You Have Arrived At The Fire
Honor the darkness, welcome the light
Happy solstice! It’s one of my favorite days/nights of the year. Growing up in the woods of northern Minnesota—and especially during the years that my family didn’t have electricity—this short day and long night always felt magical to me. My mom would make a special dinner on solstice night—and by “special” I mean something like tacos in those hard U-shaped taco shells that I never seem to eat anymore—and we’d go around the table, taking turns saying what we wanted to let go of and what we wanted to bring in over the year ahead. I’ve carried on some version of that ritual every year ever since.
I can’t remember one thing I said when it was my turn to speak at the family table. I can’t tell you if I let go of any of it or if I brought any of it in, but I do remember that this simple ritual helped me think about my life in a larger way than I would’ve otherwise. It asked me to contemplate where I’d been and where I was going, to name what I wanted and didn’t. It asked me to pause and remember to honor the darkness and welcome the light.
I don’t know what I’d say this year if I could sit at a table eating tacos with my mother. What will I let go of? What will I bring to me? I’ll be pondering it all day. I’ll have something ready by dinnertime. Maybe I’ll write about it in this month’s Dear Sugar Letter, which will come to those of you who are subscribers on New Year’s Eve—another day when a lot of us think about what we’d like to leave behind and what we’d like to move toward.
In this solstice edition of my newsletter, I’m including a Dear Sugar letter from the archives called “You Have Arrived At The Fire,” which you’ll find below. It’s a column that didn’t make it into my collection of Dear Sugar columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, for no other reason than I couldn’t include them all, so perhaps it’ll be new to many of you. The letter I answer is from someone who feels deeply shamed by their stutter. The winter solstice makes an appearance in my response as do my children, who I referred to at the time that I wrote the column as the “baby Sugars.” They’re now the “teenage Sugars,” and both of them are taller (and cooler) than me.
What are you going to let go of? What are you going to bring in? If you want to tell me, put it in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always love hearing from you.
I’m doing two fun things in 2022 that I want to tell you about before I sign off. The first is that I’m teaching a writing workshop I call “The Story You Have To Tell” at Kripalu in Massachusetts in May. It’s a weekend of writing, connecting, and thinking about the stories you’ve got burning in you (as I know you do). It’s open to writers at all levels of experience. The second thing is that in July I’m going to be sailing the Danube River in Hungary, Austria and Germany from Budapest to Deggendorf with a group of what I imagine will be gloriously fun and fascinating people (and one of them might just be you?). If you’re interested in either, you can find information about the workshop here and the river cruise here. (And meanwhile, I will keep all my fingers crossed that COVID doesn’t foil our plans.)
If I can manage to stay awake late tonight, I’m going to watch the winter solstice sunrise over Stonehenge via livestream. You can join me (and a whole bunch of other people) here starting at 7:25GMT (11:25pm PST).
Or you can just sleep and dream.
Wishing you all a beautiful beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere and a beautiful beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere.
Honor the darkness, welcome the light.
P.S. It’s not over yet! Keep scrolling to read the old Dear Sugar Letter below.
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I stutter. That is the truth that I have lived the nearly twenty-eight years of my life trying to avoid. Of course there’s no real avoidance because my stutter permeates every single goddamn thing that I do. There is no real help for me since there is no known cure. There is only acceptance. I have spent a large part of my twenties attempting to come to terms with this reality, only to find, over and over again, that in my mind, having a stutter is the one unforgivable thing.
I know I did not ask for this. I know it is a hereditary affliction. I know there is just something in my brain that doesn’t work the way other people’s brains work. I know I am not the only stutterer in the world. Yet, I cannot shake off this shame. It’s deeply embedded in my psyche. The shame is as much a part of me as having brown eyes or being left-handed is part of me.
My shame, along with the pure, raw fear that I feel every day has led me to abuse alcohol on a very regular basis. I find that when I am drunk, the stutter is less prominent. Incredibly so. I’ve learned that the stutter doesn’t actually go away when I’m drunk, but my inhibitions do. When I drink, my fear of opening my mouth to talk is gone.
I’m not sure how to let go of the shame. I find myself apologizing to people if I happen to stutter in front of them. If not with my words, then with my demeanor. Confidence? I am sure that must be a wonderful thing. I’ve never known it. When I’m stuttering, I go to a detached place in my mind. It feels like my heart is being ripped out of my chest. For the most part people are kind about it. When they aren’t, the shame is a neon sign pointing to my biggest flaw. My most human part of me. I always remember the people who are not kind about it.
As a child, my family never brought it up unless it was to make fun of me. They did what they knew and I don’t blame them. But this is where the shame started. I was maybe five years old when the stutter became prominent and it has been with me ever since. I’ve never received any kind of therapy.
I left my home in San Francisco to move to New York because I didn’t want to live in one place my whole life. However, I feel like I have not really given myself a chance to live. Really, truly live. I feel stifled and buried alive by the shame, yet I’m hesitant and even afraid to let go of it because a part of me feels that I need to be punished for being a stutterer. That’s the gist of it, I suppose. I hate myself because I stutter. Even though I know better and even though I know I did not ask for this, I still blame myself for stuttering and I blame myself for letting my fear of my stutter control me.
How do I let go and how do I live better, Sugar? How do I forgive myself for something that is not my fault? I feel like I already know what to do. I’m just waiting to give myself permission to do it and I feel as though time is running out. Help?
Ashamed and Afraid
Dear Ashamed and Afraid,
Last December I took the baby Sugars to a winter solstice ritual at a hippy retreat center in the woods. The ritual was held just after sun set in a big community room in an old lodge, where maybe sixty of us were packed in. There was drumming. There were speeches delivered in mystical tones by people bedecked in beads and feathers about the symbolic meanings of north, east, south and west. There was chanting followed by ten minutes of total silence that even—miraculously!—the baby Sugars managed to endure. And then there was a great joyous ululating celebration in which we together welcomed the darkness.
After the joyous ululating died down, the people who were bedecked in beads and feathers lit a fire in the fireplace and placed several giant loaves of bread before it. We were instructed to take a hunk of the bread and, from that hunk, take one bite. The rest was to be cast into the fire. The bread we consumed represented what we wanted to bring into our lives, to take in, or make manifest, they explained. The bread that went into the fire represented what each of us hoped to shed or push away.
When I reiterated this symbolic business about the bread to the baby Sugars they looked at me blankly. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of bringing something that wasn’t a material thing into their lives and it was even more difficult for them to understand the notion of casting such a thing out. They did not have any real desire to be stronger or purer or better. They believed themselves to be that already. To them the word manifest means only bread in the mouth.
This is as it should be. They are children—so irrefutably whole that they’re incapable of making the psychic move it takes to see themselves from even the slightest distance. But you know what, sweet pea? You aren’t. It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing something out—the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter—and taking something in—the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.
That you got frozen in the place of fear and shame that first gripped you when you were a child is not surprising. It’s not another thing about which you should silently condemn yourself. Your letter does not convey your weakness and failure. It conveys your resilience and your strength. At five, you learned you had a communication disorder and no one helped you make sense of that. You received neither emotional support nor therapeutic treatment. That’s a travesty.
But a greater travesty would be that you, at twenty-eight, allow yourself to go on this way.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. It isn’t too late. Time is not “running out.” Your life is here and now. And the moment has arrived at which you’re finally ready to change. I know it. The people reading these words right now know it. And you know it too. It’s the reason that you wrote to me.
It’s heart-squinchingly terrible that you’ve been so alone with your stutter for these twenty-eight years, but you have the power to end your isolation in ten seconds if you choose to. Just click on over to the National Stuttering Association, where you will find oodles of information that will help you connect with others who stutter, find therapists and specialists who treat those with your condition, and access other resources that will very likely play an important role in your ability to dig yourself out of the shame and fear that has practically buried you alive.
I implore you to do everything you can to connect yourself to peers and professionals who will offer you support and guidance. Doing so won’t likely make you feel great in one day. You might not even feel great in a year. But you’re going to feel a whole fuck of a lot better, I can promise you that. There isn’t any reason for you to be alone in this, dear one. Why? Because you are not alone. There are so many people out there who will nod their heads in understanding and recognition when you tell them all the things you just told me.
You have a right to know those people. You deserve to receive their kindness, camaraderie, and expertise. You don’t have to make the same choices your parents made for you. You get to have your real, giant, gorgeous life. As you so clearly articulated, your stutter is not what’s keeping you from that. Your ideas about what it means to have a stutter are. So you need to change them.
Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter. Write this down on pieces of paper and tape them all over your room. Put one in every pocket of all of your pants. Nobody worth my attention gives a damn if I stutter!
They might blush when you stutter. They might awkwardly try to help you communicate in a manner that’s familiar and therefore comfortable to them. But not because they think you’ve got “one unforgivable thing.” They do that because they have a moment of surprise or discomfort; that in their desire to make you or themselves feel okay they did the wrong thing.
You don’t need to take responsibility for that. You need to find a way to laugh it off or address it directly or let it simply be there, unconnected to you. The people and resources I directed you to will help you begin to stop internalizing this crap.
It might help you to remember that your struggle is ultimately so much like the struggles many of us have to feel right in the world. Many of us have had to make life-changing emotional and psychological shifts about who we are so we could become the people we’re here to be. You are not outside of us, even if it feels to you like you are.
I believe someday you’ll know that in your heart. I think years from now you’ll look back at this time of your life and you’ll see that this was your growing up. One of the hardest things about doing that—I mean, really, truly, actually growing up—is that in order to do so we must come to terms with the past. And for a lot of us who didn’t get as kids what we needed to get from the people who were supposed to give it to us, we can’t really grow up until we find a way to give what we need to ourselves.
But that’s also one of the most beautiful things. Because we can. We have the power to heal what needs to be healed. We get to give ourselves that. We have the capacity to stand before the scorching flames and decide what to swallow and what to cast out. You have arrived at the fire, Ashamed and Afraid. Here’s the bread. Grab a hunk.
Loved this and needed to hear it. I'm currently in the process of recovering from a decade-long eating disorder. I felt so wrapped up in shame for so much of my life, so consumed with anger and not understanding at all the people I felt should have intervened on my behalf and didn't. I can say unequivocally that what offered me the most healing was community. I felt valid and held by other people who also struggle with eating disorders; working through challenges alongside them in treatment offered me the solidarity and strength to begin to address my deepest wounds. I am not fully recovered, but so much of the shame has dissipated through the process of connecting with other folks facing similar challenges. I feel that we are eating the bread together (at times quite literally). Letting go of shame this solstice and moving into the light.
Would you believe that here in Maine, I **just** started a big fire in the fireplace and sat down in my comfy chair and opened up my laptop and checked email and here it is, an email from you confirming that I have indeed arrived at the fire. (Or maybe you just have a hidden camera in my house?) I love your family ritual. This year it all feels so much bigger. It's almost as if covid burned everything so far down to the ground that the landscape is truly wide open. It's scary, but exciting. But scary. Anyway, thank you for seeding my thoughts and for confirming the fire that is currently crackling next to me. Happy winter solstice to you!