A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark. (She sells these on Etsy at  JailerCostumeShop).

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

Tribeless in McDonaldsland

Golden arches, a redhead clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s — a prime symbol of Corporate America — and a big chunk of my cultural heritage. The white-privilege powers of my childhood wanted such things for me — symbols of progress, financial success, the American Dream. Back then, people believed in The American Dream enough to sacrifice the bulk of their inherited culture to it. The American Dream is a beautiful dream, that’s for sure. It’s a wonderland where if you work hard enough, you can have everything you want, and if you have it, you deserve it. And the more you have, the better off we all are. Growing up, I was told I was part of this dream.

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The sagebrush in my front yard lives quietly among neighbors’ daffodils and bluegrass lawns

I didn’t realize that when they said “part of it,” they meant I was part of the hired help. The American Dream only fully belongs to elite white men, those born above the glass ceiling who will do anything to stay there, or those few select others willing to sell their souls to get there. The American Dream never really belonged to the rest of us, and it never could. We’re support beams, cooks and cleaners, carpets, ego-props, wanna-be’s. We can try, but most of us aren’t allowed to be anything else, because the American Dream needs a lot of support in order to exist. So the best many can hope for is to be ballast at the bottom of the pyramid. The very best others can hope for is second place, even if they are brilliant and born into privilege.

The culture I inherited is a trademarked, artificial culture, peddled on cereal boxes, milk cartons, and billboards, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a culture that will feed you laboratory chemicals, and you will like them. You will even ask for them. As I grew, I came to question this culture, reject it, stand against it. That’s one thing the American Dream culture really hates, and I was punished for it, like a sagebrush is punished for sprouting in a suburban yard.

The powers of my childhood wanted me to be a daffodil. I was dressed up and primped, taught the correct placement and usage of dishes and utensils at the table, directed to use polite words and sharply forbidden to use others, and as a girl, thoroughly instructed in the arts of deference and obedience.

No matter how hard they tried, it didn’t stick. I couldn’t be a daffodil, and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried, I really did, but later learned that my efforts were doomed to failure. I was a sagebrush, not a daffodil. Ironically, wild sagebrush, an iconic part of the American west, don’t fit into the American Dream. If domesticated and corralled in ceramic pots or botanic gardens, sagebrush can be tolerated. The best I could hope for was to be tolerated. I was in good company. I was tolerated — or not — along with other mentally ill, with atheists, people of color, indigenous, contemplatives, lesbians, philosophers, and a rainbow of others.

So, rather than keep trying to change who I was, I set out on a journey to reject the American Dream and as much of the culture that went along with it as I possibly could. But what culture was left? What had my parents and grandparents lost by embracing McDonaldsland? In my veins is the blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. Going back far enough, all human beings come from such indigenousness. This indigenousness was the best weapon I had to do battle with McDonaldsland. But how could I embrace it without the culture, language, and connection to my ancestors? What could I do, cut off from my power? How could I survive when the dominant culture was still trying to eradicate sagebrush, even as its unbreakable connection to beautiful things like sage-grouse was becoming apparent? 

I’m still asking this question, still digging for clues, still searching for indigenousness, unearthing and embracing snippets of the cultures I lost. And when I find a snippet, I treasure it like a person who finds an unmelted piece of beloved jewelry in the wreckage of their burnt home.

The Old Red Bike

This year for my birthday, my husband, Joseph, reunited me with an old friend. I’d been wanting to ride my bicycle to work, but the years had deteriorated it to the point I couldn’t ride it anymore. Instead of finding a new bike, Joseph had my old friend restored, and he gave me a lot more than just a way to work.

Joseph understands that there are memories in my old red bike’s chrome-moly frame. It was made before most people knew what mountain bikes were, before these machines had titanium stems or shock absorbers, before my young dreams of adventure in mountains, deserts, and forests turned into old memory.

Some of my memories are still on its fire-engine-red frame, so Joseph asked that the frame not be repainted.

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He understands that I still love the sticker from Alamosa Schwinn Cyclery because it takes me right back to the frigid February day in 1984 when we newlyweds spent everything we had to order these wondrous new “Rockhoppers.” Some of the rusted little pits in the paint must have come from rides in the South San Juan Mountains, where I collected samples of the flora of Colorado for my early botany classes at Adams State College. Some must have come from the gravel roads of the San Luis Valley.

Some of the pits, too, must have come from pebbles and sand at the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We arrived early in the spring of the bike’s first year and asked the park ranger on duty where we could ride. He asked to see the Rockhoppers because he’d heard of them, and he admired them as he told us that the best place would probably be the four-wheel-drive roads at the park. Who could have guessed that the Canyonlands would soon become one of the great mountain bike meccas in the United States?

Joseph knows I love the California licenses adorning the frame below the Schwinn sticker because they are memories of California. There, I studied botany in grad school at the University, and I rode my red bike all over the Berkeley Hills and beyond. During those years, we had no car, so I even rode the red bike to the grocery store.

Joseph remembers how I pedaled this bike all over trails in California until I became too big with our first child and had to switch to hiking instead. He remembers how we mounted a baby seat on the back so I could take that little child, Kerry Joseph, riding. We explored trails along the Missouri River in South Dakota until I grew heavy with our second child, Lorien Rose. Not long after, back in Colorado, she was the little one on the back of my old red bike while Kerry rode alongside.

I rode to work at a plant nursery when the children were small and to my job as an ecologist as they grew older. I rode in the desert, in places with names like “Rustler’s Loop” and “Widowmaker” and sometimes in the mountains through groves of pine and aspen. This bike saw some wildflower-filled miles near the black bears and coyotes in the Ponderosa forests near our home northern New Mexico, where I tried — and failed — in a career as a schoolteacher.

These days, I need to be reminded to surround myself with the things I love. I need to remember that more adventures are possible. Joseph understands. This is why he restored my old red bike for me, taking care not to paint over any memories in the process.

 

You Can’t Stop Evolution

… even if you don’t believe in it. You can try to get in its way, but you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to stop a hurricane by closing your curtains and making a cup of instant coffee. You feel better for a while, but you don’t stop the hurricane. And unfortunately, you have your back to it  when it arrives.

So I’ve asked myself what the future United States might look like. What might we evolve into as a country?

One thing isimg_0632 for sure: despite political promises, it won’t be filled with millions of coal and petroleum industry and internal-combustion-engine-automobile-manufacturing jobs. It also won’t host teams of men who cut down old-growth forests or slaughter vast herds of wild bison for their tongues and tenderloins. These resources are on their way out, or they are already long depleted, reduced to island populations across our continent. Only so many ancient organisms were long ago turned into coal and oil beds. Their number was vast, but now they’re depleted, too. Like the bison. Like the old-growth trees. It’s a simple fact, no matter how many curtains you draw or cups of instant coffee you brew. Whether you “believe in” global climate change or not, the coal and steel industries are not coming back. We need to choose something else.

When human beings lose resources and their survival is threatened, things usually become violent. That’s the scary part of what could happen, and don’t think that this doesn’t keep me up at night. But what happens after the violence? I’m hoping that the once-great city, Detroit, Michigan, has an answer.

I’ve been to Detroit, over forty years ago. It was a lot like Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Brimming with people and industry, self-important. Not so now. The auto industry declined. Corrupt politicians took their share. The giants fell. I’ve not been back there in person, but I know there was violence, lots of it. It was all over the news for a decade or more. But while I’ve been out west raising a family and contending with the increasingly difficult business of keeping up a modest living, the affairs of Detroit quietly fell out of the news.

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Recently, I was reminded of Detroit by an episode of “Parts Unknown,” a CNN show by Anthony Bourdain (Season 2, Episode 8). I had no idea that the city had disintegrated so much. Bourdain compared it to Chernobyl, the nuclear ghost city in the Ukraine that was abandoned in the 1980s. But in the midst of all the decay and graffiti are sustainable farms. And artists filled with life. And pop-up and back-yard restaurants serving local food to laughing customers. There is grit and hope and a strong sense of community among all of that bitter Rust. I’m not talking about boutique food or a frou frou future, the latest fad in local agriculture. I’m talking about surviving after the giants fall.

We could choose this future, couldn’t we? We could learn to feed ourselves again, to take care of one another, couldn’t we? Is it too naive to hope that we might be able to accomplish it without doing violence to one another? I have been to Las Vegas recently, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Detroit …

Is Detroit only a ruined city? The disgraced giants might think so. Or is Detroit actually a window into the future, a city decades ahead of its time? I want to believe that our future is filled with the seeds of hope that Anthony Bourdain found in Detroit. It looks like evolution to me.

September 23 garden

Winter Solstice

First snow tree at night

Some people believe that the winter solstice − rather than All Hallow’s Eve − is the time when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the spirits. The mystic in me wants to embrace this idea, but my inner skeptic wonders if there is a spirit world at all. One thing I am certain of: there is more in nature we don’t understand than we do. And that’s okay, as it should be. There is something about the winter solstice, about the interplay between light and darkness, that makes me want to believe in a world of shadow and mystery.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls the December full moon the “Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon,” according to Native American tradition. I’ve also heard it called the “Moon of the Popping Trees,” because in some places it can get so cold that the sap freezes in trees, expanding and breaking the bark in the middle of the night with a loud crack. In that kind of weather, a person could step outside to relieve themselves, be enchanted by the prismatic beauty of moonlight on snow crystals, and freeze to death in the span of ten minutes. It could take even fewer minutes in a northern ice-scape without trees at all. Best be careful, little human being.

I had the fortune to spend this past summer solstice on the Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. For years, I’d longed to experience the Bering Sea. It is more formidable than I ever imagined. And more beautiful. Its slate gray waters − even in summer − could have claimed my life in the span of five minutes if I fell overboard. No warning signs are necessary on that boat’s pitching rail.

To some, the whole point of the winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun, the relief that it won’t keep fading away, that light and warmth will come back to us. That’s vital, but only half the story. I believe my Irish ancestors – the ones who called themselves Druids and who named the winter solstice Alban Arthuan – might agree with me. It’s not only about the return of the light, it’s also about embracing the darkness, beyond the recognition that there are things out there that can hurt us, freeze us, kill us. Humans are not in control. We never have been. It’s good to be reminded on this shortest day of the year. Often there is strength, even survival, in concealment.

Civilizations that live near the Earth’s poles seem to understand the winter solstice best. The myths of Iceland are filled with creatures like Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. Icelanders are direct descendants of Vikings, who must have loved cats. Recent archeological research hints that they may have been the ones to bring house cats to Europe. But the Yule Cat is not a pet. It’s a creature of the darkness, eating people who have been too lazy to wear out their working clothes during the course of the previous year. I understand that Icelanders still typically give gifts of clothing for Christmas to ward off Jólakötturinn. You don’t have to literally believe in the Yule Cat to embrace a tradition like this, to be watchful, especially in the frigid night of winter.

We need to take care, but we don’t need to fear. Darkness is beautiful, like the silvered waves of the arctic seas. Somewhere in the long night is also a warm hug, a fire, a feast, someone we love. And there is no better time to tell a good story, the sort of intricate tale that emerges from the blackness and takes hold. This solstice, turn toward the darkness as well as the light. Conceal yourself in it. But don’t forget to be vigilant. Always be watchful.

A Wedding and a Dash

Tomorrow morning, my son, Kerry Joseph, is getting married to the love of his life, Katelyn. We love them both so much and wish them well!!! For those who have never met Kerry, I will tell a brief story that says much about him. The other day, he told me that he wants to get a tattoo of a dash (one of these: – ) . When I asked him why, he said that his tombstone will likely read, 1990 – xxxx (date unknown), and the ONLY important part about this is the dash. The dash is important because it represents everything that happens in between. The here and now. The life to live. And tomorrow morning, he and Katie will embrace that life. They will share their strong love with all of us in one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth. I feel privileged to be able to witness it. Maybe I want to get a dash too …

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