“Solstice Means Stillness”

Nearly a decade ago, I promised myself I’d spend summer solstice in the brightest part of the world. It wasn’t so much a bucket-list thing—not sure I have one of those—but more a kind of calling. At the time, I’d been visiting one of the darker parts of the world: Denmark in December. I’ve since craved light in its most potent form.

When a writing residency took me to Iceland during the summer solstice, then, I relished not only the time to write, but the fulfillment of that promise. (No, neither Iceland nor Denmark are part of the Arctic Circle, where light and dark would be most extreme. But I’m calling it “close enough”.) Gullkistan Center for Creativity is located lakeshore in the idyllic Golden Circle region of Iceland. I returned from my stay there having soaked up the brightest light I’ve known.

Solstice has been celebrated since antiquity–once in winter, and once in summer. By the time these pivotal days roll around, we’re all ready for a change. After a long winter, we celebrate the sun. And when the time comes, we honor its absence. Darkness can be a refuge, after all.

Solstice actually means “sun standing still”.

solstice (n.) mid-13c., from Old French solstice (13c.), from Latin solstitium “point at which the sun seems to stand still,” especially the summer solstice, from sol “sun” (see sol) + past participle stem of sistere “to come to a stop, make stand still”
(see assist (v.)). In early use, Englished as sunstead (late Old English sunstede).

Anyone who paid attention in middle school science class knows that the sun doesn’t really stand still. It’s always in motion, along with the rest of the Milky Way. Nevertheless, solstice–the seemingly still point–is a moment in time, a rare and cherished occasion.

In 2016, it took place on June 20th at 10:34 p.m. I suppose I could’ve planned something ceremonial to mark the occasion. Instead, I stood on a backyard patio in Reykjavík in my sock feet, watching the sky. Was that moment any more magical than any of the others I’d experienced there? I’d be hard-pressed to say so, but can attest that the light was otherworldly.

Mostly, at that moment and during the entire trip, I was just glad to find stillness–a quiet place in my life–after a long era of motion and uprootedness. We don’t usually think of travel as facilitating stillness, but because I was stationed primarily in two towns for this trip, it was possible.

The residency itself took place in the lakeside hamlet of Laugarvatn, located in the Golden Circle region. We residents took regular day trips, mixing up our creative time with some all-important exploration. Afterward, I had the option to either travel further into northern Iceland or return to Reykjavík to continue to work on my writing. I chose the latter.

Why? Certainly I was missing the chance to walk a glacier or chase a waterfall. I am wildly curious about the Westfjords region, for example, and the northern capital of Akureyi. Yet I’d bargained hard with my employer for the time off, and had spent years (!) rearranging my life so that I could escape – ostensibly to write. So, I was thrilled to explore locally, but owed myself focused writing time.

In Reykjavík, I stayed at the guesthouse of another residency program, SÍM, where I was able to connect with others hard at work on their creative projects–a true gift. I was lucky, also, to have a long-lost friend in Reykjavík who works as an illustrator. Not only was she an excellent local guide, but her creative successes were (and are!) inspiring. Throughout, I relished the company of fellow creators, learning immensely from even the most informal and seemingly trivial exchanges.

Many creators who I met on this journey are advanced in their work. Me? Given my day job (which is also a blessing, mind you) I continue to check the box on residency and grant applications that reads: “emerging writer”.

Forever and always emerging. Aren’t we all, somehow or another? Tendrils of green poke from the earth and climb toward the sky. A butterfly cracks open its chrysalis and takes flight. The sun peeks from behind the clouds and glints. To emerge is to come forth from a place obscured. In this way, I’m happy to be emerging.

And I’m thankful for the rare moments of stillness that help me do just that.

About Amy Bess Cook

Amy Bess Cook been a working writer for fifteen years. A veteran of the publishing business, she has left her mark on everything from picture book manuscripts to travel guides. Her essays have been published in Vela, Entropy, and Misadventures. In summer 2017, she launches Sirsee, an arts journal celebrating the agricultural harvest season.