Visions of Summer Solstice

by Raemon4 min read21st May 201812 comments


Secular SolsticeRitual
Personal Blog


i. Off the beaten path

See the light as it shines on the sea? It's blinding
But no one knows how deep it goes
– How Far I'll Go, Moana

The experience begins with a journey.

This partly by design, but largely by necessity.

Winter Solstice is about the long arc of history. Summer Solstice is about the here and now, and why being human is something worth protecting. It's about freedom, fun, physicality. It's about figuring things out in Near Mode. It's about building things together.

Getting a particular kind of Special out of that physicality requires a particular kind of space.

It's not enough to find a small nearby park. Ideally, you want an outdoor space vast enough to feel in your bones that the sky is the limit. There is no one and nothing to help you build a tower to the stars, or to cross the ocean, or cartwheel forever in any direction. But neither is there anyone to stop you. There is only nature, and you, and your tribe, and whatever you choose to do.

If you live in a major city, this probably means you may need to undertake a nontrivial journey before finding such a place. The best places will be off the beaten path, and a bit hard to navigate to. If it were easy, humans would have already crowded around it. You might be able to have fun, but you wouldn't be able to carve out a spot for your people to invoke a Sacred Fun.

As you contemplate this from your comfortable couch and think about the journey, you may find it daunting. If you attempted it alone, you might find it frustrating and lonely.

So, don't attempt it alone.

Journey together. If you get lost along the way, getting un-lost is part of the fun. You may find something valuable in overcoming the obstacles. I do, anyway.

The best journey is one that borders on the mythologic – you pass through narrow passages, winding your way through wild undergrowth, slightly confused about where you are going but compelled onwards by curiosity. You cross a threshold into a fae-like enclave that clear communicates "you have left the default world behind."

And then suddenly find yourself at the top (or edge) of the world, slightly unclear how you got there.

Sometimes you are lucky, and such hidden enclaves exist right in your backyard. But the efficient Other World hypothesis says that such unspoiled passages are rare.

There are many possible destinations you can choose for your journey. I suggest one additional constraint: As much as possible, find a low horizon line – a beach, or hilltop. Dense foliage is beautiful in it's own way, but there is something valuable, for this holiday, about getting a clear view of the sunset.

You are here to celebrate the longest day of the year.

ii. Build a sacred space for your tribe

Ultimately, you are here for embodied fun. Build sandcastles. Fly kites. Wrestle. Play foot-to-face. Run barefoot in the sand. Cook together. Eat together. Go swimming. Climb things. Sing songs as you hike the local trails.

The border between ritual and non-ritual can be subtle. You can do all those things, and have it be a simple day-of-fun with no special significance. You can do all those things, and choose to imbue it with transformative, symbolic power. The power is greater if it involves sacrifice. The sacrifice is more potent if it is resonant – a costly signal, but not an arbitrary one.

You are here to become – or to remind yourself that you are – a tribe.

And there is something special about building something together, greater than any of you could have built on your own, to make this fact true in your gut.

There are different aesthetics you can bring to this. Last year, the NYC community journeyed to Long Island, near some old ruins, and built a temple of heavy driftwood logs that nobody could have even lifted on their own.

In the Bay Area, Brent and his crew organized a giant dome build. Less primeval, more steampunk. A couple dozen people worked in tandem, half of them holding up a 50 foot, 600 pound sphere of steel while others darted around tightening bolts. If anyone had fucked up, the whole thing would come tumbling down. Then they hung silks and put a trampoline in it.

Whether primeval, steampunk or otherwise, the key is cooperation, and to fully engage the human experience. Solve physics puzzles that are not just about thinking at a computer screen, but which require you to be embodied. Sensory Experience. High challenge. Living by your own strength.

Then, take a step back, and marvel at the monument you have built to yourselves, and the space you have created.

And play.

The 2017 Bay Summer Solstice Dome

iii. Winter is Coming

That all seemed well and good to me. It was the plan I and the NYC rationalists went to Long Island with. But when we got there, and set about building a temple of driftwood, we were presented with a question:

How should we design our temple, such that it oriented around the longest day. Could we align it with the sunset?

This was a physics question, and an engineering one.

Where on the horizon, precisely, will the sun set?

With nothing but crude physical tools and the naked eye, could we figure it out? Could we do so with enough time left over to erect a set of pillars lining the sun?

And then, it all clicked together.

Winter Solstice celebrates the birth of astronomy – the human ability to look up at the sky, predict when the seasons will change, plant your grains at the right time, plan for the coming darkness. The long, slow bootstrapping of humanity. Building the tools that built the tools that built the tools that built the cities around us. Culminating in the ability to look out in the universe and know exactly what is going on. To send machines into space and turn around and see our home, in our obscurity, in all this vastness, and think "That's here. That's home. That's us." And know that there is no hint that anyone out there will save us from ourselves.

The ability to look into a murky, uncertain future, and plan.

And now, here we were, actually having to begin that journey ourselves from something-like-first-principles, and it didn't even feel contrived. The connection to Winter Solstice didn't require any grim speeches or cerebral songs. It just was.

My favorite part: Those pillar we placed?

That was our confidence interval. The more clearly we could predict sunset, the closer together we could afford to place them. As it turns out, we were off by about a foot. But the problem left a number of ways to scale the difficulty in future years, building towards more precision as our skills increased.

The 2017 NYC Summer Solstice temple

iv. Next

Real holidays are not created. They evolve.
– Secular Solstice Hymnal

Right now, the vision depicted above feels approximately like Winter Solstice 2011 – the broad strokes are there, but a lot of the pieces will require some finessing, settling into place, or evolving based on the local needs of your community.

Moreso than Winter Solstice as, Summer Solstice demands an environment of improvisation and whimsy. It benefits from people bringing cool idea to try out. Do you know how to fire-twirl? Play guitar? Teach Acro Yoga? Have some random cool outdoor toy? Go for it, and don't worry overmuch of if it all fits neatly together.

I think plenty of people won't be interested in the Building of the Space, or might want to contribute their own thing to it, and that's fine. At NYC 2017, some people were erecting the pillars, or measuring shadows to calculate sunset, while others built sand-art to go along with it, or just went off to swim or explore.

I think having at least a small group of people building the central monument helps to give all the rest of the kite-flying, swimming, climbing, wrestling, barbecue etc an underlying sense of purpose – a thing that we might come together to do once a year, to be a tribe together in a way that is in some sense sacred.

Comments can be for both discussing this conception of Summer Solstice, as well as for people pitching their own local Summer Solstices and whatever ideas you plan to try out.