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, folk 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.

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Something that occurred to me that I could make more explicit here.

The first two thirds of this (go out into the wilderness, build a place for your tribe, embodied play), is something I think is really valuable. But one thing it doesn't do is be something uniquely rationalist.

Instead, if you just did the first two thirds, you'd have a holiday that's basically about tapping into... raw humanity, or something. Retreat as much as possible to the "Before Times" – before we were connected to and dependent on a global grid. As much as possible, experience flourishing that is only dependent on you and your tribe and the macroscopic physical world. Tap into what being human meant before all that.

And I think this is real good to have access to. It's good to be reminded that you're embodied.

This is a human holiday. It's not especially a rationalist one.

And I think reasonable people can disagree on whether you want a human holiday or a rationalist one (even if you're super into having some kind of rationalist culture). It's good to be reminded that underneath all your confident ideologies and religions and economic doctrines... you're just... people.

But I think there's something differently valuable (which I personally prefer) about a holiday that, instead of saying "remember that you are a human", you have a holiday that helps build an explicit rationalist identity that includes being embodied, physical strength, the outdoors, and certain primal-ness.

And the calculating-the-sun/building-a-stonehenge-esque-thing part of the holiday here is meant to do that last part. In private conversation, one person mentioned it didn't quite accomplish that goal for them, but they understood where I was coming from with the overall goal.

So, I like this, and also I'm going to use this space to make a complaint about how winter solstice went, which has some bearing on how much I'll want to go to summer solstice insofar as I'm worried about it having the same problem.

Namely: 1) I felt like the atmosphere of winter solstice really wanted to be nice-Thanksgiving-dinner-with-people-I-know-and-like, but in fact I did not know and/or like a lot of the people there so the whole experience felt tonally dissonant to me, 2) in addition to the tone at large, in the specific there were several specific people there (all men) who creeped me out, who I expected creeped out other people there, and who I have never seen at a rationalist event before or since, and this seems really bad.

I don't know by what process, if any, guests were filtered, but if the answer is "basically none" I think this is basically incompatible with wanting a Thanksgiving-dinner-ish vibe.

I kind of wish it were simple to just go "hm, can you identify these people to me so that I can make my own judgement?" But there are probably several reasons that's impractical including (I expect) that you don't know them by name.

It seems surprising to me that, in such a large crowd, there could be multiple people managing to make you uncomfortable (as opposed to, by contrast, managing to make someone somewhere uncomfortable, but not all the same someone, if that makes sense.) I am definitely wondering whether I didn't encounter them, or encountered them and they didn't have the same impact on me. I'm curious if you are able to describe the behaviors you saw, and also if you have a sense of broader context of like, do you think they were having this effect on lots of people? Do you feel like other rationalist events have similar issues or is this something unique to this one (maybe because it's advertised more widely? Did you have a sense of where they came from?)

I don't know their names or anything else about who they were. One of them just seemed really remarkably clueless (I'm honestly just confused, he looked 25 or something but talked like he was maybe 15?), but he had a friend who said he was party-hopping or something and hit on a woman I knew in a way that I expect creeped her out based on my read of her body language, but I didn't actually check with her afterwards. Neither of them seemed like rationalists to me at all, and this isn't an issue I've encountered at other rationalist events. I have no idea where they came from.

Yikes, ok. "Party-hopping" makes it sound like they didn't actually buy tickets or know what the event was, but just came in off the street. Perhaps this is a case for ticket enforcement / bouncers? I'm reluctant to suggest a remedy based on a single example, since it sounds like the people you're talking about arrived together, and so arguably constitute a single datapoint among them. But having someone designated to deal with "problem people" is arguably a good idea even from zero datapoints -- usually this is the sort of thing a code of conduct might spell out, but I think the most basic step is having a person with extra cycles who knows it's their responsibility to deal with this kind of thing (and who knows they have the full authority to eject people, with right of appeal if the organizers want to take those, but without having to involve a committee.)

(We actually had ticket enforcement this time, though it's definitely still plausible someone slipped through)

Agree there's a tradeoff between inclusiveness and coziness, but for large communitywide events I very much thing we should strongly prioritize inclusiveness.

I'm not sure if "nobody is being creepy" is sufficient for a good vibe, but it's probably necessary (where "being creepy" means basically "making more than one person uncomfortable in ways that could be avoided and that those people feel should be"). So how do you make sure nobody is being creepy? I think the logical options are: pre-filter people; actively filter people on the spot; and discourage creepiness on the spot. I suspect that there's a place for all three of these tactics. I have nothing more to say about how to do tactics 1 and 3.

But on tactic 2: if you want active on-the-spot filtering to be viable, I'd suggest that you should get people to pre-commit to leaving without a fuss if certain conditions are met. For instance, you must leave if asked to leave by two people; or possibly, by two of the people pre-selected by the community for this job; or by 1 person selected for this job, who has gotten two anonymous complaints; or something like that. Obviously that wouldn't solve all possible issues but it would at least allow strong, unanimous social pressure against on-the-spot special pleading, which is absolutely going to spoil the mood if it can't be nipped in the bud.

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.

Embodied fun is cool. I just want to flag that it would be nice if we can prioritize inclusiveness such that people whose bodies have more limitations than usual can still take part and not be shut out of the core of the holiday. (The above list includes some things I can't currently do and some things I can, and there are other things in the "embodied fun" category that I can also do, so I don't think exclusion is inevitable, I just want to flag this as a thing to think about.)

I'm interested if you have thoughts on "embodied fun" that would make for good examples for people with a wider variety of body types and capabilities – I generated the list mostly via "what would I find fun?" and agree it'd be good to include a wider variety of examples.

It's easiest here for me to think of what I personally can and can't do (my issue is foot pain).

Things I can do:

  • swim
  • play guitar and sing
  • build sandcastles
  • bury each other in sand
  • trade massages
  • cook, esp. roast things over a campfire
  • make campfires (I'm not personally very good at this but nothing prevents me from learning)
  • arm wrestle or something?
  • bike (though I bet bringing bikes would be too much of a hassle)
  • row a boat (though Idunno if anyone has boats)
  • breathing exercises
  • smell things (if we're going to a beach and making a campfire, just the smells of ocean and fire are gonna be pretty great)
  • art (carving things out of wood? drawing things? braiding hair/making flower crowns/weaving stuff? woodburning using a magnifying glass and the sun!)

...those last two examples remind me that in fact there's a traditional Russian summer solstice-equivalent festival I used to sometimes go to which is probably actually quite similar in spirit to the thing you want to do. It is organized by a local Russian folk song/dance/art group. Every summer they & guests drive out to a park with a lake for this holiday and do a lot of things that probably aren't consciously chosen for the purpose of "embodied fun" but basically all are that:

  • first, lots of people dress up in traditional costumes
  • then, the women and girls make flower crowns while singing, and the men/boys do woodburning art (...I did both. you see in part why I do not go to this festival anymore)
  • then, the group leaders organize everyone into a circle and do traditional circle songs/games/dances. only the actual group members know the songs well enough to sing, but everyone gets instructions for the dances and games, so everyone can participate.
  • one of the dances involves jumping over a campfire
  • evetually, a specific song is sung, everyone takes off their outer clothes and goes in the lake and swims around (I think there's a thing where women throw their flower crowns in the lake also and it's supposed to mean something)
  • at some point there's a lot of food
  • after all that traditional stuff is done, in the evening people will just sit around the campfire with guitars and sing songs
  • then camping in tents

Other than the uncomfortably gendered everything, I think this is possibly not a bad model for summer solstice. If someone has some circle dances/games they can lead (and people are willing to partcipate), this sounds like a thing that could be fun (though I can't personally do it).

Cool – yeah I agree all these things sound great. One of the places we were currently looking at for this year's Bay Summer Solstice is was actually pretty accessible all around (i.e. even in a wheelchair I think you could actually arrive fairly easily), and I'll keep that sort of thing more in mind.