A living, third thing

Hello readers. Hello from here between the longest night and the ticking-over of another year, where the calendar rushes to catch up with the returning light and the dance between those two partners is as strange and elastic as ever. I wouldn’t call this an easygoing interval, but it is nevertheless charged.

Here on this peninsula the snow has come and gone and come again. In the troughs of that slow oscillation the ground is visible, all of it, pressed and drab and bare, like the sight of a not-yet-wrapped gift in the closet. That’s very nice, but I wasn’t meant to see it yet. In the evenings I’ve been learning the rudiments of modular synthesis (with sage advice from my friend Jack), which has proven to be a cozy vehicle for traversing the inner–outer watershed that this season by turns buries and lays bare. I savor both the indulgence of thoroughly untrained music-making and the illusion of endless time offered by midwinter nights.

All this calls to mind a certain paradox of the season. Each of us is in possession of a certain productive energy, an ability to make internal forms external. We build shelter, mentor children, paint pictures, make music. We cook nourishing food, write poems, speak from memory — each an internal form brought forth. At the beginning of winter there is a distinct slackening of energy; light wanes and passivity pulls, but the darkness simultaneously invites us to delve into inner work, the wellspring of any bringing forth. What do we make of this paradox? The two are opposites of a sort — working and slackening — but in their opposition a union can present itself. The interval between solstice and new year is a vessel in which we might glimpse this animating third, a lithe tension amid the slack.

A nebulous, circular form swims against the dark ground: bronze at the crenelated edges, pink and lavender and blue toward the black-speckled center. Perhaps it is an egg or a trench-dwelling cnidarian, a stellar nursery or a bloom of phosphorescent fungus. Whatever it is we are captive.

Ever Inward No. 2, Yayoi Kusama, 1953

I spent the night of the solstice sitting alone next to a small fire, where the only marks of passing time were wheeling constellations and the bright gibbous moon between running clouds. It was a difficult night, the longest of the year by more than I expected, and cold. But somewhere near the middle I did glimpse something. The moon had climbed to a point overhead in the southern sky and shone from a big clearing in the clouds, I closed my eyes: there beneath the earth the sun reigned over the longest day, and I could see its reflection in the dark mirror of the moon. The sun an image of productive energy par excellence, the moon an obscure inner form projected there to the sky, and my small fire aglow at the midpoint.

At the solstice there are two lights: sun below and moon overhead; one light hidden, another a projection. At the midpoint — which is where we each sit now — we can let rise a third light, one animated by the tension of the other two in opposition. It strikes me that this is our work here at the turn to a new year: stay in touch with the sun, bring some of its energy up through the earth, up from our depths, up into the dark interval.

Yes, great, you might say. But what on earth do you mean? I mean go raise a woodshed! Take a walk with a kid, put brush to paper, coax a melody from an instrument. Make a perfectly round pizza, write a few lines of verse under lamplight, burn a candle for the dead and for the future. Now is the time! And if you do, I hope you’ll share some of your work with me.

Indeed, this twelve-day interval here between solstice dawn and the ticking over of the calendar is our opportunity to make external certain internal forms that animate the imagination. But more than that — perhaps more essentially — it is our opportunity to observe the obscure dance of time itself. See it practice a linear step under our gaze, but then look away: in the peripheral vision it leaps impossibly from place to place.

Thank you for reading along with this December installment of Polylith. If you enjoy these letters, consider sharing them with a kindred reader, or steering a friend toward the bookshop. There are copies of Island lines and the latest issue of Drift Body zine still available there. Many thanks to all of you who have read and responded to my work (and shared yours with me!) over the last year.

Until next month, and by steps and leaps beyond, may the conversation continue.

Leelanau Peninsula, December 2021