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Slow Time and Renewal: The Winter Solstice

December 21, 2011

Cyclamen blooms and candlelight for the winter solstice (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) For as long as I can remember, I have considered both the winter and summer solstices special days. I have written before about the special quality of light that characterizes both these times (see The Best Day of Summer: A Solstice Diary and Winter Light and Long Starry Nights); but this year, I am realizing that it is also the quality of time that makes the solstice special to me.

My life is attuned to the academic year, and both the winter and summer solstices come during times when school is not in session. During school terms, my life is strictly scheduled and ruled by long work hours and scarcity of time. I am constantly aware of time as I rush from class to meetings to office hours, as I scramble to finish preparing for classes that I never quite feel completely ready for, as I calculate the hours needed to grade one or another set of student papers and try to figure out where I will find those hours. The scarcity of time accelerates through the semester, reaching a crescendo during the “grading crunch” of final papers and final exams. And then, as I turn in my final grades, time suddenly slows down and stretches out and all the stress falls away. It is a dramatic contrast.

This year that slowing down of time has been especially welcome. This was a particularly difficult semester, with a grueling combination of courses to teach, a flash flood that drowned my car, and mold problems that forced my department out of our academic space in the basement of a Victorian building. Both I and my classes had to move multiple times during the school term. By the time it was over, I had been housed in three different offices, had taught in five different classrooms, and had been required to pack and move a career’s worth of accumulated books and papers. The moves were disruptive and exhausting, and I felt as though I could barely drag  myself across the finish line of the semester. And just when I was almost there, I discovered that a significant number of students in one of my courses had cheated on the final exam. This is the kind of incident that can create a crisis of faith for a teacher. At best, it leaves you feeling flattened and deflated; at worst, it makes you question your whole life’s work.

In the wake of all this, the solstice represents a time of renewal and healing. The summer solstice makes time feel endless because so much can be packed into all those hours of light. But it is the long hours of darkness that slow time down for the winter solstice. This is a season for tucked-in coziness, candlelight, and the warmth of a wood fire. On the summer solstice, I am up at dawn, not wanting to waste a moment of the clear summer sunlight. On the winter solstice, I am more likely to sleep in and then linger over a hot breakfast.

The weather for the winter solstice can be quite varied in Maine. In some years, we have new snow, and it is a great day for some cross-country skiing  followed by a mug of hot cocoa. In other years, the solstice weather is perfect for all those errands occasioned by preparation for Christmas. This year, the solstice was dark and dreary, with freezing temperatures and rain – a day designed for staying indoors with a novel to read and a pot of soup simmering on the back of the stove. However I spend it, this is always a day of exquisite relaxation.

Today that relaxing quality of time is working its healing magic. As the earth begins its turn back toward the sun, I can feel the renewal of energy as I begin to look forward to a new school term and a new year.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 7:02 pm

    Jean I so agree about the special time of the solstice..the renewal and rebirth…I do a lot of contemplating during the solstice…sorry to hear about your students…as a teacher and administrator I was always so disappointed when students felt they had to cheat. Here’s to the coming of the light….I wish you a beautiful solstice, a Merry Christmas and a wonderful reborn New Year!!

    • December 26, 2011 10:15 pm

      Donna, Thanks for the kind thoughts. I hope that you are also having some time for rest and renewal this holiday season.

  2. December 21, 2011 7:52 pm

    Jean, I love your idea of the winter solstice being a day of relaxation and I will remember it in 6 months time. Here, yesterday didn’t feel like a Summer Solstice. We have had weeks of low cloud, rain and cool temperatures, so the light is dull and the days don’t seem long at all. The blue sky and sunshine I associate with Christmas has deserted us and it just feels strange. I want my Summer Solstice back!

    • December 26, 2011 10:19 pm

      Lyn, I’m sorry to hear about your rainy and cool summer solstice. The summer solstice usually comes at a time of spectacular weather in Maine, and I would feel so cheated if we didn’t have that weather! Do keep the relaxation theme in mind when the winter solstice rolls around there in 6 months. In our modern on-the-go world it’s so easy to forget to take time for relaxation and renewal; there’s something to be said for setting aside a day just for relaxing.

  3. December 21, 2011 7:59 pm

    Jean, Hate to say it but it’s still 60 degrees at 8:00 pm in your alternative stomping grounds. However, I have to add that I am shifting from rejoicing in this warm weather to starting to worry about what it means and what it will do. Dozens of hellebores are blooming now–very beautiful. Winter solstice–the return of the light–is my favorite day of the year. It is so sad about your students. I feel sorry for them because they live in a world that obviously lacks a moral compass and have an attitude of entitlement that will make them very unhappy. You had no role in creating their outlook on life (formed long before they got to you) so it’s too bad you have to suffer with them. Happy Solstice, Carolyn

    • December 26, 2011 10:24 pm

      Carolyn, I don’t mind missing the 60 degree temps in December. I’m a winter-lover; like you, I worry about the decline of winter weather in the northeast. (One consequence in Maine has been an increase in tick-borne illnesses.)
      Some of my cheating students were acting out of just the kind of sense of entitlement that you described; others were first-generation college students who feel under enormous pressure to prove themselves and were acting out of desperation. While I don’t feel responsible for the attitudes and outlook that the arrive at college with, I do think that we still have an opportunity to turn them around — and I do feel a responsibility for doing that.

  4. December 21, 2011 11:20 pm

    Jean, I’ve always enjoyed the solstices for what they symbolize and they’ve almost always provided me with an opportunity to reflect on life. I try to write something each time a solstice rolls around; something that will help me order my thoughts or something that will encourage me to push through the dark or grasp hold of the light. Anyway, enough about me. I really enjoyed your post and I’m glad that you are finding a chance to rest after your semester and I’m thankful that you have spent some of that time writing this post to share with the rest of us.

    • December 26, 2011 10:28 pm

      Chad, There seem to be quite a few of us out there who consider the solstices a special time for reflection. For me, the blog has become a place to write something that will help me order my thoughts and develop those reflections more fully. Happily, I still have another four weeks before school starts again, so I’m luxuriating in the opportunity to read, relax, reflect, and write.

  5. December 21, 2011 11:20 pm

    Jean, this post was such a fascinating read for someone like me who lives in a spot where today is the Summer’s Solstice, and our Winter Solstice really doesn’t feel anything like what you’ve described. There are few discernible differences between our Summer and Winter in terms of the amount of light that surrounds us. It tends to be fairly bright here most of the time.

    It sounds like you’ve had a tough year in many ways, so it’s great to hear you now able to take a break, sit back, slow down and relax. Sorry to hear about your students, but from one teacher to another, I think it says far more about their lack of preparation and work ethic, than it says about your teaching. Onwards and upwards, and here’s hoping 2012 will be a terrific year for you. Season’s Greetings and wishes for a joyous New Year.

    • December 26, 2011 10:33 pm

      Bernie, Thanks for sharing your thoughts (about both solstices and students). I imagine that gardeners as a group are especially sensitive to the influences of place; and I have been very much formed by the dramatic seasonal changes of my native New England. When I was first out of college, I lived for a couple of years in southern California, where the seasons are primarily wet and dry (similar to yours); I really felt lost without the seasonal markers that had always organized my life and was greatly relieved to move back to my home geography and climate.

  6. December 22, 2011 1:27 am

    Jean, I hope you are having nice, relaxing time after all those tough events. Stay warm and have a wonderful Christmas!

  7. December 22, 2011 1:42 pm

    Sorry to hear about your students. I would love to hear you teaching. This post was fascinating and delightful to read. Happy Solstice!

  8. patientgardener permalink
    December 22, 2011 1:47 pm

    Gosh it sounds like you really need your winter break. I work at a University and I know what it is like, it seems never ending. I hadnt really noticed the solsitices until I started blogging and read other garden bloggers and as each year goes by I find myself looking forward to them more and more,

    • December 26, 2011 10:39 pm

      Tatyana, I am having such a relaxing time, with novels to read, time visiting with friends, and days snugged up inside with a fire going in the woodstove. It’s delicious. Happy holidays to you, too.

      Diana, Happy holidays to you. LOL, I don’t think you would have wanted to hear me teach this semester; I was not exactly at the top of my form. On the other hand, one of the nice things about teaching is that every few months you get to start over with a brand new shiny semester!

      Helen, One of the things that I’ve found valuable about blogging is the way it leads me to observe more closely and enjoy things that I might not have noticed before.

  9. December 23, 2011 2:10 am

    Jean, I wish I had better news about cheating. But it seems to be an epidemic, made easier by the internet and generalized laziness in our culture. Even with our Honor Code and teachers actively working against it, we continue to see it much too often. We hope to catch them at our level, so they learn before they arrive in college. It is demoralizing to those of us who love learning.

    Here’s hoping for a better second semester, filled with much light and life!

    • December 26, 2011 10:47 pm

      Jim, Our students have been telling us for a number of years now, in anonymous entrance surveys, that cheating is rampant in their high schools. For the most part, however, our Honor Code seems to work. I do worry, though, about students who think they must succeed at all costs and who seem to have no inner resources for dealing with setbacks and failure. In my research methods class this semester, I kept telling the students that I knew they felt as though I was asking them to jump off the edge of a cliff, but that they were going to have to take the leap in order to make the transition from thinking like undergraduates to thinking like researchers. In this class, most students rose to the occasion and did work they hadn’t thought they were capable of. Those moments offset the demoralizing ones and keep me going.

      One advantage of a terrible first semester is that the second semester is bound to be better! 🙂

  10. December 23, 2011 3:38 pm

    Jean, so happy to read you’re able to find some time after a hectic year to finally relax a little. Wishing you a peaceful holiday season, and a joyous, and less hectic New Year!

  11. December 23, 2011 5:44 pm

    What a year you’ve had, that stressful semester will no doubt make this break all the more necessary. Hoping that you find the rest and peace that you require this holiday season.

  12. December 23, 2011 11:49 pm

    You have certainly had a stressful semester! Our weather has been dreary, with a bit of frost, perfect for snuggling in at home, except, of course, for those days I have to go to work! May your energies and outlook be restored as the new year approaches, and I hope 2012 brings you lots of smiles and sunshine!

    • December 26, 2011 10:51 pm

      Clare, Marguerite and Deb, Thanks for your kind thoughts and wishes. I hope that you are all having a wonderful holiday season. I am very much enjoying not having to go to work these days and am feeling all the stresses of the semester fall away. (I’m probably not the only teacher who finds that cycle of stress and relaxation a bit addictive.)

  13. December 24, 2011 9:58 am

    I used to work in schools so my year still starts in September 🙂 Hope that life slows down and wish you all the best at Christmas and in the New Year Jean xxx

  14. December 24, 2011 1:44 pm

    Dear Jean, Merry Christmas! Enjoy your peaceful quiet time. I am sorry you had such misfortune this year. I am sorry I did not realize sooner. Wishing you all the best in the New Year. Peace. Carol

    • December 26, 2011 10:57 pm

      Anna, I share your sense that the year really starts in September. I can never really get worked up about New Year’s Day because it feels like the middle of the year to me, not the beginning. I’m expecting a slower, more sane spring semester. I hope that you’re having a wonderful holiday season.

      Carol, Thanks for your kind words and wishes. I think as misfortunes go, mine have been pretty small potatoes — not catastrophe, just a wearying grinding down. Once I’m rested and have things back in their proper perspective, I’ll probably be a bit embarrassed by how sorry I was feeling for myself in this post. :-~

  15. December 24, 2011 2:38 pm

    Happy holidays

  16. December 26, 2011 11:24 am

    Jean what a year you have had at school………..we had a local elementary school in our area that had to keep moving because of mold its horrible. I enjoyed reading your blog today it helps remind me as I work in the academic world of elementary children to try to be still just a little on my break and enjoy. Happy New Year!

  17. December 26, 2011 11:01 pm

    Karen, Thanks so much for visiting. Oh gosh, the idea of having to move a whole elementary school is a nightmare. The part of Pennsylvania where I teach has had almost three feet of excess rain this year, and the result has been mold everywhere. Even the outside air had much higher than average levels of mold spores. Ugh. Here’s hoping for a drier 2012. Happy New Year to you.

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