Minneapolis author reflects on the winter solstice and 'tigers in the woods'
In Korea, where I was born, the winter solstice has always been an important event during the year. It's called Dongji, spelled 동지 in Hangeul, and it literally means "peak of winter," marking the longest night and shortest day of the year.
Dongji usually occurs on Dec. 22 or 23 on the Gregorian calendar. A Korean folk belief held that a cold Dongji meant there would be more tigers in the woods, and more specifically it was known as "Tiger's Wedding Day," when a tiger and tigress met and married. This reflects the reality that in temperate regions, the winter months mark the mating season. A tiger pregnancy lasts for about three and a half months, and thus baby tigers are born in the spring, in sync with the birth and rebirth of other fauna and flora.
Solstice is a word from the time of Middle English, a form of the English language spoken after the Norman conquest from about 1150 to 1470, and it's derived from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). Winter in Minnesota can be an invitation to a kind of stillness, and going deeper into one's self, the lower layers of the spirit, as much of the rest of the plant world goes underground. The mineral-rich, dark underground has much to teach us sun dwellers who live mostly above ground.
The sun and the moon are so fundamental to our existence that English speakers named the first and second days of the week after them (the rest of the days are named after Norse mythological gods and one goddess, and also the Roman god Saturn). The sun and moon create the seasons, and time. Koreans traditionally follow the lunar calendar, and only adopted the Gregorian calendar officially in 1896. A common people's term for Dongji was Jageun Seol 작은 설, or Little Lunar New Year, and was considered a time of the sun's resurrection.
I've come to respect winter as a kind of adversary that would end my life with indifference, and, begrudgingly, a force that can make me a better person, even though it is somewhat against my will. I didn't move to Minnesota to improve my character, but as my life here goes on, I have tried to embrace the opportunities as they present themselves. I seem to fight myself in the beginning of winter, a fight that I have come to recognize as grief. A kind of psychic dullness sets in after the departure of the symphony of birdsong, bees and other creatures with whom we share an ecosystem. I experience an almost physical pain at winter's absence of color, and the short days and early darkness are an enemy of my mood and energy.
The hushed time of winter has, over the years, brought to me an appreciation of the power of resurrection. Winter is a reminder to not take summer's lushness for granted. Winter is an extended dream, always moving, unhurriedly, eventually, toward an awakening. Planetary time. Earth time. It can help us remember that above all, we are all earthlings, interdependent, vulnerable and therefore responsible for each other.
Long before the joyous audacity of spring, quieter winter pleasures are gifted to us if we are safe and secure enough in our own survival (shelter, clothes, food, healthcare, community) to enjoy them. When our basic needs are met, it is easier to be in the present moment. To perceive and appreciate what is, and not spend every waking moment grasping at what we wish reality to be.
Winter in its unforgiving temperatures can help us strip away illusions. We can accept the invitation to focus on what we find most important. We can expand our sense of beauty as not just fecundity, but the other side of its coin, which is rest. We can embrace the ritual charge of visually striking firsts throughout the season. The first snowfall is elegant, making the trees look abstract as their architectural qualities are highlighted, and the first ice over is magical, as if the Snow Queen herself had cast a sleeping spell over the land. While all seems to be still, the sun continues its celestial journey, showing us the way.
Sun Yung Shin is an award-winning author who was born in Seoul, raised in the Chicago area and now lives in Minneapolis, where she codirects Poetry Asylum. Her most recent collection, "The Wet Hex," was published in June.