Communal light

When I was a child, my family would gather blankets and sleep around the fire this time of year.

It wasn't to stay warm — this was Southern California, where fireplaces are mainly for looks.

It was to draw close.

As the days darkened and the rains began, something compelled my parents to bring my brothers and me into the living room and share stories, games and treats.

It's a tradition many cultures and families share in December. It's as though we're trying to find our internal, communal light as we approach the darkest day of the year.

The winter solstice is Tuesday.

On Saturday, Red Earth Descendants will host its fifth annual Winter Solstice Storytelling gathering in Ashland.

"This has always been a time of ceremony to mark that transition for most indigenous people worldwide and certainly for native tribes of North America," said organizer Jaimie Bernhagen. "It's an important time. We want to mark that in a ceremonial sense, to pay attention to when the season changes and what the changes are for people."

This time of year, people tend to become more introverted and spend more time self-reflecting, she said.

For many, this is a joyous time of year. But for others, it's jarring.

As any reporter knows, the holidays mean domestic disputes, fights, drunken driving, overdoses and suicides.

Around Thanksgiving we heard all of those reports on the newsroom scanner. It was bad then and around Christmas it will probably be worse.

Yes, Virginia, despite there being a Santa Claus, bad things can happen at Christmastime — even in Ashland.

There's a discrepancy between the way the holidays are presented in our culture and how they actually unfold for some people.

I'm convinced that our physical environment depends on our mental and emotional one. If we're consumed with ourselves and our problems, we don't take time to care about the world around us.

Our internal states affect not just our environments, but each other.

I've been thinking about this as I reread Shakespeare's "The Tempest" this week. In Act 2, the King of Naples is depressed, fearing his son has died in a shipwreck. His son, it turns out, is not dead but on another part of the island falling in love with a girl.

The wise councilor Gonzalo tells the king that his mood is affecting the rest of the ship's crew.

"It is foul weather in all of us, good sir / When you are cloudy," he says.

Stories such as "The Tempest" and those the elders will tell Saturday are meant to teach us about ourselves.

"The stories are very holistic and so listening to stories during this time of year and marking the solstice with storytelling is paying attention to things on kind of a planetary level," Bernhagen said. "It's being aware of how the Earth changes and how we change with it."

If there's one thing that native people understand, it's that we're all connected, she said.

Storytelling is not just about spinning a good yarn — it's about learning to listen.

"Listening in this kind of venue is kind of a lost art, because we're so fast-paced," Bernhagen said. "It's not like going to the movies and sitting in front of a screen."

The Earth and its people are always telling a story. Does there have to be a multi-million-dollar budget involved for us to stop and listen?

If you can't make it to Saturday's gathering, why not create your own? You could gather your friends or family and spend the night telling stories by a fire.

Saturday's storytelling gathering begins at noon at Pioneer Hall, 59 Winburn Way, and features Esther Stutzman, a storyteller of the Kalapuya People of Southern Oregon. There will be a community feast at 5 p.m. and storytelling will continue until 9 p.m. All the events are free.

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Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or For past columns see

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