Catching the Light
Shortening days and lengthening nights climax on December 21, the winter solstice
by Elizabeth Ayres
Blue skies and brittle cold at Myrtle Point that day. Threading my way past twisted stalks of sea oats, with the stubble of marsh grass underfoot. The small surf cascading along the beach in falling dominos of sound. Mesmerized by the sparkling strokes of sun’s pen crosshatched on water’s crumpled surface. Dazed by a shimmering ribbon of wet sand curled along the shoreline. Glimmering motes of seedstuff in the air. Glinting insect wings. Flashing filaments of spidersilk anchored to the bushes, floating in the breeze, invisible except in this one shining moment, when, just so, they catch the light.
Then I saw them, freshly minted by the ebbing tide. I picked up one, then another: glistening pebbles like frosted glass. I couldn’t fathom why, but I had to have more, so I ran that day up and down the beach, rejecting anything solidly white, plucking up anything translucent, stuffing my coat pockets, hurrying home with my treasures. It’s only as I write that understanding dawns: carbonic acid in the water has leeched away their salts. Once opaque, these stones have offered their very substance to the river. Now they are transparent bearers of the light.
Now the days grow darker. Light is ebbing, like the tide. One of my stones is oval; another, round. Earth’s axis of rotation is 231⁄2 degrees off vertical. As she treads her oval path around the sun, she points first her northern, then her southern hemisphere toward it. Starting June 21, the sun loses altitude in our noontime sky, and this inexorable progression of shortening days and lengthening nights climax on December 21, the winter solstice, the sun still day, when our star halts its southbound journey and turns north once more so that light, like the tide, can flow forth again.
Ignorant of Earth’s tilt and the science of rotation, our ancestors were frightened this time of year. What if the sun keeps going? What if it never comes back?
Rituals evolved to catch it, hold it, convince it to return, celebrate when it did. Today we know the sun will reverse its pendulum swing without our help. Yet, all our festivals this season the Hanukkah Menorah, the Scandinavian Yule Log, the candles of Advent are efforts to push back the cold and dark with warmth and light. One of my personal rituals is an evening drive through the countryside to look at all the houses. So bold, those sparkles and shimmers. So brave, those glimmers and glints. So defiant, all that shining, when night presses close around and threatens to snuff it out.
This Christmas morning it will be 50 years since my father died, so I know something about the dimming. As we all do. Earth rotates daily at 1,000 miles an hour, revolves yearly at 67,000 miles an hour. Amidst all this spinning and tilting the losses keep coming, the grief piles up and what are we in an ocean of trouble except small stones scraping in an ineluctable tide? But rejoice, I say, and rejoice again, because in this briny swash and backwash our opaque substance wears away, making us, with every day that passes, more translucent.
Einstein himself said light is a mystery. It is pure energy interfacing with matter at its electrical and magnetic levels. The sun is our primary light source, but the arena of interaction that scientists call electromagnetic radiation occurs in and around all objects, including you and me.
What if we go one step further than Einstein and use another word for light: love. Isn’t that pure energy? Doesn’t love interface with matter at, shall we say, the highest level? So rejoice, I say, and rejoice again, because the tiniest act of kindness is a radiant force, invisible except in the one shining moment when, just so, we catch the light.
Poet and writing teacher Elizabeth Ayres (CreativeWritingCenter.com) is the author of Writing the Wave: Inspired Rides for Aspiring Writers. Her last reflection for Bay Weekly was Blue Crab Etude (Vol. xiv No 32: Aug. 10).