Monday, December 19, 2016

The Garden of the Seasons: The Last Twilight (and the Shortest Day) Between the Words

            At the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, what Irish harpist and singer Aine Minogue calls "the veil between the worlds" grows very thin, allowing for easier communication and contact between the realms of the living and "the otherworld." This is a Celtic traditional belief.
            The barrier between the realms, the songwriter and performer states on her website, "was thought to be lifted, the obstacles removed, the laws of space suspended, and communion with one's ancestors became a distinct possibility. They [the ancestral Celts] celebrated freedom from addiction to the purely visible, in the age-old premise of a life beyond this one, in which our ancestors are no further away than the next world. And that world itself being rather close by."
            In the millennia before the invention of electric lighting put an end to unavoidable darkness, people paid a great deal of attention to the periodic lengthening and shortening of daylight. The decline of the sun to the shortest day of the year signaled both the beginning of winter, and paradoxically, the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere and, therefore, the survival of everything in nature (including us) that depends upon the sun's bounty.  
            Those peaks and valleys in the journey of the sun-- the solstices -- are special times. Perhaps it's only a short hop then to the notion that interpenetration between the living and the other worlds is possible at these times.
            The "otherworld" of traditional Celtic belief comes in three forms: The realm beneath the sea or other waters. The realm of the dead called "Tech Duinn," or the House of the Dark One. The last, by far the most pleasing notion, is the land of eternal youth.
            You can run into "ghosts" more easily, Aine said last week during her "Solstice time" concert in Hingham, this time of year. Sometimes they are 'really' dead. Sometimes they are simply passing "between worlds."
            Here are some of the lyrics of Aine's song about the passages between these realms, titled "Between the Worlds":

And as you move between the worlds
Great sorrow will I feel
As first and last they journey same
Through nature's passageway

You're welcome, soul, to be with me
I'll happy be your guide
Teach to me what's been forgot
The old ways, by and by.
(Here's a link for more:

            At home we find ourselves playing Aine Minogue's music frequently this time of year. I turn to it earlier than to before the more straight-forward "Christmas albums." Even though solstice season and Christmas season are all mixed up with one another, and it's likely that pre-Christian societies relied on established festival seasons to layer in the holidays, saints days and other celebrations entailed by the new religion. Everybody in temperate climates, especially northern countries far from the equator, has always paid a lot of attention to this time of the year. The Romans had their "Saturnalia" festival around the return of the sun as well.
              We heard Aine Sunday evening at her "biennial" Winter Solstice concert at Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. The church is one of the oldest church building still in regular use in the country. The sanctuary's very old wood is very good to sound. Even while sound is resonant, the space is quiet. Aine called Sunday's audience perhaps the "quietest" audience she's ever had. Some of her programs she said, when we spoke briefly at intermission, have more laughter.
            "A quiet building," I suggested, "and a quiet time of year."
            In addition to some favorites from her repertoire such as "Spirit of the World," and versions of standards from the great Irish composer and harpist O'Carolan, she also played and sang a song by Leonard Cohen, one of the great voices the living world lost in the Plague Year of 2016. He called it his favorite song, Aine told us. The song is "If it be your will." Here are the lyrics for the first verse:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

            Hearing Aine Minogue sing this song, I sensed that the "veil between the worlds" might be slipping a touch for all of us for those few moments when one great singer and composer brought the essence of another 'departed,' but still great voice back into our world.