Today is the Winter Solstice, a time of change, shift, turning, as the planet tips on its axis, affecting light, heralding return of the sun. On the longest night of the shortest day, people in Iran celebrate the festival of Shab-e Yalda, where family and friends come together to share food, and read poetry. In the depths of winter, the heart of the long dark hours of night, there is a reminder of a birth, a seed, that is germinating and will continue to grow through the winter months to emerge in Spring.
Still, the dark months are a time of reflection, and it’s certainly been that way for me over the past few weeks. My previous post talked of my impending operation the next day, and finished with the Zen phrase: ‘I learn only to be content’. This has been tested in me in what happened when I went into hospital for the operation. I had prepared, mentally and physically, packed my bag, turned up at 7am. I was last on the list. Everything was going well, and I was waiting for my turn, when a nurse turned up to say that there’d been an abnormal result from a blood test they’d taken that day. Eventually, the anaesthetist and surgeon came to talk to me, and said that as this represented an undiagnosed condition, they didn’t want to operate until they find out what’s going on. I was devastated – all my preparations, plannings, readiness, had suddenly fallen apart, and I was left with uncertainly of a new physical issue, and not knowing when I could have the operation. I have to go to India in April for a research project, and as I can’t fly for three months after the operation, this means I’ll now have to wait until after I come back in April to have it done, so will need to live in pain and with uneven leg lengths for months to come. And I’m having scans and tests to try to find out what this new condition might be. It’s been very difficult to deal with this, and have to readjust to the new situation. Trying to stay content is challenging in the face of shifting expectations of the body and healing. So I’ll try to take strength from the Solstice today, from the idea that all is in change, that the earth is still rotating, the sun is still there, and even if climate change is causing turbulence around the planet, there’s still a pattern that I need to trust, and know that all will be well. Even if this is made even harder by recent political events that will have ramifications for the state of the country for years to come, it’s important to try to stay positive with the idea of the return of the sun, of the seed giving birth to something new.
A year ago, this time in December, I was in Kerala in India, a place where the sun and warmth is so different from England at this time of year. As part of the research project we were doing, we visited the festival of Vrschika in the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple in Tripunithura, near Kochi. Here, processions of elephants carry the temple’s deity around the courtyard to the accompaniment of loud drums and wind instruments. It’s a spectacle that draws many thousands of visitors. We were there to study and consider the welfare of the elephants, and the changing history of their use in these types of events. But we were also observing the different kinds of performances that were happening. One of these, taking place overnight, were performances of Kathakali, a classical form of dance-drama from Kerala. I love Kathakali – it’s been one of my favourite forms, and learning a little bit of it in 1987 was the instigator of my coming back in contact with my Indian heritage, including travelling to Kerala to learn and practice it, and watch performances. The moment of the reveal of the characters from behind the multi-coloured curtain is one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences.
Before the performance in the temple last year, we were fortunate to be invited back-stage to observe the actors being made up, and putting on their costumes. This was amazing to watch, with the dark room lit by oil lamps, and packed with people helping the preparations. And the actors – watching the transformation from man to mythological figure, the human obscured as the character is born, emerges in the process. I was fascinated to watch how the actors would look at their made-up face in a mirror in order to absorb, become, the new being they were going to portray for hours on the small stage. The point of transformation into that new, elevated being comes when they put on the crown headdress, and then become more-than-human, ‘other’ to the world. I took the photograph below of the moment of the actor looking in the mirror, reflecting on himself and the character. It’s a moment of quiet privacy amidst the flurry happening around. I wrote a poem about this a few days ago. Stepping back, I’ve noticed that many of the poems I’ve been writing have themes and images of reflection and reflecting, perhaps indicative of the state of bodymind I’m in at the moment. This one is thinking about the process of shifting from actor to character, as well as the magic of the performance, and then of us going outside after the all-night performance, shortly before dawn, and watching a solo elephant being led by its mahout, walking in circles around the temple to the accompaniment of a bell, as it had been doing during the night. The turning of time, of nature, of stories, of seasons, reflected now in the shift of the solstice to a new season, a new life, a new moment.