The Winter Solstice Fills Me with Hope
The Winter Solstice came and went this year with little notice from me. After working a long day and attending a meeting, I was focused on little except getting ready for bed, so it wasn’t until the next day during my predawn walk that I realized winter had arrived. The grass was tinged white with frost, the roads sparkled in the light from the street lamps, and the frozen trail crunched beneath my feet. Now and then, my dog lifted his nose, smelling coyotes or raccoons I couldn’t see. The squirrels and birds were asleep. Silence hung in the air.
Then I climbed onto the ridge and saw, beyond a row of Douglas Fir, the crescent moon shimmering behind a silver veil of fog, and I remembered that the shortest day of the year had passed. We were on the slow slog into summer.
Peace settled over me. I felt that all was well and all would be well. The future might not be pretty, yet as I gazed at the glow that circled that sliver of a moon, I knew we would be all right. As a human race, we have enough resilience, enough spiritual strength and fortitude, and enough empathy to cope, to stand firm in love, to survive no matter what. The moon tells me this. The trees provide such assurance.
Surviving with Stories
Part of how we survive is that we tell stories. On my walk, I thought of two I had heard years ago when I took a class on tree identification. Because of them, I will always recognize a hemlock and a Douglas fir. Because of them, I will remember the value of community and of nurturing one another.
If you look at a hemlock tree, you will see that the very top branch bends over, as if the tree is hanging her head. This Pacific Northwest tale explains why this is so.
In the beginning time, the Great Spirit was handing out cones to the trees. The trees lined up to receive their appropriate gift, but hemlock was so eager and excited, she couldn’t contain herself. She shoved aside one tree after another until she’d pushed herself to the front of the line, where she demanded her cones. Surprised and annoyed, the Great Spirit gave the hemlock the smallest cones of anyone. Ashamed, hemlock hung her head, and her head droops to this day. 
We learn from this that for the good of the community, we need to think of others, not just ourselves. Eagerness is wonderful, yet if our society is to be healthy, we sometimes need to contain our desires. Shame can destroy lives and fuel relapse, but there is a healthy shame that helps us manage our behavior.
The Gift of Kindness
The second story teaches us destruction, sacrifice, and kindness.
One day, a fire broke out in the forest. The frightened animals fled from the heat, but the mice, with their tiny legs, couldn’t go as fast as the others, and the flames threatened to overtake them. The little creatures stopped at a maple tree and asked if he could help them survive the fire, but he said, “I don’t think I will survive the flames. Run on, little mice.”
So they ran on until they came to a cedar tree, yet when they asked if the cedar could protect them, she also said, “I don’t think I will survive the flames. Run on, little mice.”
Then the mice came to a Douglas fir. When they asked if the fir could help them, she said, “With my thick bark, I think I can live through the fire. Climb up, little mice, to the high branches, and hide inside my cones.”
Grateful, the mice scurried up the long trunk and shoved themselves in beneath the scales, with just their feet and tails showing. After the fire had swept through the area and petered out, the Douglas fir was indeed still standing. The little mice had survived. If you look at a Douglas fir cone, you will see they are still there today.
I don’t want to make too much of these stories. They are practical, meant to teach us to recognize different types of trees. Hopefully, we can simply enjoy them. Because we are meaning-making creatures, however, we often find in them a deeper meaning. Perhaps this one reminds us of the kindness of others.
The Winter Solstice, Grace, and Love
Although I don’t live near a forest, I do live near a grove of Douglas fir. When I wander through it, I often feel the grace, the power, and even the tenderness of those trees. Maples are not so generous; they cling to their life force. The majestic cedars protect the woods around them, yet their blessing is regal. They expect deference. I don’t know much about the few hemlocks who spread their tiny, but lovely cones in the field where I walk, yet I feel close to the Douglas fir.
Winter has arrived. This winter season may be a metaphor for our times in more ways than one, yet within this brittle and frigid season lies an incredible beauty and a wealth of love. I can’t imagine being so filled with bitterness that I hate and despise others. How miserable that would feel. I have worked with people whose pain has festered and turned to ugliness, and I feel their loneliness and desperation, perhaps more than they do, because most of them protect themselves with the stories they tell themselves and the addictions they pursue.
Dismantling the Stories
Yet it is not only pain that leads some people to lash out, call names, jeer, and destroy others. It is also ignorance. When we grow up hearing lies about other people, it’s hard not to believe them. Once we have developed our world view, we often cannot even hear information that threatens to dismantle it. Nonetheless, it is possible, one by one, to reach out those who live with ignorance and help them create change. My husband told me about Daryl Davis, for instance, the black musician who made friends with Ku Klux Klan members and gently helped them to face their prejudices. He helped them create new stories.
Do we tell stories filled with sweeping generalities about people we do not know? Are our stories filled with derogatory names and with lies that feed hatred and vindictiveness? Or do we talk about the hemlock, who cared enough about the rights of others that she felt shame when she overstepped the bounds and trampled on them? Do we talk about the maple and cedar who, although their own lives were in danger, wished the little mice well, and about the Douglas fir who gladly served as a sanctuary for the frightened refugees?
Along with all we are trying to understand about this insane election season, I encourage us to remember the importance of our stories.
Winter Solstice and Hope
Always, there will be ugliness. Cruelty and brokenness will continue to mar our world, no matter what we do. Yet the trees still stand, and the frost still blesses the field, and the moon still shines on us. Remember, Hilary Clinton got more votes than did Donald Trump. More of us value justice and freedom than nurture resentment and retaliation. For forty years greedy, power-hungry, broken, addicted and wealthy individuals have spun hateful, untruthful stories designed to destroy the power of those who care about the disenfranchised, yet even so, they haven’t convinced the majority, no matter that they’ve spent years skillfully and deviously using brain science to indoctrinate and manipulate the populace. That says something wonderful about the power of truth and the power of love.
Though the days ahead may be dreary, cold, and dark, the light even now grows stronger. This is the story of the Winter Solstice. No matter what the forces of terror and obfuscation do, the light will shine through. Hold onto the stories. They matter, because they teach us that life matters, trees matter, hope matters, love matters. Every single one of us matters, even those we don’t trust or don’t like.
Simply loving our enemy isn’t enough to create systemic change. Yet during this holiday season when we celebrate the Solstice light that grows in the darkness and the Chanukkah light that shines faithfully even after the oil is gone, remember this: Just as the moon never stops shining down on us no matter what we do, so the love that is the essence of all of life never stops raining down. In the coming years, we will have much work to do. May we do it with tenderness, gentleness, and love.
Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Joyful Chanukkah, and Blessed Kwanzaa.
In faith and fondness,
- There are many versions of this tale about the hemlock, such this one, this one, and this (scroll down).
- For the Douglas fir story, you can look here or here (scroll down).
- Crescent Moon by Barbara Stevens
- Hemlock with the Moon Behind by Unknown (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Douglas Fir Cone by Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons