There are always thresholds to cross. And there are always choices to make. Every season opens a door. I don’t think it’s a contradiction that people mark midwinter as a major anniversary of loss as well as a time of gratitude. Winter solstice holds both death and life for us.
When I was in Malta this past spring, I would rise every morning. Walk the two blocks to the public transit station in Buggiba (pronounced BOO-jee-ba), get on one of the many public buses and ride with the Maltese on their way to work into Valetta or across or around the island, along with other tourists speaking French, German, Italian and English. Sometimes I was the only tourist on the bus. Sometimes the bus drivers knew where I was going; sometimes they didn’t. That’s when they would reach out to their seasoned Maltese passengers “Do you know where x is?” or even assign them to me: “Here I entrust this lady to your care.” I would show them my map, mispronounce the site I was looking for. Without fail the locals would get me to my destination.
I would visit at least one archeological site a day. Some of the sites were more remote, less noteworthy, nothing more than a reconstituted pile of weathered stones. I preferred these lonely sites and could linger for hours among the rocks and the wildflowers, only me and the friendly security guard watching from a nearby trailer. Who were these people who built these monuments to the universe? Malta has some of the oldest surviving temples and necropoli in Europe, some of them aligned to the solstices and the equinoxes. The earliest temple, Skorba, dates to 3600 BCE, older than pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than Newgrange.
It’s not magic that attracts me to these sites, but it is their makers’ presence. Like any places in the world where many people have prayed, wept, and sung over the centuries, the earth has a memory. The ancients didn’t conjure the solstices and equinoxes, but they observed and honoured the patterns: the path of the sun in relation to the passage of animals (four-legged and two-legged), the rise and fall of temperature and moisture with the planting and growth of crops, the death and rebirth of souls. These were their compass bearings in time.
In 2019 as the seasons shift and bleed into each other, as glaciers melt and birds drift into new habitat, as fish forget to migrate, there is something urgent in remembering not a perfect time, not a better time, necessarily, but a time of deep human awareness of our interdependence with the Earth.
In the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (3300 BCE), an underground necropolis where some walls still bear the marks of red ochre, the signature of Neolithic burials; no one is allowed to take photographs. In this vast multi-hived chamber, filled with the sound of trickling water, hewed out of live stone, with nothing but antlers, chert, flint and obsidian. The winter solstice sunrise enters through a window in the roof and illuminates another open door cut into the face of an inner temple, a door within a door, within a door. It is this inner temple I look for on my travels and on my journey. It is this inner door that beckons us outward.