24 Dec 2010

Silent Night, Liminal Night

Posted by annmcolford

Winter stillness

I’ve been pondering the concept of liminality this week, as we marked the winter solstice. (“Liminal,” from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold,” is really nothing more than a high-falutin’ way of saying “neither here or there,” despite lots of heavy academic debate over its usage.)

The solstice is clearly a threshold, a moment in between the time of decreasing sun and the time when the daylight increases each day. But the curious thing is that the amount of daylight doesn’t simply decrease-decrease-decrease and then suddenly switch and increase-increase-increase. It’s more subtle than that.

Think of a car, traveling forward; in order to go backward, the car has to slow, stop, and then begin to go backward. That’s basically what happens with our hours of daylight. After steadily losing daylight all through October and November, the rate of change slows during December. For a three-week period from December 11 through January 1, the number of daylight hours here at latitude 47.6 degrees north hovers between 8 hours 33 minutes and 8 hours 25 minutes (according to the online almanac at StarDate).

The other curiosity is that our earliest sunset actually happened on December 11 (3:57 pm PST), while our latest sunrise doesn’t come until December 31 and January 1 (7:38 am). Any astrophysicists or meteorologists out there care to explain that phenomenon succinctly?

In any case, while December 21 is the shortest day of the year (and the longest night), there’s very little change in the amount of daylight throughout December. The Earth rests. This year, in particular, I’m feeling a deep need to connect with that sense of stillness, a time of quiet waiting and awareness.

I’m reminded of a time several years ago when I lived in Portland, Maine, and I was walking with a friend on the trail around Back Cove, a shallow inlet protected from the openness of Casco Bay by the peninsula on which downtown Portland sits. (The Portland Trails site has some nice photos.) The tide was ebbing as we walked along the water’s edge, revealing more and more of the mudflats beneath. We paused and sat for a time on a concrete barrier directly across the cove from downtown. Caught up in conversation, I wasn’t paying much attention to the movement of the water—until I became aware of a deep quiet that had settled around us. The tide had drawn down to its lowest point, and the water simply stopped moving. Shore birds—gulls, cormorants, and lots of little ones—converged on the mudflats and feasted on the bugs and other critters in the tide pools. The stillness of the slack water held for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Then slowly, slowly, the sea began to trickle back. Tide pools and rivulets filled and joined. The birds moved with the water’s edge. The normal sounds of flowing water returned. We stood up and walked back toward home.

In many ways, liminality is a perfect description of the present moment. All that came before us is past, and the future rolls on unknown, but we sit now at the moment between those two vast swaths of time, balanced smartly on the threshold in the middle. Neither here nor there, but simply now. As Buddhist wisdom says, the only place we get to live is in the present moment, so we need to be open and aware as we rest in this liminal space of today.

That’s my meditation for this Silent Night. Tomorrow, I will cook. For tonight, I am sitting in the stillness.

Subscribe to Comments

One Response to “Silent Night, Liminal Night”

  1. I still haven’t found that space within in which to be quiet, but reading your words gives me hope. It must be there somewhere. I’ll keep looking.


    Jan Myhre Spokane, WA

Leave a Reply


  • Pages

  • Archives