The solstice has come and we’re now headed back into the light. It was hard to take in that realisty during the storm of freezing rain on Saturday night and Sunday. But by today, when the sun came out and we saw blue sky I felt a YES! things are already brighter.
Tomorrow is Christmas; it’s already come in many parts of the world. I’ve been baking today (after shopping for oysters etc for tomorrow) and the house is filled with warm smells of spices and baking loaves and cookies. But nearby there’s no baking going on, nor any cooking at all. I was reminded forcefully of that todqy by a guy who makes the pates and other charcuterie at Sanagan’s, my local butcher. I asked if he was cooking, or being cooked for, for Christmas. “There’s no cooking” he said. “We have no power.” He lives in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, the area hardest hit by the ice storm and its aftermath: downed trees, downed power lines and telephone lines, pumping stations and microwave towers out of commission, and so on.
Many are staying with friends, taken in for a meal or a bath or to sleep. But others may be without friends or without the means to call for help. And so the have and have-not divide is being expressed in new and painful ways here in the “first world” that is Toronto.
Meantime in South Sudan there is murder and desolating violence going on… And in the central African Republic, and along Burma’s border areas… How and why do we carry on in personal happiness and satisfaction when others are suffering?
I think it’s about survival. Most of us cannot live with a daily acknowledgement of the suffering of others. We wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning; it would drive us literally crazy.
But others, rare others, manage to take action. They include the extraordinary brave and imaginative wmen of Pussy Riot, as well as countless un-famous incividuals who toil in the trenches to make things better where they are.
I’ve just read a remarkable novel, a difficult book in its story and truths, and also an astonishing one. It’s by Anthony Marra and is set in Chechnya. I avoid scary movies and violent movies, but somehow I couldn’t put the book down. It spoke truth to me. The title is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And in it people struggle to be present to others, to help when help is painful to give and to receive, and when all effort seems hopeless.
I try to read a book of intensity and range at Christmas, fiction or non-fiction. And to have time alone. My first experience of a Christmas like that was in my mid-twenties. I had been included in another family’s Christmas, warm and welcoming, the previous year. It was right after my mother had died. I was grateful, but the whole experience was somehow alienating, as if I was trying to pretend that I was really warmed by the warmth of others.
And so the following year I had a Christmas Day on my own, a walk and a long good read (Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd). I needed to be face to face with my aloneness.
And now? Well now I wrap my family of friends around me for part of the holidays and for a good part of the year. But I treasure the time I have alone, often lonely, while travelling or just being wherever I am. And in those moments I try to look the despair of the world in the eye. It seems so important to acknowledge it and give it respect. And to think about how, in whatever way large or small, we can each try to make things better for others.
So that’s my wish for this solstice season, that we consider the pain in the world, that we give it our attention for a while, and then try to commit to some action to help with it, whatever we can manage.