As the winter solstice comes upon us, I ponder the nature of our nation’s divisions. I wonder if we can emerge a wiser and more thoughtful nation, or if this is our fimbulvetr — our horrible winter — leading to the demise of this version of our society.
Íss er árbörkr / ok unnar þak / ok feigra manna fár
Ice is river bark and waves’ roof and harm of men destined to die¹
The world seems fractured to me. Scattered remnants of peace and companionship, good will and understanding lay strewn in a landscape of what appear to me longstanding institutions now smoldering in their ruin. Not without reason, distrust of each other and our institutions is higher than it has ever been in the history of the nation. Perhaps the only time this country has been so divided was the Civil War. And it seems to me now, as the icy rain falls outside the window, that Donald Trump is the perfect culmination for such a divided nation. Not because he is the best president or because I think he can bring us back together, but because he best represents the division, fear, and reactive nature that we’ve become as a country. He is truly the president we deserve. I believe that his term of office will be as a thin layer of ice over a raging river or the ebb and flow of waves. Smooth in appearance, but a cold and silent drowning beneath.
This is fitting in a way. The end of the postmodern era should be ushered in by the epitome of itself. The distrust of what we’ve made and the hyper-focus on the inner self without understanding the connections between each other has led us to this point. Far from seeking authenticity, as Charles Taylor would have it, we have been soothing ourselves with assurances that each of us is more authentic than everyone else. We have come to the point where our discussions aren’t centered around the comparison of the merit of ideas, but rather insistences that we are right coupled with insults against those whose opinions differ. I believe it is this isolationism from each other along lines of differing opinion that allowed Trump to win. This is not identity politics per se, but the unwillingness of us to find shared meaning in our own existences despite our social and self-identities.
Hagall er kaldakorn / ok krapadrífa / ok snáka sótt.
Hail is cold-seed and a shower of sleet and the sickness of snakes.¹
There’s a word in Old Norse — Skuldali∂ — that i have tattooed on my left arm to remind myself of what’s important in life, especially around the time of deep winter. It translates roughly to household or family, but like many pre-Christian concepts, there isn’t really a word left that contains the entire concept of it. The first syllable skulda means debt or what’s owed. The second half of the word li∂ is a synonym of hjún which is defined as the people in the household. Skuldali∂ means, then, the debt owed to the people in the household.
A Viking-age household included extended family such as parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and other relatives. It sometimes also included guests who stayed through the winter due to the weather, distance to their own home, or hard times they fell upon. A household could be anywhere between two and twenty people depending on location or size of the homestead. In short, it was a group of people in a communal space sharing the burdens and joys that came along in their time together. In essence, a small village. This is what Skuldali∂ represents, and is the core of community relations: “don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, / treat the indigent well” (Havamal, verse 135, tr. Larrington). It is in this context that I have the tattoo, and this context in which I look forward to the times ahead.
(cén) byþ cwicera gehwám cúþ on fyre, / blác and beortlíc; byrneþ oftust / ðær hí aþelingas inne restaþ.
(Lamp) is to the living all, known by its flame, / pale and bright; it burns most often / where the noble folk within relax.²
As the deep of winter enfolds the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice and snow and sleet coat the ground, and the cold kills the last of crops and forces animals to sleep or flee, we humans huddle together against the cold. It’s what we do. Midwinter is a time when we acknowledge the power of light to repel the darkness, when we recognize the cycle of the seasons. It’s when we know that we’ve been through the worst and soon enough things will slowly warm and thaw, enlighten, and come alive. We burn and dance and sing in defiance of the isolated cold of the deep night around us and remind the universe of our existence in the face of its unceasing entropy. While we do this within our own households and with our own traditions, we do this together. This season is a reminder that in the face of darkness, humanity spread across the globe comes to the same conclusion: recognize the cycle and know that it’s not complete. The cold dies with fire and light. The sun will, as the orphan says, come out tomorrow.
Sól er skýja skjöldr / ok skínandi röðull / ok ísa aldrtregi.
Sun is clouds’ shield and the sun shining and ice’s arch enemy.¹
But what will the sun reveal as it melts away the winter. Will it show us a disheveled field of battle, political and social corpses still unburied and bones bleaching in the sun? Or will it reveal our own emergence from the dark of winter in recognition of our shared existence? Will we be able to participate in society together as a community unified by the need for understanding, or will we continue our collective falling out and further isolate ourselves from each other.
We do so at our own risk. There is much at stake in the coming frost. The fate and future of our nation, our own senses of self-worth, the nature of who we are as a people, and whether we stand up to claim a legacy worth being remembered for. Through all of it, though, we should not forget that at the very core of our beings, we are one big household. Differences aside, we must acknowledge that we are partly responsible for each other and each others’ fates. This is encoded in our founding documents, and it is implied by the bond of each state to the nation.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The opening sentence of the Constitution is a call for a nation built on a shared dream of justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty. We aren’t there yet. For many, social justice is a myth. We have entered the winter fractured and fragile. The promise of the Constitution has become thin ice, and unless we recognize this truth, we will come undone and drown in our own ignorance. So what is it to be? Will we fall through the thin veneer of calm and drown in the roiling waves beneath? Will we emerge from our winter slumber with a new purpose of unity beyond that conveyed by elected leadership, but unified by the shared mission of us as a people? Do we have what it takes as a people to rebuild our failed institutions and overcome the distrust we have of each other?
In Norse mythology, following the horror and dark of Ragnarok, those remaining alive emerged onto a battlefield long grown over with grass. The fimbulvetr had passed. Spring had come. The sun streamed through the leaves of new-growth trees. The people remembered the terrible battle they’d been through, the vanity of the gods that led them to the final battle, and vowed to make things better. In the ruins they found the chess pieces used in carefree games prior to the broken promises that led to war.
Þar munu eftir undrsamligar / gullnar töflur í grasi finnask, / þærs í árdaga áttar höfðu.
There afterwards will be found in the grass / the wonderful golden chequers / those which they possessed in the ancient times.³
- Source: Icelandic Rune Poem; Translation: Sabin Densmore
- Source: Old English Rune Poem; Translation: Rune-Net
- Source: Völuspá; Translation: Carolyne Larrington