Solstice 2012: Keeping the Faith

A week ago last year, I got married. That’s a story on its own – my husband John and I are not exactly what you'd call traditional – but for the purpose of this story, what’s important is that we did, in mid-December, and that some of our friends pronounced our unexpected nuptials a sign of hope. We liked that. In fact, we'd initially planned to wed the following spring for all its hopeful symbolism, but when a friend pointed out we’d likely get a tax break by getting hitched before the end of the year, being pragmatists, we opted for a quick winter wedding.

A few weeks earlier, I’d found myself in Joan Gussow’s kitchen, talking about how I had just ordered a custom dress of organic bamboo jersey on Etsy. Joan was laughing and comparing me to more typical brides who buy their dresses months in advance. I asked about her annual sunrise Solstice bonfire, an event I'd been unable to attend the previous year. It was scheduled for the weekend after our wedding. We should come this year, she said, and sleep over the night before. It would be a good start to our marriage.

So, the morning after our City Hall ceremony, we hopped a bus from Port Authority to Piermont, where Joan’s famous garden sits on the Hudson River next door to the community garden, the site of the bonfire. By early afternoon, we were building the structure from scrap wood and wire – Joan likes her fires tall and spectacular. She had DIY-ed some fire starters from a used egg carton, dryer lint and wax. After placing them strategically, we left it all for the morning, had some wine and dinner, and tucked in early.

2012 was a difficult year for many people, and ends on a particularly somber note following the recent shooting in Connecticut. Perhaps more than ever, we are eager, not only to bid adieu to the worst of 2012, but to set our intentions for a brighter 2013.

Throughout my twenties, I had always wanted to celebrate the Solstice, but every winter, my plans fell victim to holiday parties or shopping. Finally, a newly married woman in my thirties, I was waking up in the wee hours to sip coffee and mingle with strangers, faces glowing with firelight, taking stock of the previous year and expressing hopes for the coming one until the darkness faded and the river and horizon materialized. Some of us burned notes and other symbols of past and future. At the center of it all, my longtime hero Joan, who – in spite of her no-nonsense approach to food and climate -- is a testament to determination in the face of difficulty.

And so I decided that the winter Solstice was the most hopeful day of the year. While its counterpart the summer Solstice comes in the run-up to peak harvest season and its warm temperatures make for more convenient celebration, the shortest day is gorgeous for what it portends: longer days, another trip around the sun and another season of growth laid out before us.

2012 was a difficult year for many people, and ends on a particularly somber note following the recent shooting in Connecticut. Here in New York, many are still without power to their homes after Superstorm Sandy wrought such tremendous devastation on the Mid-Atlantic. My husband and I remain very much in love, but we too have seen hard times in 2012. More than ever before, it seems, we are eager to burn away the worst of 2012 and set our intentions for a brighter 2013. 

It makes sense that this dark and difficult time of year has been chosen by so many faiths as a season for high ritual. Inasmuch as the holidays (especially Christmas) have been over-commercialized, it is are an ideal time for healing and reflection. Yes, there are several cold, dark months ahead of us, but winter is a time of hidden growth, and now is a great time to gather with friends and family, take stock and plot the course for the coming year.

What does all this have to do with Bill McKibben? Yesterday,, a wonderful new multimedia project powered by the Jewish Farm School, released the excellent video in the upper right, and it inspired me to reflect on all of this. In it, McKibben eloquently cautions viewers of industrial agriculture's overreliance on fossil fuels and calls on religious leaders around the world to guide their followers in the protection of the earth. True to form, he does so insistently but gently and even hopefully. Most exciting, he quotes a statistic from the USDA that I hadn’t heard yet – that for the first time in 150 years, the number of farmers in the US had risen, not fallen, in 2011. The image of that steady decline, followed gratefully by an uptick, looked like the winter Solstice to me.

Can we reverse the tide of climate change? Can we support a new movement of small farmers in time to build a strong network of regional food chains? Time will tell and it might not be a honeymoon, but for now, we have longer days coming and another year to do better, by ourselves, by each other and by the planet.