A Solstice Devotional for the Faithless in Trump’s America

A Lakota elder embraces U.S. Army veteran during a forgiveness ceremony at Standing Rock
A Lakota elder embraces U.S. Army veteran during a forgiveness ceremony at Standing Rock

Winter Solstice  •  December 21, 2016

The Coming of Light

Even this late it happens:
The coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
Stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
Sending warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
And tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

     –Mark Strand (1934-2014)

I want to believe that the light is coming. I want to believe that even in oppressive darkness, where the forces of hate and bigotry are elevated to the highest office in the land, that dreams will indeed pour into my pillow—replacing the day’s waking nightmare. And so I do the only thing I know how to do to cope: start writing.

My profession, my calling, tells me to seek truth. It tells me that there is value in raising the voices of the unheard, and challenging the powerful. It tells me that persistence is rewarded, and that justice will prevail. It teaches me that sunlight is purifying.

But well before the short days and long, bitter nights descended upon us, this year has seen the light dwindling. I believe that the fire of human kindness still burns in the hearts of my countrywomen and men, but what I see is death, destruction, dishonesty and disillusionment. I cannot see the flicker of hope and love that I, and so many others, have dedicated our lives to nurturing. It feels as though the light of kindness has been extinguished; replaced with hostile, boastful glee at the destruction of what I thought made our country already “great.”

Our greatness was never in our institutions. It has always rested in our hearts, where we are most tender and vulnerable. Only by careful tending and cautious, intentional exposure to an often cold and brutal world does that spark grow to become love, to become a revolution.

I have believed in a new American gospel—a secular truth that does not reject, but welcomes, that listens rather than lectures, that encourages and respects dissent.

Was I wrong?

I worry that we have become too frightened to let that light show—I know I have lowered my voice, drawn my community closer, and become more wary. I hear the indifference in the voices of those a broken system empowered to lead an even more broken nation. I worry that next year, the light will not return, and “the warm bouquets of air” will prove instead to be icy cold, stinging any hand that reaches out to engage.

Faith for the Faithless

When I was a child, the Christmas Eve service at my family’s Lutheran church was always my favorite service of the year. The candles, the carols, and the quiet reverence soothed my soul, even as I drove myself and my little sister across town to switch between our divorced parents’ homes at the stroke of midnight.

These days, neither of us goes to church, and my mother’s Pagan practices feel like the closest reflection of my own knotted spiritual beliefs. And while I seek the warmth and affirmation that accompany this season and the coming of the light, my faith that goodness overcomes evil, that light and love chase out the darkness, has been shaken to the core. My faith in my own people (particularly my fellow white citizens) has all but dissipated. I am more suspicious now. And while I know that such fear only plays into the hands of those seeking to keep us mired in darkness and conflict I know no other way to respond.

I cannot trust the institutions, nor the individuals, who are promising to “save” me, and in so doing remake this country. I think the truth is that we can only save ourselves—if we are lucky.

But if there is a spot where the light shines through, it is in the relentless humanity of those who have long experienced oppression that, in all honesty, I will never know.

I saw the light of compassion in Orlando, after the Pulse massacre, when a fast-food worker kept a Subway shop open for two days straight to house small-media journalists. She teared up when, after apologizing for needing to close the restaurant for 30 minutes to clean, she got a standing ovation.

I see it in the water protectors at Standing Rock, who have met brutal force with peaceful, steadfast prayer. I see it in the beautiful faces of the nation’s original occupants as they stand, resolute as always, in their defense of the sacred that is truly a defense of our continued survival on this planet. I saw it in the veterans who not only put their bodies on the line for those water protectors, but then begged tribal leaders for forgiveness after centuries of brutality and theft and oppression.

Hearing those leaders grant forgiveness, in stated pursuit of “world peace,” moved me to tears and, for a moment, I felt the coming of the light.

I saw that light, too, in the faces of Black and Latinx and Asian and Pacific-Islander youth who walked out of classrooms, who locked down government buildings, demanding a better education and equal treatment under the law.

I see it in the faces of the Mothers of the Movement, who continue to use unimaginable grief to fight for a future where black women aren’t forced to bury their babies after an encounter with a service weapon.

So my prayer is that moments like these are plentiful in the new year. Because we need—I need—to believe that we are not the world we woke up to on November 9.

I need to see those who aren’t in the line of fire step in front of those of us who are. I need to see white people proclaim, without hesitation, that Black Lives Matter. I need to hear cisgender people affirming that trans women are women, and trans men are men.

I need to see white people peacefully disrupt racist, xenophobic or Islamophobic attacks. I need to see citizens forming human walls around their undocumented brethren, refusing to allow immigration authorities to rip apart families. I need to see men standing behind women defending the right to choose—and not taking over the conversation.

I need to see police departments held accountable for the violence they perpetrate against the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. I need to see parents of all faith practices accepting and supporting their LGBT kids, knowing that a safe and stable home environment is literally a matter of life and death.

My prayer for 2017, then, is simple: I pray that we, the people, live up to the brave and beautiful example the rebels, the resisters, and the agitators have set for us. I pray that we look to our past and listen to its lessons.

I pray that we turn to those who are most marginalized, who are frightened for their very existence, and ask them how we can support them.

I pray that we open our homes, our hearts, and our minds to be vessels of truth, justice, and compassion.

I pray that we follow the lead of those who know best, of those who have the most to lose. And I pray that we are able to listen, to learn, and to love as if our very existence depends on it.

Because, of course, it does.