Image: Kelly Davidson
Author of Winter Solstice
There’s no one better to welcome winter with than Nina MacLaughlin, author of Winter Solstice, out now from Black Sparrow Press. MacLaughlin’s gold-lit sentences conjure memory and inspire reflection on this, the shortest of days.
“Winter tells the secrets of the longer, longest, endless dark and cold that was, and the longer, longest, endless dark to come. Grip tight, press hard. Such is winter love.”
Winter Solstice is more than an essay. It is a meditation piece, a journal of memories, simultaneously a question and invitation—what is your relationship to this season?
How does it make you feel? Can you embrace it, ripe with its darkness and complexities?
“The whole earth spins tilted on its axis at 23.5 degrees. That tilt delivers us our seasons and it slants us now away from the sun and into winter. A seasonal and celestial paradox: we’re closer to the sun in winter than we are in summer. It’s not like lowering your palm toward a candle flame. The midday sun rides low during these solstice-close days. Low above the trees and the sea, low between hills on the outskirts of town. The arc the sun describes has been flattening since its high peak on the summer solstice six months ago. Stand outside at midday in this short-day time of year, and you’ll see your shadow at its longest, darkness stretching you out from under you over the surface of the earth, reaching for something and inviting you to follow.”
The book is pocket-sized; you can pour yourself a cup of wine or hot chocolate and finish it at leisure in the time it takes for the afternoon shadows to cross your wall. Across eighty pages we venture from suburban Ohio, to a childhood toboggan hill, “Mental Mountain”, to Walden’s Pond, travelling with Carthusian monks down snowy hillsides and into Nina’s childhood home, where she makes magic for passersby by way of flicking on electric candles from darkened windows. With each chapter—Inhale the Darkness, Burn Something Today—MacLaughlin delves deeper into this season of shadow and mystery, illustrating with myth and lore (Hades and Persephone! Krampus!) and quotes from Henri Bosch, Han Sang, Octavio Paz and Emily Dickinson, among others.
“We’re on the edge, teetering toward the other side of something. But what? Winter? It’s more than that. An unfamiliar wavelength of darkness and unknown has descended, not for the first time, and maybe not for the last, but it is here.”
How will you mark this darkest, longest night, the beginning of the winter season?
“My candle burns on the windowsill. Dawn has not dissolved the stars. In this small city where I am, today, the shortest day, light lives for nine hours, four minutes, twenty-nine seconds. Tomorrow, darkness begins to exhale. One two three seconds more of daylight. We won’t see it. It’s not perceptible, not yet. In time, the seconds accumulate the light accumulates, and some unexpected evening next month, you might look around and see a different quality of light at almost five. The same way you might, in the thick of July, notice your evening arriving a little earlier. . . Winter is only just beginning, the season starts today, but it carries with it in its large felt sack the return of the sun. Winter begins, and the wheel spins itself toward light.”
MacLaughlin’s Winter Solstice promises its reader that "this is the magic, the incomprehensible unsaid, this is the beauty in this dark moment of the year, what we see without seeing.” She suggests a closer look, an almost forensic examination of childhood memories, the glowing candle, the sound of a church bell, lights on the tree: “This is the magic that glows, that lives alongside the facts, that burns and lights the dark. This dark season, as light presses its way back to us, offers it to us.”
In the light of the darkness look at it all.
Girls on the Page
In Winter Solstice you weave with luxurious harmony a tapestry of personal experience and observation with quotes from literature and moments from documentary and song. You employ this passage from Han Kang’s The White Book while recalling a meeting with a lover: “That first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are alive. Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body, and is exhaled in perceptible form.” How does your writer-self behave in relation to not only your everyday-self, but to who you are as a reader?
I'm not sure if think of these as two distinct modes of being. I tend not to trust people who are very good at compartmentalizing. My everyday-self moves down the sidewalk in the city where I live and notices ice on puddles and the moon and the plants along the river and mulls this and that, and that's the writer-self, too. As a reader, I read primarily for pleasure, occasionally as a critic or interlocutor (with pencil in hand, and different lenses on my mind), and always with the hope that what I'm reading will bring that specific electric sizzle in the brain that makes me want to write.
For The Paris Review you’ve written series about the solstices, the sky, the month of November, the moon, and the senses of dawn. What inspired you to publish Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice as stand-alone essays with Black Sparrow Press?
Black Sparrow Press approached me after the Summer Solstice series ran in The Paris Review asking if they could publish it as a book. A thrilling outcome! And I'm grateful that they wanted to do the same with Winter Solstice.
In the book you refer to “Then the Letting Go” by Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie Prince Billy as the wintriest of all. Can you recommend two more songs/films that encapsulate this dark season? What is your favourite winter-set piece of literature?
That song, and the Bonnie Prince Billy album it comes from, The Letting Go, does have an extremely snowy, wintery atmosphere to it. The gloomy groovy melancholy of Yo La Tengo feels wintery to me, music for the deep blue otherworldly glow of winter dusks. Wings of Desire is a winter movie for me — the coats, the smoldering heat of aliveness.
“Winter is only just beginning, the season starts today, but it carries with it in its large felt sack the return of the sun. Winter begins, and the wheel spins itself toward light.”
—Nina MacLaughlin, Winter Solstice
Image: Andy Goldsworthy, Touching North, 1989.
The chapter In Winter We Get Inside Each Other opens with a memory: A huge hill, a sledder’s heaven, a real wallomping mound of earth… You describe the joy of a running start, of belly-flopping onto a sled. Later, you write that you can still feel the hands on your shoulders, propelling you forward, the riotous joy of unleashing a scream as you sped to the bottom, in your own private moment of fear and glee. Can you share with us a recent moment of unbridled joy?
What a great question, an invitation to recollect recent moments of joy! Thank you for it. There've been a lot recently. Some have been sensory: I was in France earlier this fall, on a book tour for the French translation of Wake, Siren, and there were a few bites of cheese that brought me to a state of unbridled joy, bites so delicious I laughed outloud, and a lunch of roasted leeks, and it wasn't just the food but the atmosphere and the company, the whole combination making me feel so lucky to be alive. Anytime I laugh hard enough to lose myself with my family or pals counts, and I'm lucky that that happens often. I have a new nephew, he's nine months old, he's sturdy and observant, and watching him bounce and frolic and giggle and squeal and tumple over on the puff on the bed after bathtime over the Thanksgiving holiday — gosh, that brought a blazing unalloyed joy for sure.
Do you find that the seasons affect the way you write, the work you produce?
Definitely. My brain turns to mush in the summer and I don't get a lot of writing done. This used to frustrate me, and I'd try to grind stuff out, but now I think of it as part of a natural rhythm — not a time to produce, but a time to take in. I start to feel sharper in August when the shadows begin to shift.
In Ireland, thirty miles north of Dublin near the River Boyne, there’s a mound of earth with an opening. You can enter. . . and at sunrise on the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight enters through an opening above the entrance of the passageway. The beam travels down the tunnel and penetrates the chamber, spraying light into the deep dim basin. The place is called Newgrange, and it was built in 3200 BC.
You write, “The way I felt there I have only felt there” which is such a poignant, complex and deeply relatable way of phrasing it. If you could be anywhere this winter, someplace you’ve never been, where would you go?
I have an easier time answering the flip-side of this question: I think about swapping hemispheres during the summer, heading to Chile or Argentina, for example, in July, the month I most want to escape my own skin. A little dose of winter in the thick of summer. I'm a winter lover, I love the New England winters and feel glad to be here for them, but the Nordic countries, with their extendo-dusks, their snow and dark, the possibility of aurora-borealis, that would be a winter extreme I'd like to experience.
You share this beautiful memory of, as a kid on December evenings while cars drove past, flipping on the electric candles that were in each window as though you were a messenger of light and magic—“I timed the light with the hope that someone might feel that they were being offered something, because they were.” Have you been on the receiving end of any such secret signals lately?
These questions have been so good because they're making me realize stuff I hadn't realized before. Here, that you have to be open and ready for these signals; they require a certain alertness and receptivity. Something quiet and attuned. It's been a more hectic stretch recently, and my attention has felt lit up in a bunch of directions, and I think I've been a little less dialed in to the secrets and the signals as a result. It's good reminder to me, too, especially during these potent dark days of the year, to quiet down and slow down and open up, to make myself more available to be on the receiving end of such deliveries.
How will you observe the winter solstice this year? What are your traditions, rituals?
I bring some holly into my apartment. I light a candle in the early morning and then again in late afternoon. For the past few years, on the Solstice, I go to Walden Pond in the early morning and I put myself in the water. I do it on the Summer Solstice and the equinoxes, too. I walk to a little section of bank, take off my clothes and shut my brain off (my brain yells: don't get in the water), I walk into the water in my bathingsuit and gasp and swear and I stand rib-deep until everything gets very very slow and quiet, and then I drop all the way down under the water and blast up and rush back to shore and take off my bathingsuit under my towel and pull all my clothes back on and hold my toes in my socks and sit on a rock and drink coffee as the sun rises over the pine trees in the east. The sun hits the water and it holds a completely other sort of light that morning. It's a thrilling way to usher in the winter season, charged and altering, a heated way to honor the darkness and the light.
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung (FSG Originals), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Massachusetts Book Award, as well as Winter Solstice and Summer Solstice (Black Sparrow). Her first book was the acclaimed memoir Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (W.W. Norton), a finalist for the New England Book Award. Formerly an editor at the Boston Phoenix, she worked for nine years as a carpenter, and is now a books columnist for the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared on or in The Paris Review Daily, The Virginia Quarterly Review, n+1, The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, Agni, American Short Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Meatpaper, and elsewhere. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To buy a copy of Winter Solstice—or any of Nina’s books—consider supporting one of her favourite book stores: McNally Jackson, Brookline Booksmith, Water Street Bookstore, Point Reyes Books, Literati Bookstore.
Interview by Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz
© Girls on the Page 2024