Man on fire: Solstice in Minneapolis

I had no intention of howling at the top of my lungs when I reached the middle of Lake Harriet Saturday evening, but on the longest, darkest night of the year, and with the dog running wild off leash amidst the snow dunes and whipping winds, and a couple of Winter Solstice celebrations on tap, it felt right, natural, guttural, and so I howled a great Ginsberg-Bly-Steppenwolf-Rotten howl, and all I can say is I did it because in the middle of Lake Harriet, accompanied by a solitude that purifies with clarity and dropping digits that baptize in fire, no one but you and the universe can hear you scream.

For a long time now I’ve suspected Minnesota to be the most peaceful place on the map, but I needed to do some on-the-ground research. I had intended to start my first-ever Winter Solstice celebration at my wife’s yoga studio of choice, which Saturday afternoon was hosting a Sun Salutations marathon (basically, 108 consecutive bow-downs to the sun) and a night of chanting. Alas, Old Man Winter had different plans and the entire sun orgy was canceled, which made me wonder if we’ll have six more months of winter because the yogis couldn’t get out of their driveways.

Anyway, so it begins. Saturday night, Lake Harriet Community Center. It’s a beautiful church, nestled in beautiful Linden Hills, which at the moment is bejeweled in shimmering Christmas lights that conjure pagan fires of yore, and makes a man appreciate the kind of warmth — stoked by home, roots, family, neighbors, music, ritual — that sticks to the ribs even on a night when the wind goes through your face and jeans like pine needles.

“I celebrate Solstice now much more than Christmas,” my friend Kimberly Dziubinski, a graphic artist and art director, tells me. “For the past four years I have had a party always on the actual Solstice, even if it’s a Tuesday. It’s not a theme party, but a real, valid occasion to draw upon our deepest instinct to survive the effects of darkness by defying it — defying it in community with others and our deeper primal nature.”

Five dozen candles blaze. Incense burns. All quiet on the Midwestern front, save for the murmur of a man with long brown hair speaking softly into a microphone. He talks of the hero’s journey, of coming out of the darkness and into the light, and I am thinking about Joseph Campbell and J. Krishnamurti and the fallow time that is winter and the simple beauty of my friend Molly‘s Facebook status earlier in the night:

“Molly loves blizzard-ish conditions. Really, she does. It’s the only time we slow down. She hopes nobody invents something to make snow storms any less life-calming.”

One hundred or so people sit in the pews. A couple of servicemen in full camouflage combat fatigues sit in the back row with their heads down. Women adorned in hippie-fairie garb rustle past. A man and woman sit in back with their young son. Two sweatshirt-clad sixtysomething couples who could be Applebee’s-bound are across the way. Most of the rest are young or old and many have come alone, and so they sit alone but not lonely with their thoughts.

A quilt of nature scenes hangs on the wall near a large circle of brambles and branches that offsets a mosaic-rung stained glass dome that reminds me of all my favorite churches, but especially the hallowed ground that is the Lakewood Cemetery chapel. In the center of the room rests a thick glass bowl. We are invited to take a mallet and gong the bowl to ring in the New Year. Various versions of the chiming fills the otherwise hushed room.

We all write on one side of a piece of paper what we want to let go of from the past year. On the other side, we declare our intention for the New Year. Then we set paper to a flame, let it burn, put the ashes in another glass bowl, and watch our hopes, desires, and growth meld with others’.

Out of the corridors come eight goddesses, so-called by the man with the long brown hair, and he’ll get no argument from me. The goddesses — all ages — light their torches, and ring the perimeter of the church. A gentle folk duo sings about Mother Earth and we move from goddess to goddess, station to station, and the goddesses place their hands on us, on our hearts, our chakras.

“I give you nurturing and playfulness.” “I give you creativity.” “I give you light.” “I give you grace.” I give in. I’m gone. I’m good.

Candles are distributed, hugs are had, time for meditation. We take back to the pews and another man, with white hair, tells us to close our eyes. He leads our minds back to a time five years ago, 10 years, then as a kid on the playground, then as an infant, then to the energy source of our beginnings. He never uses the word God, but in short order he gets us in touch with it.

Duly moved and deeply inspired, I leave before the drum circle and hooping begins and head downtown to the Soundbar, a former strip club whose décor brings to mind Glam Slam and all the cheesier sides of the religion formerly known as Prince, but the pillows and love-vibe are nice. Valet parking is 10 bucks; we opt for a $5 lot a couple blocks away and huff it through the rising snow and bracing wind.

There is a similar churchy quiet here, though sexier. The goddesses are tripped out in wiccan-belly-dancer motif, a Renaissance festival of undulating hips, swords, sashes, jewels, make-up, and an elfin sexuality. Their boy-toys are dressed up as savages, and look more than happy to be at their majesty’s secret service. The mistress of ceremonies is one Wildflower Muse, who performs the erotic call-to-arms “Light My Fire,” which is followed by a cavalry of torch bearers and fire jugglers/eaters and pagan princesses circling the room with animal ferocity and feline grace. The antihero V makes an appearance, acting as foil to the dancers and a fool for the drummers.

“It’s about rebirth,” explains Dorothy Hager, a massage therapist in Uptown, and anyone here can feel it. After a year that brought the “Change” mantra to the external political terrain, the palpable feeling now is that this is the time for personal change, for looking inside and going deeper. It’s a process that, more often than not, happens alone, through meditation, reading, music, prayer, but it’s intoxicating to be in a room of pulsing sounds and bodies, and no catechism to follow but one’s own imagination.

“My performances are about so much more than merely entertainment; they are about connecting with spirit that is in us and around us,” Wildflower Muse emails me later. “It is about recognizing and celebrating the Magick of the Goddess; and there is no better time to recognize that power than the Winter Solstice. Because in the deepest darkness, that is when the light — our creativity — is most greatly illuminated. It is the most powerful time to manifest the beauty, truth and generosity that we all seek. It was pure joy to bear witness to and celebrate the sensuality and creativity of the music, my fire tribe and the audience as we celebrated the turn of the wheel of the year!”

We head over to Lee’s to catch the end of Trailer Trash‘s Christmas show, and find the entire place pogoing, swing-dancing, screaming out the boozy yuletide hits. A mother of two I know from Bikram yoga is on stage, leading the chaos by pounding a giant scepter festooned with the Trailer Trash logo and sleigh bells. When guitarist Dan Gaardner does a bawdy blast about Rudolph as sung to “Venus,” it’s clear that Winter Solstice celebrations — and their attendant fire pits — take on many forms.

Cedar Cultural Center’s Winter Solstice drum jam shot by MinnPost photographer Terry Gydesen.

The next night, I head over to the Cedar Cultural Center for the Winter Solstice drum jam. It’s great, and I dance a little bit, and Wildflower Muse and her Myrna Loy-as-Cleopatra femme fatale dance partner raise the dead yet again, and one of the lithe young boy toys swallows fire in a manner that suggests that last week’s headline “Deep Throat Dead at 95” has been greatly exaggerated, but I’ve had my celebration fill.

I run into my friend Terry Gydesen and she and I rant long and loud about what a disappointment Barack Obama is out of the gate, then I twirl her around the dance floor, chanting, “I’m dancing with the hottest lesbian in Minneapolis.” I drive my friend and young mother of two Kathleen to her car, grinning all the while at the memory of something she said earlier, as we watched Wildflower Muse twirl her flaming batons. Something that may sound crazy this morning, but which last night, in that moment, was irrefutable: “She is made of fire.”

I tool home down Cedar and Franklin and Chicago, past cold gray Lutheran churches, Catholic churches, synagogues, Project Pride in Living, shelters, music stores, corner stores. Closer to home, I tool around Lake Harriet, think about last summer, sing a couple new blues tunes, look at all the pretty lights, and make a mental reminder to rent “Uncle Buck” sometime soon.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/22/2008 - 12:14 pm.

    I’ve celebrated the Solstice for 5 years now with my kids.

    We wait for the actual moment, and about half an hour before we light dozens of candles with one red one – the drops of red wax being like blood in the shallow votives, reminding us of those no longer with us.

    All electric appliances and lights are turned off. Then, at the exact moment that the North Pole is pointing away from the sun, we blow out all of the candles and sing an old Irish song (which changes each year).

    We usually light the candles again when the song is done and leave the lights off, but we might put on a disc of something Celtic. And eat crackers and so on. After all, the world is now turning toward the morning.

    Not only does this get us to appreciate the spin and wobble of our planet, and just how small we are on it, it has other side effects. We’re free on Christmas Eve for a traditional Jewish celebration – Chinese and a movie.

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