Every day, I drive home toward the mountains. The ridgeline appears like a grate shielding glowing embers as we edge toward the solstice. 

It is the whittling time, the light shaved off at either end of the day like pads of butter melted into the cast-iron night. I am so grateful that the finest point of the year, daylight so thin it can slip through the eye of a needle, comes now when I am distracted by Christmas, storing up joy like a harvest. By the time the new year comes in earnest, we’re through the narrowest point of the pass.

It reminds me of Newgrange in Ireland—a symbolically narrow door for the sun to slip through when the year is naked and newborn and the world has grown old enough to be young again.The sky is a blank canvas. The ground is bare. The trees are down to their bones. We are whittled down. 

Every year, in the Whittling, I see my family and neighbors display a scrubbing instinct. As we shuffle the Christmas decorations around, we note the closets we will clean out in January. 

We turn our eyes inward, too. “This is the year…” we say. And we set goals of absence, the things we will stop and lose. Sometimes we replace these with the habits of an imagined cleaner, tidier life. 

Sometimes I think we confuse clean with true. Is it just me, or has the discourse around bland ideals of self-improvement become flooded with words like “authentic” and “truth” misused? Perhaps it’s just Instagram. 

Are our true selves buried under all our stuff? Are we entombed in our own Newgranges, in desperate need of being pierced to the core by a needle of light once a year?

Is there a more me me to be discovered if I stripped away societal constructs, or the residue of my past, or expectations long outgrown, or the other things I’m bundled in? 

We rub our thumbs across the orange rind of our lives, disturbing the evocative scent of what lies beneath. We itch to peel. 

Sometimes the whittling is unintentional. Every year, I find I remember less of Christmases past. Moments remain. 

The Christmas I was nine, I wanted a dollhouse more than anything. My family has never been wealthy, but I can honestly say that I had never really known want—a different thing from need or hope entirely—until that moment. The vine of desire wrapped around my imagination like the holly consuming the back fence. 

The kit I unwrapped was everything I had dreamed. With the quiet patience of embodied love, my dad helped me and my sister paint and assemble each tiny piece. 

The door, we decided, would be purple and white. I painted the white and my sister the purple. But her purple splashed on my white, and I speckled her purple, on accident and then on purpose. We’d painted it shut, caked in layer on layer. 

My dad wedged a blade between the door and the fame to pry it open. He sanded down our mess and applied a crisp, fresh coat of paint. 

But I don’t wish for the door to never have been painted in excessive globs. 

I don’t think authentic humanity is the “us” that remains when you scrape all the outer layers off. The door of the dollhouse is the door and the paint and the story of what is added and taken away. We are not carrots from the garden with dirt that must be shaken off. We are trees! We are meant to be wrapped in the dirt. 

There is, I think, in Christ’s invitation to echo him, an open door, a chance to intentionally step into a room where the dance has already begun. Couples spin and the music is loud. The air is warm.To enter, we must certainly make ourselves small, but not less. 

That’s the incarnation: the full and the narrow wound together in rhythm. Enormous glory is now impossibly tiny—a seed of a glory greater than was ever seen before. 

If we stand on a dark street and one narrow rectangle of light stands before us, do we walk through? Is the way through to acknowledge that there have been times when burdens have been caked on us, layer on layer, until we were overwhelmed. And it hurt when we have been worn down. We have lost things we were not ready to leave. Our edges may be rough from the sandpaper. 

But rough can be soothed, the dry revived, the hollow filled, and whittled down again.

I am tired of thinking in terms of completion. We finish books and place them on shelves. We hone down recipes to make them easy. We work on our bodies as if they were linear things—something to improve toward perfection. I am a woman; I am cyclical. 

The pattern of the solstice strikes me as more natural, more in rhythm with eternal things, to add and take away in seasons, to whittle down and rebuild, knowing that the hollow times and the full times are equally real and good. 

1 Comment

  1. Michal Rubingh

    I’ve never thought of receding daylight hours as “pads of butter melted into the cast-iron night” — that is beautiful!


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