2023 Solstice Message

Natalie MuyresArticles, Updates

On December 19, 2023 the Human Venture met virtually and in-person to celebrate the winter solstice, a tradition for many years now. It provides our community the time to reflect and discuss the year gone by and the years to come.

2023 was an especially meaningful Solstice as it was the first without Ken Low.

Steacy Pinney hosted us in her beautiful home in Calgary and kicked off the event with a poem reading; Alison Hagan graciously hosted the group in Edmonton; Mark Hopkins honoured Ken by penning a solstice message (below); Chris Hsiung shared a sweet and humorous story from the Cree elder Chief Billy Joe Laboucan; and Nick Kalogirou played a beautiful improvised song on the piano.

We took some time to reflect on the dark and the light.

by Mark Hopkins

The dark skies outside tell us that we’re approaching the winter solstice, the point when the changing elevation of the noonday sun stops its downward course, appears to pause then begins to climb again.

But of course, the sun doesn’t move relative to the Earth. It appears to move because the Earth rotates and, because the Earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 degrees relative to the orbital plane, the arc that the Sun travels rises and falls as the Earth’s tilt is angled toward and then away from the Sun. The winter solstice is the moment when the northern hemisphere of the Earth is tilted as far away from the Sun as possible. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the opposite, with summer solstice just a couple of days away.

This isn’t new information; particularly if you’ve been at these solstice events before, we almost always talk about the movement of the Earth around the Sun. But as our friend and mentor Ken Low often reminded us,

there is much to be said for saying things more than once, and in fact that’s the way memories are created, by repeating an act or a word or a refrain or a poem until it is planted firmly in your mind.

This is the first winter solstice since Ken died. At this time of year, at this event, I always took great comfort and inspiration from the reflections he would share. It felt weird, even presumptuous, to try to write a solstice message in his absence, but as I read through his messages from past years, he talked about how

we rely on ceremonies and traditions, and the experiences encoded in them, to help us navigate our lives and to remind us when we forget about what’s important.

For me, and I suspect for many of you, this gathering has become a cherished tradition, and a reminder of what’s important. So, for the next few minutes, I’m going to share some of my own solstice reflections, along with a fair number of Ken’s from previous years.

To be honest, for a lot of years, I felt pretty cynical about this time of year. I don’t subscribe to any of the religions that hold celebrations at this time – and even if I did, the whole stretch from Black Friday through to Boxing Day felt toxic and capitalist, in ways that threatened to consume the best parts of the season.

Ken talked about this – how a lot of the stuff that gets dumped into the sociocultural pool surrounding the solstice isn’t particularly inspirational, and much of it is downright crass and superficial, harnessed by ideological, commercial and entertainment interests for their own limited purposes. But he also pointed out that, if you look for it, the deeper meaning is always present somewhere in the mix, with real examples of people pursuing higher levels of meaning and caring, attempting to feed the better angels of their nature.

This shifted my relationship with the solstice – along with thinking about how, for the entire history of humanity, we’ve seen the days get shorter and shorter, the sun get lower and lower in the sky, but to stave off the terror that maybe this year it wouldn’t stop, maybe this year the sun would disappear altogether, they could rely on observation of patterns. As Ken said,

While our distant ancestors didn’t understand the details of our planet’s movements or our relation to the sun, they knew about the solstice turning points. They lived embedded in nature and closely observed everything, looking for patterns and regularities that might help them survive. Their sky world was populated and illuminated by mysterious traveling entities made explainable and familiar through stories and symbols. Observed over time, there were striking regularities in the movements of these remote heavenly bodies that correlated with a wide range of more immediate concerns: changing seasons, reproductive cycles of plants and animals, recurring floods, animal, and bird migrations, and more.

This also provided a foundation for believing in the value of careful observation and record-keeping for prediction and control. The best way to understand reality and effectively respond to it was to study it. Truth was discoverable if one knew how to look for it and actually made the effort. 

Because the solstice period became an attractor for other holidays, for many of us it offers a whole constellation of opportunities to pull away from the everyday demands on our time and effort, and gather with people, and reflect. The alignment of the planets and the changing of the seasons is a reminder that there is something much bigger than our everyday experiences at play, that we’re embedded in much larger systems.

The world feels dark right now – not just because the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, but also existentially and spiritually dark. There are horrors unfolding in Gaza, a grinding war in Ukraine, the effects of the climate crisis are escalating every year – just to name a few of the sources of waste, suffering and injustice that are pressing in on us. And as we reflect, we’re called upon to not turn away from those brutal realities. I’m reminded of how Ken often said, if it isn’t possible to prevent suffering, it’s vital to document it so that we can pass on learnings and do better in the future – and I’m so grateful to all the people on the front lines of these crises for documenting and sharing what’s happening, so it won’t be ignored or forgotten.

We’re also called upon to remember that, just like the movement of the stars, humanity and societies and civilizations follow patterns that are discernable. We can learn to do, and be, better.

The ancient sages taught that all humanity was a family and that the welfare of all should be the concern of all. This is a fine ideal, but is not easy to put into practice. Expanding horizons of caring, understanding and justice is not a simple task, and there is much in human nature and society that works against it. However, it is important to remember that a defeated ideal hasn’t been proven wrong; it has merely been proven difficult.

I’ll close with one last thought from Ken, from his 2015 solstice message:

Thoughtfully approached, the holiday season is a time to reflect on what it means to be alive and human, our joys, our sorrows, our responsibilities, the paths our lives are taking, and the need to renew our commitment to continue to strive toward our ideals. We cannot choose the time we live in, but we can choose what to do with the time we have.

Thanks, and happy solstice.

To write this solstice reflection, I drew heavily on Ken’s solstice messages from past years, including…