Friday, December 21, 2012

A Winter Solstice Walk

December 21, 2012
Ithaca, New York

Ithaca in winter
I woke up this morning in my sister's old room to the sight of a gray wintery sky and the dark graceful bend of bare branches. Home. It's a feeling more than a word, isn't it?

The way that the call of a crow can make you feel rooted to the earth, like you belong, or the way you can look out a window you used to gaze out years ago and feel at once so very much changed and so very much the same. It's an intimate relationship between person and place, and sense of belonging that nobody can take away from you.

Being here this time of year, tears are always close to the surface. The last time I saw my father was December 27, seven years ago, and yet even now, when I come home, he is everywhere. It's as though in passing away he expanded into this place that he loved so much, in the quiet paths that run the endless acres of forest, in the cold shimmering reflection of our winter streams. The creek beds, the dark stacked towering cliffs of shale, the gnarled tree roots and in the rich scent of decaying leaves. It is here that I feel closer to him than ever, as if I could turn on the trail and he'd be right there beside me, breathing it all in.

Frozen falls in Six Mile Creek
On this day, thousands of years ago, people gathered to usher in the light half of the year. Bonfires were built, and we circled round them and celebrated the dark days of winter coming to an end - from here, the days grow longer, and with them will arrive the promise of new life, of spring.

A few weeks ago I had a dream about my father. We were walking in the winter woods, the rim trail at Treman Gorge. I had on a winter hat and he was wearing his battered old anorak, just like he always did. Suddenly, I looked down to see a big brown feather sticking straight up out of the trail. I bent to pick it up. And at the same time, in this dream, I remembered that I couldn't be walking with my father, not really, because he was no longer living.

"Look, Dad. It's a feather from you!" I said to him, smiling.

He reached over and playfully flipped the edge of my winter hat away from my eyes, to make sure he had my attention. His brown eyes, when they met mine, were welled with tears, and he was smiling at me as though I had made him quite proud in noticing:
Feathers come from my father.
Thank you, he mouthed. Embarrassed by his tears, he gave me a wink.
I woke.

There will be no bonfire for me this year. Instead, I will go to the woods to be close to him. My mother and I will walk the same trail that we've all walked hundreds of times before, arm in arm, wrapped against the cold, our faces feeling clean in it, looking up at the evergreen trees, the gray winter sky, and the delicate naked branches that feel like home. On Sunday we will welcome the new life, little Haven Mae, the grand-daughter he never knew, now sixth months old, on her first visit from Seattle to the lands her family have so loved through the years. She will see the thick wooded hills, hear the gurgling of the water as it runs over smooth rock, and begin to understand something of home.

Ithaca Falls in high water
Happy Holidays to all. I hope this year will burn brightly for you, in all aspects of your life, and that wherever you travel, you always remember home.