Remember December? Perhaps it seems lifetimes ago already, a distant memory as you get ‘”back to the old grindstone.” Or perhaps last month still looms over today in the form of unsent “Thank you” cards on the desktop, a dying Christmas tree in the corner of the room or a slew of credit card statements that leave you bewildered and with a sudden shortness of breath. Whatever your experience has been during this passage into a new calendar year, it is unlikely that you have escaped some shift of the season. There is a hustle and bustle to the months surrounding American holidays that is unlike any other time of year. There are things to do, people to see and experiences to be had, regardless of the weather, what kind of mood we are in, and whether or not we have personal connection to the significance of the celebration…that’s just what we do! With holiday conversations beginning as early as October – regarding travel plans and logistics – and stretching all the way into the early part of January – when talk of New Year’s resolutions finally grows stale – it can feel like quite an endurance race at times. Yet somehow, we always manage to muster up whatever it is we need to persist through this time – which often involves setting aside anything that doesn’t exactly feel necessary or urgent. And while I am definitely one of the people who appreciates and looks forward to the holidays, this year I am feeling most inspired by the shift away from this chaotic time period, and back into one that feels a bit more intuitive in the depths of midwinter. I am stoked to rekindle my relationship to the quiet introspection that typically characterizes this time of year.
Undoubtedly, the sweet deep breaths I am finding in January are in direct contrast to the chaos of the months preceding. To me, this is no different than the contrast of winter from the other seasons, in general. If you are like me, and experience four distinct seasons each year where you live, then you may agree that one of the things that makes it easy for us to appreciate them lies in their relativity to one another. For example, the wet, muddy and unpredictable conditions of spring may be harder to celebrate did they not signify an end to the long winter and a time of new life. And perhaps it is easier to refer to the falling temps of autumn as “cozy” because they signify the coming times of closeness with our loved ones indoors and the approach of the holiday season discussed above. So as we settle into the remainder of winter, knowing that it may be long and cold and dark, can we appreciate and utilize the potential of this time? It may not be so obvious how to do that, in the absence of social obligations and celebrations to help us formulate our days. How do you feel now in comparison with one month ago? Has your pace changed? How about the nature of your thoughts? Your plans? What characterizes the season of midwinter for you? Do you feel most at home in the storm of December, or the calming thereafter in January? I hope you create some moments to contemplate, a few breaths of quiet time may be all you need to do so. ( And I would love to hear all about it in the comments below.)
One of the ways I choose to settle and digest after periods of significant stimulation and socialization is reading. It’s amazing how reading can be this beautiful way to both turn off and turn on the mind simultaneously, like a perfect reorganization of our fleeting thoughts. I am reading a book right now about belonging, and whether or not it is, in fact, a metaphysical pursuit. The author writes to challenge the idea that belonging is a state that may either be achieved or not, depending on our efforts and whether or not we are worthy of what we yearn to be a part of. She questions the abstract nature of the concept and the socially accepted idea that belonging is a gift only some receive, or that all receive, but only for fleeting moments and in specific company. Rather, she asks, what if belonging is actually a skill that may be both learned and forgotten? To which I respond, “why not?” I just heard a speaker a few months ago that made a similar suggestion about courage…what if courage is not a trait which is possessed or not, but rather, a way of being in the world which may be learned, adapted and enlivened throughout our lifetime? You might even choose to call these “skills” when you consider them in this light. When you think of belonging as something that may be learned and practiced, it may just reframe your relationship to it entirely. I personally find this reframing quite empowering, and refreshing. And what better time to reflect on our sense of belonging than in the aftermath of intense socialization, and the dawn of our deepest quiet of winter?
I’ve always heard, “There are two things you never discuss at a family gathering: Religion and Politics.” And while I have always stubbornly resisted this adage (I mean, why shouldn’t we talk about the topics that are the most important to us – the exact things we feel define us?), I will be the first to admit, these topics tend to be more divisive than unifying. I was especially aware of that this year as I came home to my family for an extended stay after many years of being away, and only visiting randomly here and there. I had to settle in and find my new place in the order of things. And while the twenty-something version of myself would have certainly come in swinging – making sure everyone knew who I was and what I stood for (!), I have found that with age, the need for agreement and affirmation from without only seems to dwindle. Thank Goodness! In its place, I find it becomes increasingly valuable to feel seen and heard by those around us – to simply be witnessed and welcomed. For example, it has always been natural for me to want to change my loved ones, to help them live their lives in ways that I was sure would only make them happier and healthier. Now, and more so each year, I am hopeful I may shift the part of myself that is uncomfortable rather than the aspects of people that I wish to change. This is not to say I hope to be complacent or to accept lack of change and betterment for us all, but rather that I hope to sever my attachments to what that change would look like and how to go about getting there. I recognize more and more that my inability to accept people and situations as they are stems from some lack of peace inside of me – a phenomenon that seems to only lend to more suffering (personal and collective). Where does this shift in perception stem from – do we simply just get wiser with age? Haha, let’s hope! I suspect my own shift has been nurtured by a shift in what I need, in what I desire. Right now, I have a strong wish to be seen exactly as I am, and to just have it be okay. Perhaps it is simply that which inspires me to be able to do the same for others.
For many of us, family was our first experience of belonging to something larger than ourselves. What if family, chosen or inherited, may also be the thing that teaches us how to belong even when we are not the same as one another? The wish to feel seen and heard is an especially interesting impulse at a time when marginalized people are making major breakthroughs in the defining of our culture. I bring that up because while America has long been touted as the “melting pot” of cultures, historically it seems it has mostly been only able to support diversity that can “melt” neatly and uniformly into the status quo. So now, we move forward – as a species, as a nation, as a family. And from where I am standing, this era of finding our voices, challenging the familiar, and making space for equal representation comes not without its own discomfort and opposition. So how do we deal? Well, I know my first response to this barreling of change is to feel great resistance (Change?…No!!), usually followed by an experience of introspection and contemplation. Then comes curiosity and genuine inquiry. And while this is a topic of giant proportion, I do not intend to go far down that road, at least not in this post. Rather, I wanted to reflect on our own sense of belonging and how we experienced it over the past few weeks. Did you encounter challenges to your sense of self over the holidays – and how did you deal with it? When and where did you have the strongest experience of belonging and what was that experience composed of? And if you did find yourself feeling isolated or lonely at times this holiday season, can you retrospectively imagine ways you could have practiced belonging, rather than looking for it? Lastly, how might your personal experiences play into larger cultural phenomena?
The book I am reading inspires me to consider when I feel most at home. I’ve grown quite fond of taking walks in the starlight of the night. There is something so humbling about narrowing one’s gaze to the vastness of the dark hours. I have found little else that can make me feel so small, so wonderfully insignificant, as a star-filled night sky. It is as though all the other senses are sharpened by the silenced stimuli of dusk to dawn. Often, the only sounds I can make out are those of my own making, or the gentle crackling of tree branches in the wind, or the occasional critter scurrying underfoot. And no matter what I encounter during these excursions, I have identified one common experience that characterizes these quiet moments of night: loneliness. I’m not talking about the kind of loneliness that begs for self-help mantras, or leaves us floundering in some void of connection to our fellow beings and the planet. Rather, I am talking about the type of loneliness that may be the exact thread from which belonging is composed. Stay with me…
My theory about why I love the solitude of night is composed of reflections about what a social and gregarious person I tend to be in general. I love people. I’ve always loved people. And I believe my relationships have always provided the lens through which I see and evaluate my world. However, just as one loves the head hitting the pillow after a long day of work, or the sweet sensation of pulling in the driveway after a long night of socializing, I suspect I just need a contrast to create balance in my life. We all must find ways to “fill up our cup”, as I like to say. It can be so rare to actually feel alone this day and age, as we swim in various public arenas, as we dabble in a more interconnected social world than ever before. So despite the negative connotations we may hold with the idea of being alone, or lonely, I believe I am gathering hints about how this may be the exact medicine that I need at times. For me, being alone at night helps me settle into a stillness which is far less accessible during the daytime. It allows me to get clear, and to show up in that moment, and with no particular agenda (how often can we say that?). This contrast to the rest of my waking hours, may actually be just the thing that props up my daytime efforts. It provides a perspective for me of humility and humanness that carries into the next day and beyond. Suddenly, the ways in which I feel at home in the solitude of night can translate into what matters most and the ways in which I wish to belong during the hours of daylight. Do you have something like this in your life? What are the ways in which you explore solitude? How can this inform what you find worthy of belonging to, as well as the efforts you put into doing so?
So as we bid adieu to the frenzy of December, I encourage you to give yourself permission to be still. Be your own witness. Give yourself permission to to quietly turn inward, just as the plants and animals have demonstrated for us time and time again in winter. Perhaps January is the perfect time to welcome solitude, and to marry our notions of loneliness with the most profound sense of belonging.