The summer solstice begins on June 21 at 6:51 am EDT, heralding the beginning of summer for the Northern Hemisphere. This day holds the most hours of sunlight that we will see in the entire year. From that day forward, as the clock goes tick-tock, the daylight hours will shorten until the winter solstice on December 21 descends -- the shortest day of the year with the least amount of sunlight.
Each of us has our own solstice, our own proportion of light and dark that make up the years, months, weeks, days and moments of our lives.
This past February, my husband and I left the dark, frigid New England winter and flew to Aruba for a vacation. After a five- hour flight, we were rewarded with a balmy eighty-five degree island and an abundance of sunshine. Like the many tourists we were desperate for the light.
We were in heaven. We were committed to being in the moment, each moment, savoring this greatly anticipated paradise.
We arrived late in the afternoon after many of the tourists had left the beach for the day, planting ourselves under one of the hotel's many huts and looking forward to a week of sun and fun. The hut was key because while we defrosted from the chill in our bones from months of below zero temperatures, the sun can be scorching and we needed protection. The next morning we woke early so as not to miss a moment. We set our towels under a hut and began settling in. Immediately, a hotel attendant let us know that we could not claim a hut, that people sign up the day before at the towel cave to reserve a hut for the following day. He informed us that all the huts for the day were taken.
We did the best we could, enjoying the sun and sea and seeking shade where we could find it. We agreed we would line up at 4:00 p.m., as he had instructed, to sign up for a hut so we would have one the following day. At 2:30 p.m., we noticed that people were already lining up to reserve a hut. The anxiety set in quickly, leading us to take turns holding a spot in a line that wouldn't begin moving for another hour and a half. In line, we found ourselves in competition with others as the law of supply and demand played out. All this to say we spent a good part of each day struggling with how to live in the moment when we were consumed with stress about how to arrange our days to ensure that we were in line early enough to secure a hut. And early enough meant sometimes standing in line for nearly two hours during the peak of the day as a growing number of beach goers clamored for their chance of getting a hut.
After returning from Aruba, back in the deep freeze of an unseasonably cold winter, I began a new job as a bereavement counselor at Care Dimensions, a non-profit hospice organization in Massachusetts, where I had been a volunteer over the last handful of years. Up close, everyday, I see people in their last days of life. I see families grieve the death of a grandmother or grandfather, a mother or father, a husband or wife, a sibling or a child. Some deaths are expected and others come suddenly, without warning.
I began thinking of those huts that we island vacationers covet so greatly. Yes, we want to savor the moments of our vacation, but we quickly become anxious and stressed. We give up prime hours of the day to reserve something for tomorrow, and when we are under the hut of tomorrow, we worry about the hut of the next day. How much of our time under the hut we desired so greatly is spent in worry over having that same hut tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that?
Life and death are like that. We seek shelter, our own internal hut, to keep us safe. Some people spend far too much of their allotted hours of sunlight, the years they have to live, worrying and constantly fretting about what tomorrow may bring, forgetting that their lives are happening NOW, in this moment. All too often lives are lived in fear of the future. Far too much time is spent standing in a virtual line of "what if" scenarios while trying to secure ever more protection by acquiring things that offer the illusion of shelter and safety. But, as the famous quote goes, "life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans."
Then again, if we live only in the beckoning light of day and avoid any fear or sense of darkness and ignore the natural rhythms of life -- a summer solstice and a winter solstice, dawn and dusk -- we risk living a life that lacks a sense of urgency. When we deny the fact that our time on this earth is finite, we miss the opportunity to cultivate a life of meaning.
There is a chant at the end of a day of Zen meditation that says:
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.
Each of us must strive to awaken
Take heed; do not squander your life.
Working in hospice offers me a constant reminder of the need to find balance. If we are overly concerned with the future, we are at risk of actually missing the light shining in our lives. Yet if we pay no heed to the future, living only for the bright blinking lights, we risk living an unexamined life and are often ill prepared for the days of darkness that will, at some point, descend.
In Ecclesiastes we read:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
And, if I may be so bold and presumptuous to add another verse:
... A time to bask in the light of day, and a time to hunker down into the dark of night; a time to seek shelter under the shade of a hut, and a time to let go of the hut and live within the beauty and fragility of the nakedness of an unsheltered life and in the awareness of our own mortality.
Ellen Frankel is the author of numerous books including the novel Syd Arthur, about a middle-aged, suburban Jewish woman and her search for enlightenment 2,500 years after her namesake Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. You can visit her at: www.authorellenfrankel.com