As solstices go, the winter one gets most of the press here above the equator. Perhaps it quells the primal need for the comfort and serves as a cosmic reminder that the darkness of the season is not a one-way ticket into forever darkness. For whatever reason, nearly every culture north or south, the longest night of the year is met with candles, lights, fires. We gather in the cold and dark for the warmth of the human community and to remind ourselves that the sun (or son, however we spell hope for the future) is once again being reborn.
But Summer Solstice is like a younger sibling that doesn’t stand a chance here in my hemisphere. After all, there’s so very much to do in the warm weather. Graduations. Weddings. Festivals. Road Trips. Air Trips. Home Improvements. Family Reunions. Not to mention Gardening. Swimming. Hiking. And then there’s the summer Beach Reading List, somehow closely tied to the imperative to relax! Quick! And on. And on. Most of us are so carried up in the joyful whirlpool and the busy-ness of summer activity that there’s no time out until fall.
This is the exact opposite of the actual source of the word Solstice itself (rooted in Latin for “sol” or “sun,” combined with “sistere” for “standing still.”) Especially at Summer Solstice, ancients observed that the sun seems to stand still in its seasonal movement before reversing direction and moving on in its inevitable trajectory to the next season. Situated as we are in our whirlpool of activity, we tend to forget the “standing still” part. Whether or not it’s possible to set aside the actual longest day of the year for some stillness, most of us can use a little time out sometime during this week to catch our breath (if nothing else) before jumping back into the whirlpool.
I write this now as the sun stands still above me for a few minutes, as I reflect on sundown two days ago, on June 21. For the very first time this year I was privileged to honor the season in a way that fit me just right. I’m a member of Jubilate, a choir of women of all ages. This year we sang at a benefit for a local wildlife refuge, to celebrate the upcoming full dive into summer. During rehearsals last week, we listened between songs, inviting migrating birds to join us as we sang. The quieter we got between practicing our parts, the more willing they were to show up.
Then we gathered on Solstice itself to sing and celebrate nature under a canopy of tall trees. The resulting performance/ritual was a potent combination of praise for the earth and a plea for justice in the world. As we sang and listened and sang and listened, poetry of birdsong and woman-song merged, and the movement of the earth seemed suspended in the stillness. What emerged was a deep gratitude for this world, punctuated by birdsong. And so it is that I’m doing my own personal re-branding of Summer Solstice. Birdsong Solstice. A time out. A sweet pause in this greenest of seasons to thank the world for continuing to spin.
Spring Cleaning this year has a vengeance all its own in my home. We decided to go for it, and to (get this) remove everything from our under-the-house crawl space/basement. Did I mention that we’re digging out the floor so we can stand erect? Did I mention that the ceiling is fiberglass poking out of sagging chicken wire? Did I mention that it contains the overflow of 40-plus years of living? That we’ve raised two kids, helping move their stuff in and out with regularity through various ages and stages? That this includes their twenties?
When we consulted with a company about replacing the ceiling, a very concerned contractor pointed out a fire-blackened suitcase, worried that we had an undetected fire down below. We opened it and found it stuffed with the singed and charred remains of a life. The life my son lived before his apartment hit flash point in a fire about twelve years ago. Living alone, he defied medical logic, waking up instead of falling prey to oxygen deprivation. He got himself out alive, and his place hit flash point a minute after he walked out the door, wrapped in a neighbor’s blanket. This qualifies as Number 1 on my personal list of inexplicable and miraculous life experiences.
Opening the suitcase, crouched in the basement, we discover a curious collection of items: old tech manuals, a social security card, a few priceless mementos: post cards, birthday cards from family and friends. These are all that’s left from the period we now refer to as “before the fire.” When I called him in his “after the fire” life to share my find, he said he remembered where he had kept these: in his file cabinet. Apparently, the thin metal frame was an over-achiever at its job and functioned much like a strong box, keeping a tiny bit of his past away from the flames.
I salute its loyalty as I stand here now, holding a birthday card blackened around the edges. It’s an old Far Side cartoon card with a caption on the front that reads What really happened in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn on the night of the Great Chicago Fire. There’s a cartoon drawing of a goat, a pig, and a cow. The goat, holding a match just behind the pink pig’s butt, says to the cow, who is looking on, Ha! That was a real flame thrower. Now it’s your turn to light one up!
On the inside the card says Hope that your birthday’s a real blow out. The card was signed Johanna, and she gave it to him six months before the fire. Inside she had written, “on second thought, I feel I may need to clarify that. I do not mean it literally. Please.” This was followed by her birthday promise, the offer to make curtains for his entire apartment. She doesn’t remember how or why she chose that particular card or wrote those lines. And the curtains were never made.
I don’t know how this kind of thing happens. But it’s not the first time I’ve been humbled by the unexplainable way of things. As I look at the card today, posted right here on my bulletin board, I’m left with no logical answers. Mind is stumped, as it is every single time I come face to face with events that defy logic and yet have the audacity to still exist, rocking my world a little off its certain center.
The big miracle, of course, is his survival. And then after that is a trail of little ones, always shyly hiding at life’s edges, the reminder of an unseen world that I often don’t notice. But when I do remember to trace the thread of Mystery, I discover a truth that is stranger (and kinder) than the fiction we create from past memories. But I am grateful for all of it.
I am 5 years old. For a brief moment, I’m alone, on a break from my usual job of making sure everybody in my family of five is fine. Sitting under the locust tree on a hot summer afternoon, I look up at branches, then sky. And I suddenly know something I had long ago forgotten. A voice, in my bones;
You are not your name. You never were.
I repeat the syllables over and over: Sue Son Hi Sner (Susan Heisner). They fell like nonsense. And then there was Big Feeling, a very very big one, this world place beyond the name. Past this place they called the world. It seemed like I was there, too, with that voice that told me about names. I knew right away that this was the greatest and biggest feeling ever. I made a note in my little-girl self, “Remember. Think about this every night. Right after the prayer that says I might die.”
And then the words stopped. I had no idea how to even try to describe this to my ever-present mother, who knew everything about me. Even as a chatty and loquacious child I knew no words to describe how big this territory was. It became my secret, this deep sense of enormity and unity.
If not her, then who am I?
I would forget and remember and forget and remember this for the next sixty-plus years. And yet this one moment, one of my very few memories from childhood, would guide my curious and inquiring nature.
Each time I try to describe it, I’ve come to the edge of language and been forced to leap into metaphor. I’ve landed on a continent often lost, but one that I knew to have always existed inside, beyond, around, and below and above this name, this particular “me.”
It lives in the land of the Ineffable, The Home to Everything That Doesn’t Know or Need Language.
The land of mystics and poets and artists.
The land of forever. And yet also the land of now.
And yet…I keep trying to “eff” it. I’ve dedicated myself to finding the words, images, sensations, definitions, stories, reminders of what is truly true.
The light and indescribable and ineffable and nameless essence of me.
The landing in the subtle and wordless silence of all that is.
Which does (and doesn’t) have a name.
Because that is the mystic’s path, and, like it or not, that makes it mine.
Oreos may be my favorite cookie, and cookies are my biggest weakness. That’s why I’ve banned them from my life, my home, my conscious awareness for the last twenty years. But nowadays I’m figuring out how to live beyond harsh restrictions and trust my relationship with any food. And so I’ve become slightly more open to questioning my assumptions. Oreos pose a slippery slope of temptation that I haven’t honestly been able to trust myself to climb until now.
I was surprised the other night when a comedy spoof about Double-stuffed Oreos caught my attention. I was never the kind of kid who opened them up and slowly licked off the gooey white center. My strategy was to pop half of one in my mouth and chew them up quick while nobody was watching. So this new sticky, lard-like development in food technology called “double stuffing” was no big challenge of will power for me.
But the image of being double stuffed has caught my fancy. I see the evidence of overstuffed lives all around me. This is clearly a big deal in this hyper-stimulating world, and I’m hardly immune. Even though it’s been on ongoing practice for me to de-clutter possessions and clothing, I sometimes feel like I’m holding back an avalanche. And then there’s my schedule. It’s carefully curated and controlled so that I can keep all my commitments to everybody else and still include myself. My tendency when overwhelmed is to just try harder and do more, and I become the best CEO of my own life possible. All in an attempt to hold all the stuffing. After that, I revert back to my Type E woman self, a hangover from my thirties not completely resolved by a wonderful self-help book of that time. The subtitle is Everything to Everybody, and I don’t think I’m alone in this unconscious pattern.
My life becomes dedicated to a complex net of support and care-taking, community, relationship, family, spiritual practice, exercise. And then there are the “hobbies” like singing, reading, and writing. Not to mention the work that I love, supporting and challenging my clients as they grow and thrive. Sometimes this life feels triple-stuffed. And, it’s no coincidence that my body feels the same. Because when my life is too stuffed, I use my “got-to” of eating for comfort or to get some instant energy or to fog out the feelings of overwhelm.
All these warning signs tell me it’s time to unstuff my life ASAP. I’ve learned that the best course of action at this point is non-action. I double down on meditation, longing for a permanent retreat from it all. But by the time my stuffed life is at this stage of overflow, long silent retreats aren’t the immediate resolution I need. Short-term solutions are my best response as I move through this ordinary life. This might be as simple as locking the bathroom door and breathing deeply for a few minutes. Or sitting down each morning to meditate for ten minutes or to fumblingly write my way to the light of clarity, a practice which goes by the wayside when I’m so busy with Everything and Everybody Else.
Ironically I’m finding a Rescue Remedy in the very technology that creates the overstimulation. I’ve become a podcast junkie in the last few years, and I’ve had to learn to curate my list to avoid over-stuffed ears. A couple of these which have made the cut because they’ve been a balm to the nervous system are Nocturne and Nothing Much Happens Here. The last one is my newest love, offering Sleep Stories that are such a refuge and antidote for the too-muchness that is sometimes my life.
I’ve also been trying out a couple of apps to refine my meditation practice and to drop into sleep more easily: Calm and Waking Up. Both of these are beautifully designed and both involve a monthly subscription fee, so they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for everybody, including me. Starting today I’m participating in a two-month “online retreat” with Adyashanti, a teacher for whom I have great respect, to refine and reinforce my commitment to unstuffing my overfull brain. My clear declaration of intention, as God (and you) are my witnesses: To Unstuff my Overstuffed Life.
Photo by Flickr user “theimpulsivebuy,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, cropped