“The Dark Half,” by Darren Kirby
Going into the future is like going into the dark.
That was the theme of our family’s solstice ritual this year, as the nine of us (grandparents, parents, four kids and one cool step-uncle) settled down into a circle in the darkness of the living room. It was several hours after sunset on the longest night of the year, and the kids were antsy with excitement over unopened presents. I struck a single match, and began to weave our sacred space.
Earlier that morning, we’d been up before the dawn, tramping as quietly as we could so as not to wake the neighbors, down to the park where we climbed the highest hill, lit a candle and a few sticks of incense and sang the sun to rising. The kids had made birdseed ornaments to hang on a specially-chosen tree (this year a scraggly oak rooted near the banks of a half-frozen creek). As Druids, we prefer to celebrate the continuation of life by sharing gifts and offerings with the local animals and plants, instead of killing an evergreen in a flurry of mixed-up metaphor. The candle burned steadily through the dawn twilight, until in a sudden gust of wind, it guttered and went out. At the kids dismay, I chuckled and said joyfully, “We don’t need the candle anymore! Look!” At that moment the first rays of the sun broke above the horizon.
But that night it was all darkness again. The ill-lit circle of faces held a mixture of anticipation and solemnity. As the single match died out, quietly we went around the circle, naming our fears and feelings about the dark. My youngest stepdaughter declared earnestly that she wasn’t scared of the dark on nights like this — she felt only excitement and happiness to be surrounded by family, with the promise of gifts and decorative lights and merry-making yet to come. But the older girls were more hesitant, gingerly testing out their uncertainties and anxieties. Going into the dark can be frightening, said one, because you don’t know what’s coming.
I nodded. “On the longest night,” I said, “we think about the hope and promise of the light returning and the days growing longer and warmer again. But going into the future is a lot like going into the dark.” And I lit the candle in the center of the altar — a flame that grew like a bright star twinkling in the far distance of empty space, guiding the way towards the birth of the new sun and a new day.
I thought about that ritual again last weekend, when the world celebrated the end of 2011 and the beginning of the new year. Jeff likes to call New Year’s Eve, “Sirius Night”. Every year, the brightest star in the sky reaches its zenith about mid-night on New Year’s Eve, the highest it will climb in the night sky until next December 31. Sirius is a star of wealth, prosperity and promise; but also a star of restlessness and impetuosity. It is a star of the hunt, one of Orion’s loyal hounds, or in the myths of some ancient cultures, the point of an arrow that flies towards its target. In Greek, its name means “sparkling” but also “searing or scorching.” In Akkadian, its name is the Star Dog of the Sun. Later in the year, when it rises above the horizon just before dawn soon after the summer solstice, it heralds the coming of the sweltering “Dog Days” of July and August. It’s no wonder that the secular New Year is so often associated with the resolutions and promises we make to ourselves about what we want to accomplish in the coming year. We feel the energizing light of Sirius at its peak even through the darkness of these long winter nights — like a hound straining at its leash, eager for the hunt to begin again.
Sirius gives us energy for the chase, but it also provides steady guidance through the dark. As the brightest star in the night sky visible from anywhere on earth, navigators and travelers have used it for millennia to find their way across rough seas and unfamiliar landscapes. In the crisp, clear air of cold winter nights, the stars seem to shine with a brilliance much greater than they do in the thick, hazy atmosphere of hot summer months — and Sirius, as always, shines the brightest of all. By its light, we feel as though we can see the whole new year stretched out before us, full of big plans and grand adventures. We forget how heavy and lethargic those plans can become along the way. In the coldness of winter, we’d love nothing better than to run towards those Dog Days of summer!
For me, 2011 was a year of waiting. Though my life went through a couple of Big Important Changes, most of the year was spent in planning and preparation so that by the time those changes came, I was already anxious to be moving on to the next project. Much of the time I spent with the feeling of treading water, running in place. This New Year’s Eve, I felt the yearning, eager energy of Sirius overhead more than ever. So while the neighborhood settled down into boisterous celebration — I slipped out into the twilight for a walk of silence and solitude.
I wandered through the nearby woods, usually still busy with dog-walkers and joggers even after sunset. Not this night. Everyone was at home, partying with family and friends, or out at the clubs and bars getting ready to ring in the new year with toasts and sloppy kisses. I alone walked through the mist that stirred between the bare limbs of the trees.
But not quite as alone as I thought. As I rounded a bend in the path, I stopped dead in my tracks. There before me, grazing in the clearing on the crest of the hill only a few yards away, stood six deer — slim silhouettes against the darkening sky, all grace and poise in the dusk.
Living in a city, it’s easy to forget the miles of preserved forest just down the block from my apartment, to think of the park instead as a place for human recreation. But the woods are home to more than human people and their pets. This was not the first time I’d seen deer in the park — earlier last fall, I’d seen a group of young bucks wandering among the graves of dead soldiers in the cemetery on the other side of the ravine — but it was the closest I’d ever been to so many at once. The sight of them left me breathless and startled. I realized that I was caught in a tension between two desires: to draw closer, even to chase them if I could… and to bow, to kneel.
The civilized part of my brain chattered nervously, warning me to hold still so that I wouldn’t frighten them away, worrying about the noise that my body made when I walked or slowly drew in breath. But the deer seemed unconcerned. Some of them gazed at me curiously before lowering their mouths again to the wet grass. One walked casually to another and bent its head as though in murmured conversation, and suddenly I found myself wondering if I were the subject of gossip. The thought struck me as silly and in the same moment, I knew that my sense of strangeness had slipped from me and I was no longer a trespasser on the scene, but a part of the community of the woods that night.
“Out of the Mist Appeared Antlers…” by Rob Smith
The many names of Sirius speak to its eager, restless energy — the energy of the hunt, of the quick journey into the unknown in pursuit of beautiful, fleeting promises that bound like deer across the land. Though I usually skip the whole new year’s resolution routine, this year I’ve decided to make a single, simple promise to myself. That promise is: to walk.
To walk with more gratitude and attention upon the earth, yes, but also to walk more widely and steadily. Too often, grand schemes for a better life keep me indoors planning and preparing, and the simple everyday tasks in front of me get left undone. Life becomes a series of excuses and promises that as soon as everything is planned and ready, as soon as my schedule is settled and the journey is plotted, then I will finally get moving… tomorrow, next week, next month, surely by next season.
But walking is simple. There is no need for elaborate planning or preparation, and so no excuse not to just get up and do it, here, now. So my resolution this year is to walk. Ten thousand steps a day, if I can. That will be more than three and a half million by the end of the year. With just a short stroll around the neighborhood after breakfast and another before dinner, I’ve already walked more than 10,000 steps each day for the past week and a half. But with 3.5 million steps ahead of me, it will be almost impossible for me to stay stuck in place. I will have to go out, to spend time exploring the world around me. But at animal-speed, at my-own-body-speed, not racing over the landscape in a car or a plane, worrying more about the destination than the process of the journey. I will walk, not run. I will hunt the here and now, steadily, patiently.
To walk with resolution into the future the way I walked into the darkness of the woods that night, open to all that is unplanned and unexpected that I will meet along the way. That is my hope. Fear and hope turn on the same tense music of uncertainty. That first walk on New Year’s Eve, Sirius Night, was the beginning. The first steps in the journey of the coming year.