Tuesday is the winter solstice. The shortest day and longest night of the year; the sun’s daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. This, apparently, is more evident to those in high latitudes. Portland may not be the highest latitude, but when it’s dark outside by 4:00 PM and I go to work in the dark and I come home in the dark, I’d say we’re high enough. According to Wikipedia, “worldwide, interpretation of the [winter solstice] has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.”
For me, this year’s winter solstice marks the end of a ritual, not the start.
As you might recall, in June, on the summer solstice, I began what over the months I’ve come to think of as an identity journey. I shaved my head, quit looking in mirrors, deleted all social networking accounts, began mediating, and quit having sex. (The guy I was dating at the time said, “I just don’t think I can have sex with a bald chick.” Apparently, this image was so jarring that he missed the bit about celibacy. )
I wasn’t one hundred percent certain at the time why I needed to do these things, but I was going through something – and I was going through it whether I understood it or not. Whether I took control of it or not. I turned 34, became a grandma, was trying to write a book, got tired of fucking for sport, was approaching the year anniversary of my divorce, was trying to adjust to life without psychiatric medication, and, in June, celebrated the 17 year anniversary of a car accident that occurred when I was 17 – and realized: this is the me that I am now. Who the fuck is that?
So how did that go?
Do you know Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from The Republic? Loosely and probably poorly summarized, the story goes like this: there are a bunch of people (in this metaphor we – you and me and the guy reading this next to you – are the people) and they’re all chained up and forced to stare at a wall, upon which shadows from a fire behind them dance. From birth through death, these slaves sit chained watching shadows. Only the slaves don’t know that what they’re seeing are shadows – that is, until one day one of the slaves (that would be me) gets loose and goes out into the world and literally sees the light – of the sun, of the fire in the cave. He sees reality. After this slave’s enlightenment, he remembers the poor saps back in the cave (you again) and feels a desperate need to report back to them with the truth! He needs them to know!
Remember that story? AP English, senior year?
Yeah, well – this summary is nothing like that.
I’m not saying that I didn’t get anything out of my experience, and I’d even do it again. I’m just not sure that the light that I found would burn as bright or be as illuminating for you as it has been for me. I’ve made sense of a lot of private stuff – stuff around the accident, around sex, around My Mom – stuff that’s nobody’s business and is still in its unrefined form. I also realized a few things that don’t seem as profound written down as they felt when they landed on me.
For instance: it’s definitely too late for me to join the circus. The class clown persona quits being funny when you hit your 30s. I’m the shrill, screaming mom and even when I’m not upset this is how I sound – and if I just had a voice changer so that I could sound like a robot or Fat Albert, half my parenting battle would be won. People quit applauding after the eighth time you announce that you’ve quit smoking. And so on.
I’ll be honest –almost every piece of my ritual has fallen away of its own accord as its usefulness ebbed over these months. The first piece to go was looking in the mirrors. My nearly nine-year-old twin boys had a hard time remembering to put the cloth back in its place after they used the bathroom mirror. I decided that in this Pick Your Battles world, the frustration of trying to train them to cover the mirror just wasn’t worth it – though, to their credit, they really did try. After about six weeks, I let this go.
I appreciated those six weeks, though. It was a fantastic opportunity to step outside myself. I realized that I’m not married to my outside image – I’m married to the inner image that the outside should look like. This experience has allowed me to bring these two images into a more harmonious alignment. And, you know – I feel like I look more like me than I’ve felt maybe ever in my life. It feels more honest. It feels peaceful. I’ll go ahead and say it: I feel more peaceful.
I spent much of those first six weeks in my bedroom, unless I was at work. I meditated quite a bit – and by this, I mean less of the “yoga pants on a mat in the Lotus Position” and more of the “lying on the bed throwing a baseball up and catching it over and over while ruminating.” I also started on my manuscript, which has taken on several different lives in these last six months. First it was memoir, then it was young adult fiction, then it was literary fiction, now it’s memoir again. Currently, it’s just sitting on my hard drive in the exact same state it’s been in for two months. I haven’t touched it. After reading cautionary tale after cautionary tale here on TNB, I realize that there’s likely not going to be much of a financial payoff for my book and that truly the old cliché is accurate: I can’t write for anyone but me. I had an agent interested in seeing a draft of my manuscript (a lovely, sweet, sweet man that I wanted to produce for so badly) and every time my mom called or my coworkers stopped by to see me, I was asked, “How’s your book coming?” I started to feel like a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit for bets other people were laying. Which is to say: it quit being fun for me. I’m absolutely confident that I’ll finish my manuscript. I’m just going to do it when I have the energy again, and when I start back on it, I’m going to do it for myself – which is a hard-won lesson I wish I’d known earlier.
After the mirrors, the rest of the pieces fell away too. My hair grew back. Eventually, and quite recently, I returned to the dating world (though much more cautious and with a greater understanding of what I want, what I offer, and what I won’t settle for.) Somewhere in there, I went back on medication (after discovering that the voice changer technology still hasn’t been fully developed and that that pesky old brain injury is still there.) But yet, I haven’t returned to social networking – and I probably won’t. And I don’t miss it.
Gloria Harrison has not shared song lyrics that are stuck in her head with a large group of people for six months (mostly because she’s gone to Wichita – far from this opera forever more).
Gloria Harrison doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about with this “new profile” crap.
Gloria Harrison has stopped thinking of her emotional state in the third person. **
I started to get a little obsessed with Facebook there at the end. A lot of people can be responsible with it, and I get that, but for me it became a world into which I poured too much time. I miss a lot of people from Facebook – it’s where the bulk of my parenting support group existed, and sometimes I feel that lack in my life still. Yet… Where once upon a time I would find myself online, chatting with people about my parenting, I now find myself more actively engaging in it. I don’t fault myself for falling into this trap, nor anyone else who uses Facebook this way. I just realized at some point that I was allowing muscles that could be developed to atrophy, and I finally accept that I’m the type of person who has to do it the hard way, lest I go soft.
Mostly, these six months have been an opportunity to take stock. This is the mom I am. This is the job I have. These are the skills I possess. These are the opportunities for me to grow. These are the children I have. These are their strengths. These are their challenges. This is my grandchild; he is alive; he is here. He’s fat, blue eyed, red haired, extraordinarily good-natured, and he likes me a lot. He has my DNA in him. He is an extension of me – and I didn’t even have to do anything to make him exist. His existence enhances, it doesn’t taint. He’s my family and I love him.
I can’t say definitively that the individual pieces of my ritual were crucial to the lessons I’ve learned in these last six months. If you take any six month period and put it under a microscope – really, truly examine it – you’re going to witness growth of some sort. Sure, maybe it’s just your fingernails and hair (or maybe it’s the hair that falls out if you’re prone to male pattern baldness), but still, it’s change. Nonetheless, I’d do it all again if I had to. Because I don’t think ritual is necessarily about the parts, but their sum.
**I ripped this off from my friend Katie – but she said I could.