ireland back before names were passed down from fathers? How about those Vikings? The people who were like, hey, let's get on a boat (Alden Amos will remind you that every scrap of fiber on that boat was not just handspun, but spindle-spun, and yes, we're talking about SAILS here people). Because maybe the weather in freakin' NEWFOUNDLAND might be better that what we got right here at home in Norway. That, my friends, is cold.
I know we all know this, but there were no good old days. Life may not necessarily be better, whatever that is, but it's a hell of a lot more comfortable. We're handworkers and we keep alive the knowledge of those times, at least scraps of it. But our handwork is leisure and theirs was survival, and I don't completely know how to reconcile those things, do you?
This darkness that we face, in our comfortable, climate-controlled lives, it's tough. We feel pressured, we feel stressed, we feel like we're failing over and over to achieve some insane expectation of, I don't know, something about Christmas or Xmas or Holiday or whatever, and family and togetherness and gift-giving and certainly heightened expectations of ourselves and each other, in these lands and these times of plenty. And I don't mean to take away from that, because it's real and if you couldn't guess, I feel it too. But if we want to talk about the reason for the season, the reason for the trees and the wreaths and the Yule log and the candles in the windows, then we're talking about dark and cold, dark and cold that you couldn't escape, that was there every day with the sick and the frail and the newly-born and the mad. We're talking about survival. Getting through the winter. They really meant that: getting through.
So thinking about the reason for the season, first I'm thinking about just plain being cold. There's a lot of cold and darkness out there, and doing what I can do, from my privileged place here, is part of the light I mean to carry through the darkness of today. That means knitting for charity, but also donating money. Items hand-made with compassion carry more than wool and stitches, but there is an undeniable irony to first-worlders helping the third world with handwork, at least to my mind. I've spent a lot of my life feeling insecure--unsafe--economically, but getting back to basics, I've never been in danger. So more generosity, more putting of my money where my mouth is, and my heart.
So, every Yule, I light a candle. That candle symbolically holds my intention for the light I want to bring back with the sun as it returns, the tiny flame I'm keeping alive through the dark night in that mythic tribal firepit in my imagination. And this year's candle will be about basics. It's a little more complicated than before, maybe just more muddled, but I want to hold the gratitude, or maybe even just the awareness, of my rare and profound comfort. And I want to remember to take care of my own basics, as they're defined in this rarified world: remember to eat things that are not all fat and sugar--your body doesn't need those things because you're not shivering through darkened nights and shearing the sheep whose fleeces you spin. Remember to exercise, a laughable idea to my grandmothers but a real issue for me. The idea of driving my car to a place where people walk on treadmills sets my teeth on edge, but right now that might be the most realistic plan, and until I have a barn full of sheep to hoist and feed and chase and fence (not planning, I'm just saying, this isn't exactly my lifestyle), I'm not getting it any other way.
And the care and feeding of the soul: that too. Because those people who had to process their own food, who had to spin and weave their own cloth and sew it by hand, never mind the sails for the viking ships, those people took that time. They lit the windows with precious tallow, they burned the largest, driest Yule log on the fire and they took the time to cut greenery to hang inside their cold and dark homes to remind them that all was not gray and white and frozen. Those lives, full of pressures and stress we can't imagine, made space to hold the sacred, to observe the seasons, and to mark it for themselves and for the spirits that went before. And if they could make that space, so can I. We said grace tonight, at Henry's suggestion. More, like that, as the sun returns, so mote it be.
That's my intention, such as it is; please use the comments to cast your own intention for the coming light. I promise to hold that intention with you, to coax the flame ever brighter, as we make it through the winter, and past the dark.
For the good of all, and may it harm none, so mote it be. And Merry Solstice to you.