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Arms Wide Open: Lighting Candles for Winter Solstice

Today's post is an excerpt from Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey by Patricia Harman, Certified Nurse Midwife. Harman has published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health and the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, as well as in alternative publications. She is a regular presenter at national midwifery conferences. Her first book, The Blue Cotton Gown, was published to acclaim in 2008. Harman lives and works near Morgantown, West Virginia, and has three sons.

Today is Winter Solstice, The longest night of the year.  We will light candles here in West Virginia and pray for the cold, the hungry, the frightened and for our endangered earth. -- Patsy Harman 

6539167667_dcfba60741Winter has locked around us for sure, now. As I leave from work, the storm begins. Snow coming in from the West. By the time I get to the freeway, the tops of the mountains are covered with white. 

Despite a recent bout of melancholy, I’m excited. I always love the first good snow and it’s winter solstice night. “Hello Snow!” I greet the lacy clumps that whirl from the low grey clouds. It’s going to be a good one! They’re predicting eight inches.

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” I sing along with the radio.

On Turkey Run, the short cut behind the University Agricultural Farm, the traffic slows and I find myself thinking of Ruby. I saw her in the clinic this afternoon for her first OB visit. Six weeks is early to start prenatal care, but that’s fine with me. I like to see the women as soon as they call, talk to them about how to have a healthy pregnancy, answer their questions, get lab work and go over their history for risk factors. Despite her spotting, on the early ultrasound we could see the fetal heart flicker. 

I hand Ruby a thick green folder with our Women’s Health Center logo printed on the front, a pine tree with the slogan, Take care of yourself. Your health is valuable resource.

“What’s this?” Ruby asks.

“These are your OB handouts. You don’t have to read them all tonight,” I make a little joke of it.

There are hundreds of books on childbirth, but in our practice, the patient’s educational and socio-economic levels vary so much… some women have their PhDs…others never finished high school. Some have read Spiritual Midwifery and The Working Woman’s Pregnancy Book, before they come for their first visit and others don’t read at all. For this reason, I like to start the educational process early.

I take the flyer called What to Eat When For a Health Pregnancy out of the packet and place it in Ruby’s Lap. “So what did you have for breakfast this morning?”

“I don’t usually eat breakfast. No appetite.”  She shrugs as if that’s the end of it. But I don’t give up easy.

“I know what you mean. Me neither. But when you’re pregnant that has to change. So what could you eat? Do you like milk?”

Ruby and I problem-solve together on healthy food choices, things that are handy and not hard to cook. I have to be careful in my suggestions, because Ruby is on a medical card and doesn’t have much money. I tell her how to get signed up for WIC, the women’s, children’s and infant’s federal program that gives pregnant and nursing mothers coupons for free healthy food.

Ruby still smokes a half-pack of cigarettes a day, has limited understanding of nutrition, is underweight, doesn’t exercise because of her chronic pain, is unmarried with a lot of family problems and is still on narcotics. This will be a challenge, but I like challenges and I like Ruby.

Once I’m on the freeway the traffic thins out but at the top of our steep drive, I stop singing. If the snow gets too deep, I won't be able to get my Civic back up. I take a deep breath and drive down, anyway. “Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it…”  

Since returning from a recent trip to Moscow, I’ve been lonely for my boys and have had a hard time getting into the holiday spirit. I managed to get a tree up, a wreath on the door and the manager scene laid out, but that was the end of it.

Inside, I toss my briefcase in my office and shake off the blues. Soon it will be Christmas and Zen will be home…we haven’t seen him for six months…and Orion and Ari and Lissie and baby Abraham will be here.

Though it’s still afternoon, I put on an album of seasonal music and scurry around the house collecting candles for our solstice ceremony. This year, as last, it will be just the two of us. I glance out the window where snow now blows in at an angle, thankful that I made it home early. The gazebo is already covered. Six inches of fluff coats the porch rail. If the roads get too bad, it might be just me.  

A blast of wind jolts the house and the lights go off. The microwave beeps. The stereo goes off. When I check the telephone there’s no service. When I flip open my cell to call Tom, there’s no connection. No refrigerator sound, no fan from the heater. No heat, I remember. Even though we have a gas furnace and gas fireplace, electricity controls the pilot.

Armswideopen-330It’s nearly dark now and from the corner windows I can no longer see the oaks twenty feet in front of the house. I light one of our old kerosene lamps we brought from the farm. The wind slams the other side of the house and the whole building shudders. I’ve been in storms like this before, in Minnesota and at the commune. You’d think I’d be afraid, but I’m strangely excited.

“Whoo! Whoo!” Someone calls from out on the porch. I hurry to the front door. When I pull it open, white swirls in.

His arms are full of groceries. His LL Bean jacket and hair are plastered with snow.

“Happy Solstice!” It’s Tom.

In twenty minutes, the two of us are seated at the dining room table. The room is dark except for the circle of yellow from the kerosene lamp. I can almost imagine the fragrance of wood smoke from a cast iron cook stove and can see our little boys, Mica, Orion and Zen sitting with us.

Tom strikes a match to light the first taper. "This yellow one is for the sun, giver of life," Then it's my turn. “This gold candle is for family.” We take turn saying prayers.

“This pink one is for little kids.” I picture Rose, Abraham and Lissie.

“The white one is for love.” I look in Tom’s eyes and am so grateful to be here with him as the blizzard rages around us.

I glance at the candlelight flickering on the ceiling. The wind still howls in the trees out front.  “I love the house like this in this light. Wouldn’t you like to live with kerosene and candlelight always, maybe in a little log cabin?”

“We tried that before, Pats, remember?”

 “Oh, yeah! How could I forget?” I laugh at myself and we keep lighting candles until they’re all gone.

“This one is for change, the only constant.”

“This one’s for the earth.”

“This one is for the yet unborn.” I think of Ruby and her baby.

Photo by Jupiter Firelyte on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.