Roaring, snapping, flickering fire. Blossoming to life beneath our hands, warming our bodies, beguiling our eyes, comforting our light-hungry spirits....
Entering the longest, darkest night of the Northern hemisphere, I long for fire.
The slow, mesmerizing dance of flames entrances human creatures in the way that only another elemental force—flowing water—can. Gaze upon this glorious, ever-changing, fulminating flower, and you are swallowed by the Now. You live your existence in leaping flames, free for a timeless moment from circling thoughts that pull you away from Here. You are fully present and still...at rest, at peace. Like calls to like: This living creature brightly burning in the darkness is an analog for the shining spark of life we each carry within.
Before dawn on this shortest of days, the solstice—stillness—held us so close, lulling us in sleep, whispering of rest, renewal; of cold things in stasis and warm, fur-bearing beings nestled deep in dens, noses tucked under tails.
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, it has been said. Better yet to love both darkness and shadow—as essential and rightful to this world as light. For only in the deepest darkness can we see the endlessly roaring fires of the stars, and most wholly love both the darkness and the flame.
But for today, the Winter Solstice, Darkness is our music, and Light, our beloved dance partner.
The rain fell all day, out of a pewter sky, pelting away at mushy piles of snow. I wound garlands of blue twinkle lights around the picture window, the dining room door frame and the built-in buffet; a festive glow to lighten the dimness.
Dark as it is, the rain sounds like silver...hissing under tires, slurrying down icicles, ringing and puddling in crystal hollows. Silver is the color of December for me: Silver snow, moon, bells, stars. Silvershine, silverlight, silvershiver. The tiny, precious silver beads my mother used to decorate gingerbread men, that lay silver-sweet on my child's tongue.
I love both of these songs that have silver in their names—there is a sort of slow majesty about each of them. Adam Sparhawk and his wife Mimi Parker are the gorgeous voices in Low, an indie band based in Duluth, MN, that has opened for Radiohead and periodically tours around the world. Singer-songwriter Haley Bonar, from South Dakota, also lives in Minnesota and has opened for Low.
Fresh snow creak-crunches under my Timberlands and occasionally floofs from branches in muffled thumps. Conclaves of crows wheel among whirling white flakes, black wingtips stroking a ghosty sky that touches the ground everywhere and nowhere.
Today, I view the world through a soft, raining snow that dissolves as it touches my living eyes and skin, like rejuvenating polar eye drops whisked down fresh from the Arctic circle.
It is our first real snow of the winter, and after my winter wonderland walk, I'm drawn to snuggle down and revel in the quiet things I love: Reading. Writing. Daydreaming. Retreating slowly inward to meander through the deep, fairytale wood of the psyche. Not coincidentally, many of the favorite pursuits of an introvert (i.e., myself).
Another introverted individual, Susan Cain, presented a riveting TED talk to share her discoveries into the power of quiet in a new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I highly recommend you take a listen, if you Are, Love, or Have Befriended an introvert or two. And if you haven't, maybe her insights will persuade you to seek some of us out. We tend to be the quieter voices around the table; but trust me, there is a lot going on in there, people.
Our lives are richer when we honor the power of quiet—whether it's winter sending its long nights and silent snows, or going inward in search of deeper, less easy truths....
The air outside today was like a giant breath mint, so fresh and frosty-blue. I do believe it is winter edging into my December like a shy ice-spider, with as-yet wobbly young legs that are not completely traveling in the same direction.
Winter is our time to dream, imagine and knit together plans like bright potholders, or very long, stripey scarves; maybe even to come up with something we can't immediately identify, with more sleeves and neck holes than your typical human could use at one time, but nonetheless full of a weird potential.
So it is apropos that last winter Lee and I began talking about singing together with some musician friends in a one-off cover band, through a local rock camp for grown-ups. Lee plays the guitar, and I...well, I sing. For the past year, I've been learning how, anyway.I do not claim any great technical skill; but let's just say I have come a long way.
Saturday, we'll be on stage, at a bar, performing a set of Fleetwood Mac songs.
I am exciterrified.
But back to Fleetwood Mac. When I was a young woman, Stevie Nicks symbolized much that I wanted for myself and my life. Magic. Mystery. Artistry and the freedom to be uniquely myself. Feminine power, Welsh witchiness, and the same sense of wildness I felt within, but had no way to express.
Her Stevie-ness performing Rhiannon in 1976:
Many years have passed since I pored over the liner notes in my Rumours album, and daydreamed a wider, wilder life for myself. Now, in middle age, I'm still dreaming. I feel I'm just beginning to truly come into my power and magic, both as a woman and a whole human. Learning to take up my full share of space, assume my mantle of authority, share my gifts. Let my song be heard, as only I can sing it.
It is not that easy for me to do. It has required frequent pep talks from myself to myself, and daily fear calmings. It is worthwhile but not easy to be vulnerable, or to risk looking a fool, or to stand up there and sing that one note that I almost always screw up, even though I get most of them right.
Because I am not Stevie Nicks. But I am me, and I have to sing it anyway.
A misty day, very mild for December. Minneapolis is preparing for ice-in at Lake Hiawatha (I'll give you this link, though it seems uber-outdated to speak of "improving" what used to be a "swamp." Is it naive to expect a park board to, you know, have more connection with/respect for nature? I am that naive.).
In case, on some chillier date, you are walking on lake ice and fall through, it's a comfort to know that an emergency rescue board is handy. One emergency rescue board—so don't all fall in at the same time.
Someone maybe able to pull you out before you die of exposure...but if I were you, I'd stick to the shore for a good while yet.
If you're driving on lake ice—well, we won't say so, but you kind of deserve it.
If you are a bird, however, even thin ice lacks a danger quotient. It actually gives you one more place to hang out with your friends, and make a big racket. So you have that going for you.
A crow walks on water, both in her own mind and in actuality. They are talented creatures! And they know it.
One night a few years ago, I went downtown toThe Entry to see Jason Molina,
an Ohio singer/songwriter who was on one of his restless highway tours of
middle America and Canada. The Entry is an intimate venue that adjoins the more
famous Mainroom at First Avenue, holding maybe 200 people inside its black-painted
I went alone that night, because a. though I’d been a fan
for a couple years, I didn't know anybody else who even knew who Jason Molina
was, and b. so I could completely sink into the experience without having
to pay the slightest attention to anything or anyone else.
I got there early, staked out my place behind the rail, and when
he and his band took the stage, I tried to drink in every note he sang. Feeling
as if that music was feeding my heartlander's empty places: those wide,
unpeopled plains unfolding beneath a bright moon.
The prairie and empty highways throb like a pulse through
this man's songs. He casts a spell woven of stripped-down sadness, minor chords
and powerful, dreamlike images: wolf-headed conjurers, thunder and crows,
ghosts and dust, bluest-blue and blood-so-red and a moon that swings like a
blade over the Midwest's heart.
"I know serpents will cross universes to circle around
I know hounds will cross the universe to circle around our
They're always close, always so close
Step by step
One's beside me
To kill me or to guide me
Why wouldn't I be trying
To figure which one out?"
"Ring the Bell" - Songs: Ohia
His songs—the ones I love best—are stark, haunting,
yearning, like a soundtrack to the rare dreams that inhabit you for hours after
you awake, so vivid and strange are they...an urgent voice in a strange
language that nonetheless is clearly calling you to pay attention: a vital
message is being sent from your deepest dreaming.
Exquisite songs, with an elemental power rooted in sadness,
and in the beauty of vast, moonlit landscapes...
Two Blue Lights
...songs of unspoken farewells...
...passionate, eerie, skin-shivering songs.
Now you know who Jason Molina is, too.
Speaking of a recent album, he said: "So in a way, these are meditations on depression,
waiting, dislocation, separation, doubt, fear, loneliness...the usual from
me...but here, if I did not see redemption or even a glimmer of hope, and
thought I could put that into lyrics and a simple melody, I allowed that to be
the driving force of the song.... All of this is an attempt to put a serious
price on lyrics that are honest not witty, shy but not weak, weary if they are
and sad without apology, depression without a fight and depression with a
After the Entry show, I hung around to thank the man, in a
sincere but inadequate effort to express what his songs mean to me. As I spoke,
his kind face lit up, he took my hand, and he thanked me for coming to see the
Jason Molina has been on hiatus the last couple of years, as
he battles some demons. I, and many others, are hoping hard that he finds the redemption
he is looking for.
Jason Molina died on March 16, 2013, from organ failure related to alcoholism. He was 39.
We will try and know whatever we try
We will be gone but not forever
The real truth about it is there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross
Crisp, russet riches drift against every fence and burrow into the corners...the season of strolls winds down...
...soon the park stairways will be blocked off, so that the Park Board doesn't have to shovel them or keep them clear of ice. Or because of potential lawsuits. But these token barriers are easily got around (since I'm 5-foot-1, I usually crawl under).
The eatery in the park building, where we, and the rest of Minneapolis, load up on clam fries, crab cakes and craft beer on smiling summer days, is closed...
November is all about mood: quiet, contemplative and melancholy, as the skies darken with clouds and the year folds inward to rest, then sleep.
This track, "The Great Exhale" (an apt description of November) is from the just-released New Wild Everywhere album by Great Lake Swimmers, a band from Toronto. All things must pass, but a homecoming awaits us.
The title song is upbeat and hence a bit more "April" than November, but it's about the vitality of the burgeoning wild, even inside the most building-est city, so it must be included here....
I've been a fan of Midlake, a band from Denton, TX, for several years--another band who writes beautiful, sad songs rich with nature imagery and themes of loss. Here is "Rulers, Ruling All Things"....
...and "Acts of Man," another gorgeous song about our connection (or lack of) with the natural world, performed live. I recommend sitting in a darkened room, closing your eyes, and letting the songs take you deeper into that sense of waiting that November is so good at evoking in us.
In the stories, a traveler returning to mortal earth with a
pocketful of fairy gold stolen from the Otherworld is always dismayed to find that his
treasure, in tricksterish fashion, has undergone a transformation into yellow
gorse flowers, or golden leaves.
I wonder if this story-germ was born out of human encounters
with the transient beauty of the natural world and its creatures? People must
always have tried to steal away a bit of its beauty for themselves, secreting
away some glowing wild-rose or bright pebble plucked from a stream—only to find
next morning that the beauty they’d sought to possess and preserve had faded to
dullness, its magic lost. Fairy gold.
Maybe humans yearned for beauty that would stay, so they
began to create beauty of their own; fashioning ornaments of gold, weaving
cloth rich with woad-blue and rose madder. Unchanging, relatively permanent
objects that could perhaps echo nature’s glory yet maintain their shining life,
even when locked away in a treasure house or buried in a tomb for long
Anyway. What I’m getting at is how intrinsic this
shapeshifting impermanence is to beauty’s sheer poignance, the way it can seem to pierce the heart and crack it open. Is it because the flip-side of
our yearning for beauty seems to be our grief for its inevitable loss? ”So dawn
goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost (and as everyone who's ever read The Outsiders will remember).
In another beautifully melancholy poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins calls loss "the blight man was born for," and tells a young child (and the rest of us) that our own mortality is reflected in the wild life of the leaves, and it is really for ourselves and our loved ones we mourn when we experience grief at the dying of a season.
This idea isn't unique to the West, either...the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi finds true
beauty in the impermanent and imperfect, which can fill us with spiritual longing
or a sense of melancholy. But it also
may fill us with peace, because of its authenticity and essential truth about our mortal existence....
These are the thoughts I was thinking, as I saw that the rich, shining brown oak leaves I’d
gathered from the ground one day had lost their luster the next; now bewilderingly flat
and lifeless as grocery bags. Almost as if
I’d caged a bird for its song, only to render it mute; a pale reflection of its
wild and joyful self. Holding onto what cannot be captured, only felt.