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Solstice Resource Repository

You may have noticed my previous two posts had links to a new website: secularsolstice.github.io. This website is my attempt to gather all solstice-related content in a single place. Up until now, it’s been scattered across a variety of blogs and Google docs in a rather disorganized fashion.

This website is a work in progress, but it has reached the Useful stage. Its goals are:

Easy to Browse

The website is trying to be comfortable for anyone to browse: navigable, pretty, readable. Also, leaving a dozen tabs of it open shouldn’t cause my browser to lock up (let us take a moment to glare at Google docs and even harder at Facebook for their respective javascript memory leaks).

All Sorts of Content

There are lyrics, chord charts, sheet music, audio recordings, discussions of how a song can be used…

A lot of other options would have difficulty with some of these things. This website should be able to host it all, in a comfortable way.

Granted, I’ve left videos on youtube and provided links. I’m not sure if there’s a quantity of data at which github complains about hosting, but video might push it.

Single Point of Truth

The summary of a song in a list should match its summary on its own page. The lyrics in the chord chart should match the ones in the lyrics sheet. And any of these things should be changeable without having to keep them together manually.

A particularly important case of this is sheet music formatting. There’s no universally accepted format. PDF is nice to read, but impractical to do anything else with. So we want both the universally readable PDF and the source format (Lilypond, ABC, etc.), and we don’t want to worry about them being out of sync.

Robust Hosting

No downtime. No “forgot to renew, now an extortionist has it”. No ads. No games.

Relatedly, the URLs are clear, concise and stable.

Oh, and I don’t want to pay for this.

Practical to Contribute To

I have write access to several of the Google sheets and folders. I’ve barely used it. Why?

I’m worried I’ll step on someone’s toes. That I’ll be adding things that don’t belong. That I’ll break something. That I’ll try to write at the same time as someone else and make a mess.

Here we have explicit, annotated histories. So if a contribution breaks something, the break can be reverted. And we have pull requests, so someone can say “Here are the exact changes I would like to make, are they good?” and someone more central can accept or reject them easily.

Seriously, though, Git?

I realize git isn’t the easiest thing to use. And that it’s not ubiquitous the way wikis and Google docs are.

For simple things, the web interface is available, and it really isn’t bad. I’ve written some instructions, though I admit no one has tested them.

It may turn out that this is still too heavy weight a process. All I can say is that I haven’t seen a successful project like this, so we have to explore.

And Github offers the first four points, which no other option I could think of did. At least not without a ton of work.

As for the rest of Git’s features, the history and branching… Maybe we’ll use them meaningfully and maybe we won’t. They are a reasonably close fit to how we operate, but they aren’t easy to expose through the pretty website. As more use accumulates, we’ll see.

For Now, Send Stuff

There’s content not on the site. Probably songs. Definitely speeches. Lots of setlists.

If you have them, please send them!

If you feel up to it, send a pull request. If you run into trouble doing so, let me know.

If you don’t feel up to that, don’t worry about it. Send an email (dspeyer [at] gmail [dot] com) or leave a comment here or do whatever’s easiest.

If there are things you’d like to see the site do that it currently doesn’t, let me know that too. I make no promises, but I’m interested.

A Campbellian Perspective on Solstice

The overarching Solstice narrative fits into Campbell’s monomyth surprisingly well.  At least the NYC 2017 one does.  This isn’t something I did deliberately, which is why it isn’t in the Thinking Behind The Setlist post, but it’s another tool that might be useful for understanding setlists, again presented in the hopes it will be useful.

❄       ❄       ❄
The heroine begins in the mundane world, aware of its faults but making the best of them (Always Look on the Bright Side of Life). The herald invites her on a journey (Walk With Me) but she prefers to ask someone else to save her and her people (Bring the Light). The herald raises the spectres of both everyone dying (X Days of X Risk) and the heroine’s own death (When I Die) but she treats both subjects lightly. She counters that her traditions are good enough (That Problem Solved) but realizes for herself (Results won’t Replicate) that they aren’t. So she sets off.

She begins by confronting death more honestly (Bitter Wind Blown) and struggling to make sense of the world (Chasing Patterns). She learns the weaknesses of the tools she brought with her (Just People; Time Wrote the Rocks). At the same time she finds that those tools are the strongest things around (Origin of Stories). Stuck at this paradox, she again appeals to an outside force to save her (Bring the Light Reprise).

As we return from intermission, our heroine is still lost in the dark (Do You Realize?). She realizes that neither she nor her traditions have the strength to prevail (No Royal Road) and stumbles on the idea of self-improvement. She then faces the full extent of the darkness (Voicing of Fear) and descends into the underworld (A Little Echo). There, a dead child offers her the gift of diligence (Bitter Wind March). She combines this with the self-improvement from earlier (Eternal Winter; Endless Light) and prepares for the final confrontation.

With her new strength, she defeats cold and dark directly (Brighter than Today) and death and loneliness less directly (Endless Lights).

Victorious, she returns to the mundane world (Here Comes the Sun) and recognizes its richness and glory for the first time (Here and Now). She offers her people the gifts she obtained on her journey (Forever Young).

Integrating her newfound strength with the mundane world is a challenge but one quickly overcome (What does it Mean to Be Forever Young?). That handled, she leads her people to the stars (Uplift / 5000 Years).

That last bit isn’t really part of the monomyth, but the rest fits pretty well. Which might just be a tribute to how things can be shoehorned into archetypes if the archetypes are vague enough. But I think it’s a potentially useful angle to view things from.

The Thinking Behind The NYC 2017 Setlist

This post documents various things I thought about as I put together the setlist for NYC’s 2017 Solstice (my first time running a Solstice). I write it in the hopes it will be useful to other people assembling setlists.

I am not trying to write the final word on setlists. I am not even trying to consolidate the state of the art. I am making only a moderate effort to distinguish things specific to New York in 2017 from universal things. I offer this in the hopes it will be useful, but figuring out how to use it is very much left as an exercise for the reader.

Measure before Optimizing

I started with Raymond’s Measure a Song posts (I, II) about the 2016 Solstice. It contained the list of everything we sang the previous year, along with notes about what worked, what didn’t, and what he was thinking of changing.

I paid particular attention to what was at the bottom: Gather Round, Blowin’ in the Wind, Bring the Light, Stopping by Woods and Seasons of Love (almost unchanged by comparison metric). I ultimately dropped four of these songs and shortened the fifth.

This means I implicitly started from the 2016 list and made changes, rather than starting from scratch. From the perspective of all Solstices, this carries a risk of getting caught in a local optimum, but from the perspective of any particular Solstice, it does no harm and saves a lot of work.

Light

Consider the person who walks into Solstice. Possibly straight off the street, possibly from the pre-Solstice party. Either way, from a mundane experience.

We say there’s a past-present-future arc, but people walk in from the present, not the past. We need to get people unstuck from time a little before they can begin that arc. Hence Walk With Me, First Winter and That Problem Solved.

Many people come in having not sung in public since the previous solstice. Or longer, if they’re first-time attendees. We want to coax them into the act. Start with a song they know (Always Look On The Bright Side). Then one to which they already know the melody (Walk With Me). Then one where they just do a simple response (Bring the Light). Then another familiar melody plus a lot of repetition (X Days) and another simple response (When I Die). That’s a lot of easy stuff for warmup. Hopefully when they get to That Problem Solved, they’re ready.

(X Days also prepares people to get up and make hand gestures, but that Chekhov’s gun never fires. Oops.)

Some people come in surrounded by friends. But, at least at a big event like this, some don’t. When you’re surrounded by strangers, it’s natural to be a little defensive. We need people to feel safe enough to open emotionally. Singing in unison is good for this, and it almost doesn’t matter what we sing, provided the songs themselves don’t require deep emotional involvement.

It also helps to explicitly invite people, and celebrate our having gathered together. This is what Let it Snow and Gather Round tried to do. Both were unpopular, hence Walk With Me. I’m still not sure we’ve quite got this part working.

(Fun fact: I came up with the “We’re not dead yet” bit first, and then went looking for songs which invite people on walks, of which there are many.)

Making this our thing

We can also produce a sense of being surrounded by friends by inside references and shibboleths. As Scott wrote:

[In 2012], sitting around Raemon’s house singing the Contract-Drafting Em Song, I got this feeling of “There are only a few hundred people in the world who would possibly enjoy this and they are my people and I love every last one of them.

And then [in 2013], even though the base was a little broader and the songs a little less insular, I still ended out thinking “These are people who are willingly going to an event called a ‘secular solstice ritual’, and they are singing songs which rhyme ‘rarity’ with ‘singularity’, and I am still pretty darned okay with them.”

As hinted, this sort of signaling can backfire on people a little farther out. The lyrics of When I Die got tweaked (“I prefer to” → “There’s a chance I’ll”) to not directly antagonize deathists, while still holding the basic transhumanist viewpoint. I’m hoping the bits of statistics in That Problem Solved straddled this line as well.

It’s the usual broad vs. meaningful trade off. As usual, with skill, you can walk that line some.

And Contract-Drafting Em may yet return, since pulling in the broader spiritual humanist community seems to be a dead project.

Dusk

Having a deliberate song of dusk (That Problem Solved) is a new thing. The idea is to start out sounding like a song of Light, and then inside the song break in ways we don’t resolve, setting the tone for the rest of solstice.

In the original, the song ended with a strangely harsh Δsus4.11 chord (G, C, F#, high C, with the octave-minus-semitone providing a sort of dissonance). That got dropped in the game of telephone that reached the musicians, but if we’d had more time I’d have put it back. I think it represents the fall of night nicely.

This song also introduces the year’s theme. Since the theme is itself a problem that will take the entire solstice to resolve, this is a good time to introduce it. (Less of an introduction after the speeches about handoff, but introduces it properly, at least.)

Twilight

The Twilight section is basically the same as 2016. The biggest change was putting Origin of Stories there, and tweaking it to fit. I’ve thought for a while that the opening of Origin of Stories doesn’t quite fit with the feel of Morning, and, while it touches briefly on the future, I think it fits here a lot better.

Night

Probably the biggest changes were here. The Night section is the core of Solstice, and also the most difficult to make work.

I kept Do You Realize. In 2016, I thought that after intermission I’d have a really hard time getting back to ritual headspace, and then halfway into Do You Realize I just was. I don’t understand how that worked, so I didn’t want to mess with it.

Next we need a speech to establish the dark from an intellectual perspective. To explain that yes, things really are that bad. In the past, this has been Beyond the Reach of God. Which works pretty well, but depends on a Tegmark 4 view of consciousness that a lot of people don’t share (including me: I think our experiences make too much sense, and potential calculations having no qualia is a better explanation than anything anthropic, but I digress). Also it has elements that are an attack on religion, and if we’re beating on the outgroup at our most sacred moment then we’re letting our enemies define us.

There aren’t a lot of speeches that can take this slot. You Can’t Save Them All did, and did it well, but I’m not sure anyone besides Miranda can give that one.

So I wrote No Royal Road. Both to replace Beyond the Reach, and because it was a message I thought needed sending. Far too many people say “X doesn’t work so we need to embrace Y” without noticing that Y doesn’t work either.

Next up was Voicing of Fear, replacing Stopping By Woods. Stopping By Woods has always been a controversial song, and among the less popular by any metric. To my mind, it doesn’t quite work. There is no canonical, correct interpretation of what it means. There are many meanings you can read into it, but reading meanings into things is not our sacred value. If anything, carefully restraining from that is our sacred value. Which is not to say that you should never, ever do so, but you do need to keep the ability to refrain sharp. So going the other way at a sacred moment is rather discordant.

But I loved the music. In fact, my original plan for Voicing of Fear was to leave the music unchanged and just replace the words. But people would hear familiar music and be jolted by new words, and even after the jolt wore off they’d be judging the new lyrics by Frost’s standards. So new music, imitating the old. The imitation wandered a fair bit away from the original.

Apart from all that, Voicing of Fear is a doubling down on darkness. It is possible that at some point we’ll need to restrain ourselves on that, but I don’t think we’re there yet. (I would worry about things going overly long, but that’s a different potential problem.)

Stopping By Woods was a small, personal song, and Voicing of Feat is a big, global song. Blowin’ in the Wind was a big, global song, so I needed to replace it with a small personal one to maintain balance. I’m not good at writing small personal stuff, so I looked for something already there and found A Little Echo.

I did swap out some lyrics in A Little Echo. The original made it very explicit that the little metal circle was an Alcor pendant. That struck me as insufficiently timeless. And the optimistic tone around it suggested that members of our community are expected to be optimistic about cryonics, which is not something we should be suggesting. So I wrote vaguer lyrics, which could fit either cryonics or entrusting yourself to a deity in ancient times, since both represent the best available longshot.

My first rewrite described the circle as having “a name of power” inscribed, which still fits the ambiguity. I changed it back to “some little words” because to an audience member who hadn’t thought of cryonics, “a name of power” would sound like an outright endorsement of religion. These songs will sound different to different people, and it’s important to consider as many of them as possible.

At first, I put A Little Echo before Voicing of Fear. That made a slightly smoother arc. But Voicing of Fear follows No Royal Road a lot more smoothly from an intellectual perspective. That was the bigger effect, so it dominated.

The two replacements have two additional benefits. They take away context: producing a sense of timelessness and leaving people to grapple with ideas in their purer form. Also, it replaces outsider songs with solstice-specific songs. Ideally, I would like a solstice entirely made of our own music, but failing that I would like to see the Night section, in which we have journeyed farthest from the mundane to do so.

Dawn

The transition from night to morning is a space a single song wide. And we have two songs to go there. And they’re both too good to cut.

The original concept was that Endless Lights could replace Brighter Than Today, precisely because we liked Brighter Than Today so much and we need to develop the skill of giving up our sacred things. But this is not a skill we want to practice every year.

(We did consider letting this be the year to cut Brighter Than Today, but ultimately decided it didn’t mesh well with being the year of transition, with messages of continuity.)

So we have two songs, both beloved. Both begin in the darkness and transition into the light, which means that neither can come after the other.

My first plan had been to modify one of them to begin less darkly. Eventually to modify both, and years could alternate: one song in full followed by one song reduced. It’s not clear if this can be done, much less if I can do it. As events fell out, I never really tried.

Another plan, devised at the last minute, was to split Endless Light in half, and put the first verse at the end of the Twilight section. It was a little too last minute for such a big change. I do want to try that next year.

What we went with was Brighter Than Today first, and then use the visuals to suggest a smoother arc than that actually forms.

Why Brighter Than Today first? Because the opening of Endless Lights isn’t all that dark if it’s not made so by context. It shows a woman close to death, yes, but after a long life, with mind intact, and surrounded by grandchildren who love and respect her. By the standards of most of history, that wasn’t tragedy: that was winning.

Also the ending of Brighter Than Today has a potentially metaphorical rising to the stars, whereas Endless Lights ends on an explicit space station.

As for the images, we end Brighter Than Today with the sun cracking the horizon and declare the dawn has begun. The remaining images show the sun rising through the easternmost sky. I’m not sure this 100% worked, but it felt less jerky than it might have.

Morning

Morning is not only a return to light. It is also a return to the ordinary world. The imagery shows a cityscape, for the first time, a truly familiar view. And with it, a return to familiar music. The Beatles. As mundane as it gets.

Here Comes The Sun is a shallow song. No strong emotion. No challenging ideas. It’s a chance to catch your breath.

Here And Now is a surprisingly load-bearing song. It was written to fill a gap and it’s still the only one of its kind. What A Wonderful World comes close, but it’s not specifically modern enough.

(Also I find the persistence of Star Wars quietly hilareous).

I swapped in Forever Young over Seasons of Love. People are getting tired of the latter, and the former introduces transhumanism in a very gentle way.

It’s worth noting that the light of morning is different from the light we began with. It has come through the Darkness and been shaped by the experience. It is older, wiser, tougher… Most of the songs from the first section wouldn’t fit here.

The Days to Come

Uplift into Five Thousand Years. Simple enough.

It is kind of strange that nobody has experimented with any other combination. Starwind Rising, perhaps. Ah, well. Maybe some other year. This one works well.

 

Brighter Than Today

Countless winter nights ago,
A woman shivered in the cold.
Cursed the skies, and wondered why
The gods invented pain.

Aching angry flesh and bone,
Bitterly she struck the stone
Till she saw the sudden spark
Of light, and golden flame.

She showed the others, but they told her
She was not fit to control
The primal forces that the gods
Had cloaked in mystery

But she would not be satisfied,
And though she trembled, she defied them
Took her torch and raised it high
Set afire history.

CHORUS:

Tomorrow can be brighter than
today, although the night is cold.
The stars may seem so very far
away…

But courage, hope and reason burn,
In every mind, each lesson learned,
Shining light to guide our way (Bm)
Make tomorrow brighter than to-day…

Oh…………….
Oh…………….
Oh… Brighter than to-day.

VERSE 2

Ages long forgotten now,
We built the wheel and then the plough.
Tilled the earth and proved our worth,
Against the drought and snow.

Soon we had the time to fathom
Mountain peaks and tiny atoms,
Beating hearts electric sparks
So much more to know.

CHORUS:
Tomorrow can be brighter than to-day
although the night is cold.
The stars may seem so very far
away…

But courage, hope and reason grow,
With every passing season so we’ll
Drive the darkness far away… (Bm)
Make tomorrow brighter than to-day…

Oh…………….
Oh…………….
Oh… Brighter than to-day.

VERSE 3

The universe may seem unfair.
The laws of nature may not care.
The storms and quakes, our own mistakes,
They nearly doused our flame.

But all these trials we’ve endured
The lessons learned, diseases cured
Against our herculean task
We’ve risen to proclaim.

CHORUS:

Tomorrow can be brighter than to-day
Although the night is cold.
The stars may seem so very far
Away…

But courage, hope and reason bloom,
Across the world and one day soon we’ll
Rise up to the stars and say…
Make tomorrow brighter than to-day…
………………
Oh…………….
Oh…………….
Oh…………….
Oh…………….
Oh… Brighter than to-day. see less

The Gift We Give to Tomorrow

An abridged version of Eliezer’s original, arranged for spoken word as a dialog between two people.

How, oh how could the universe,
itself unloving, and mindless,
cough up creatures capable of love?

No mystery in that.
It’s just a matter
of natural selection.

But natural selection is cruel. Bloody.
And bloody stupid!

Even when organisms aren’t directly tearing at each other’s throats…
…there’s a deeper competition, going on between the genes.
A species could evolve to extinction,
if the winning genes were playing negative sum games

How could a process,
Cruel as Azathoth,
Create minds that were capable of love?

No mystery.

Mystery is a property of questions.
Not answers.

A mother’s child shares her genes,
And so a mother loves her child.

But mothers can adopt their children.
And still, come to love them.

Still no mystery.

Evolutionary psychology isn’t about deliberately maximizing fitness.
Through most of human history,
we didn’t know genes existed.
Even subconsciously.

Well, fine. But still:

Humans form friendships,
even with non-relatives.
How can that be?

No mystery.

Ancient hunter-gatherers would often play the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

There could be profit in betrayal.
But the best solution:
was reciprocal altruism.

Sometimes,
the most dangerous human is not the strongest,
the prettiest,
or even the smartest:
But the one who has the most allies.

But not all friends are fair-weather friends;
there are true friends –
those who would sacrifice their lives for another.

Shouldn’t that kind of devotion
remove itself from the gene pool?

You said it yourself:
We have a concept of true friendship and fair-weather friendship.
We wouldn’t be true friends with someone who we didn’t think was a true friend to us.
And one with many true friends?
They are far more formidable
than one with mere fair-weather allies.

And Mohandas Gandhi,
who really did turn the other cheek?
Those who try to serve all humanity,
whether or not all humanity serves them in turn?\

That’s a more complex story.
Humans aren’t just social animals.

We’re political animals.
Sometimes the formidable human is not the strongest,
but the one who skillfully argues that their preferred policies
match the preferences of others.

Um… what?
How does that explain Gandhi?

The point is that we can argue about ‘What should be done?’
We can make those arguments and respond to them.
Without that, politics couldn’t take place.

Okay… but Gandhi?

Believed certain complicated propositions about ‘What should be done?’
Then did them.

That sounds suspiciously like it could explain any possible human behavior.

If we traced back the chain of causality,
through all the arguments…
We’d find a moral architecture.
The ability to argue abstract propositions.
A preference for simple ideas.
An appeal to hardwired intuitions about fairness.
A concept of duty. Aversion to pain.
Empathy.

Filtered by memetic selection,
all of this resulted in a concept:
“You should not hurt people,”
In full generality.

And that gets you Gandhi?

What else would you suggest?
Some godlike figure?
Reaching out from behind the scenes,
directing evolution?

Hell no. But –

Because then I’d would have to ask :
How did that god originally decide that love was even desirable.
How it got preferences that included things like friendship, loyalty, and fairness. 

Call it ‘surprising’ all you like.
But through evolutionary psychology,
You can see how parental love, romance, honor,

even true altruism and moral arguments,
all bear the specific design signature of natural selection.

If there were some benevolent god, 

reaching out to create a world of loving humans,
it too must have evolved,
defeating the point of postulating it at all.

I’m not postulating a god!
I’m just asking how human beings ended up so nice.

Nice?

Have you looked at this planet lately? 

We bear all those other emotions that evolved as well.
Which should make it very clear that we evolved,
should you begin to doubt it. 

Humans aren’t always nice.

But, still, come on…
doesn’t it seem a little…
amazing?

That nothing but millions of years of a cosmic death tournament…
could cough up mothers and fathers,
sisters and brothers,
husbands and wives,
steadfast friends,
honorable enemies,
true altruists and guardians of causes,
police officers and loyal defenders,
even artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?

All practicing so many kinds of love?
For so many things other than genes?

Doing their part to make their world less ugly,
something besides a sea of blood and violence and mindless replication?

Are you honestly surprised by this?
If so, question your underlying model.
For it’s led you to be surprised by the true state of affairs. 

Since the very beginning,
not one unusual thing

has ever happened.

But how are you NOT amazed?

Maybe there’s no surprise from a causal viewpoint.

But still, it seems to me,
in the creation of humans by evolution,
something happened that is precious and marvelous and wonderful.

If we can’t call it a physical miracle, then call it a moral miracle.

Because it was only a miracle from the perspective of the morality that was produced?
Explaining away all the apparent coincidence,
from a causal and physical perspective?

Well… yeah. I suppose you could interpret it that way.

I just meant that something was immensely surprising and wonderful on a moral level,
even if it’s not really surprising,
on a physical level.

I think that’s what I said.

It just seems to me that in your view, somehow you explain that wonder away.

No.
I don’t explain it away.
I just explain it.

Of course there’s a story behind love.
Behind all ordered events, one finds ordered stories.
And that which has no story is nothing but random noise.
Hardly any better.

If you can’t take joy in things with true stories behind them,
your life will be empty.

Love has to begin somehow.
It has to enter the universe somewhere.
It’s like asking how life itself begins.

Though you were born of your father and mother,
and though they arose from their living parents in turn,
if you go far and far and far away back,
you’ll finally come to a replicator that arose by pure accident.
The border between life and unlife. 
So too with love.

A complex pattern must be explained by a cause
that’s not already that complex pattern. 

For love to enter the universe,
it has to arise from something that is not love.

If that weren’t possible, then love could not be.

Just as life itself required that first replicator,
to come about by accident,
parentless,
but still caused:
far, far back in the causal chain that led to you:
3.8 billion years ago,
in some little tidal pool.

Perhaps your children’s children will ask,
“How it is that we are capable of love?”

And their parents will say:
Because we, who also love, created you to love.

And your children’s children may ask: 

“But how is it that you love?”

And their parents will reply:
Because our own parents,
who loved as well,
created us to love in turn.

And then your children’s children will ask:
But where did it all begin?
Where does the recursion end?

And their parents will say: 

“Once upon a time,
long ago and far away,
there were intelligent beings who were not themselves intelligently designed.

Once upon a time,
there were lovers,
created by something that did not love.

Once upon a time,
when all of civilization was a single galaxy,
A single star.
A single planet.
A place called Earth.

Long ago,
Far away,
Ever So Long Ago.”

Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan’s remarks on Pale Blue Dot are among the most iconic humanist words ever spoken. They serve well at any Solstice gathering.

I find that they work best just after or just before the Moment of Darkness, when the room will already be dark enough that you can easily see the Earth on the projector screen. It also tends to be the right emotional moment for the piece – a fragile hope cradled in the darkness, a reminder that the world is up to us, but that we have each other. Continue reading “Pale Blue Dot”

How do you measure, measure a song? (2016 Edition)

In which I reflect upon which Solstice songs have proven rigorously to be the best, as determined by my not-especially-scientific feedback form.

(NOTE: While I won’t be updating this blogpost again, survey responses on the form are still welcome)

Each year I send out a feedback form for the NY Secular Solstice. This year’s is available here (while the feedback is stable enough for me to write up my thoughts, any additional responses are still appreciated). I’m grateful for a pretty strong feedback culture among people who attend. As I write this I’ve gotten 45 responses, out of roughly 180 attendees. This doesn’t reliably attract the sort of person who comes to Solstice and then doesn’t like it or care enough to provide feedback, but still is a pretty decent sample.

25 responses were from people who hadn’t attended a Solstice before, 20 from people who had.

There’s some nuance to interpreting the open-ended questions like “How did you feel about Solstice?”, but when it comes to rating songs it’s simple-ish: each person rates each song “Hated”, “Disliked”, “Eh”, “Liked”, “Loved.” Continue reading “How do you measure, measure a song? (2016 Edition)”

Children, Darkness and Intermission

Historically, the Solstice has been one solid emotional arc, beginning bright and festive, slowly turning dark until people literally cry and they literally can’t see, and then coming out the other side.

This year in New York we tried an experiment – we interrupted that by adding an intermission. The first act was explicitly child-friendly. The second act was explicitly PG-13 (with kids activities available upstairs). We did this for several reasons, and overall the comments we’ve gotten have ranged from “intermission was great!” to “I really wish intermission wasn’t necessary but it totally is.”

There are several reasons why:

  1. It allows you both to be welcoming to children, and yet respectful of the experience that many adults want.
  2. Some people don’t like to literally cry in the darkness, or at least are sometimes up for it but sometimes not, but do definitely want to share a holiday night singing together with people. This simultaneously gives them an opportunity to bow out gracefully, as well as reassures them a bit that they could leave if they wanted to, which makes them feel more comfortable staying and crying in the first place.
  3. Practically, people need to go to the bathroom at some point.
  4. Even more subtly practically: New York Solstice is 2 hours of singing. This is more exhausting than you think, and your throat will get dry. (If you’re a first timer it won’t occur to you that you’ll need water). But it won’t seem like that big of a deal during the first half, and by the second half you really won’t want to miss what’s happening, so you end up singing slightly painfully with a dry throat. Explicit intermission gives people a time to get more water without feeling like they’re missing out.

Some of these reasons warrant further explanation:

Children

Children are the future. Literally. And one of the most important things holidays provide is a way to get them involved with their people’s beliefs and community. I think it’s essential for Solstice to be a child-friendly place. And since much of the world is not child friendly, that involves a lot of proactive effort, rather than simply slapping a “child friendly” label on it. Kids have needs and desires that sometimes don’t fit neatly into the convenient boxes we’d like.

At the same time, one of the crucial things the Solstice is able to provide is a powerful, moving experience for adults – one that they literally can’t get anywhere else. And young kids often don’t understand when it’s okay to talk, or scream, or laugh, and when those things would disrupt other people’s experience. And for some people – especially childless adults who traveled far to get to Solstice, it can really tarnish the experience to have a screaming child during the moment of darkness.

I’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue “how welcome should kids be?” and I think it’s important to understand where both people are coming from.

There’s an even subtler issue though – I think it’s important to have “coming of age” rituals. It’s meaningful to have an “adult” focused section, that kids don’t go to until they are old enough to appreciate it. And this may very from child to child. I’m not 100% sure how to best approach this, but that’s also fed into my overall thought process so far.

So our goal at the New York Solstice is to make sure that children are welcome, but that there are other places for them to be during the darkest bits, and that there are people who’s job is to keep them engaged during that time so that parents can enjoy it.

Deeper, deeper dark

New York Solstice also tends to be longer than some others – some of them are only an hour or so, whereas New York dedicates a little over 2 hours to singing and speeches. I think this length is very surprisingly valuable – it lets people get into a deeper, more sacred space than you can get in an hour. I’ve had people tell me “after the first hour, I was still feeling a bit like ‘why exactly are we doing this?” but somewhere around 90 minutes it, I had gotten it in a much more complete sense.”

At the same time, there’s a reason people are intimidated by two hour services: that’s a *long* time to be sitting in a chair. And I’ve *also* gotten feedback in past years about being worn out and unable to appreciate the final third of the event. This year I haven’t gotten any of that feedback. My impression is people were able to fully enjoy the entire event, even in the final stretches.

For all these reasons, and since even the negative comments about the intermission were grudgingly in favor of it, I’m now fully endorsing this as a model others follow (or at least explore and be inspired by).

One Major Change

There is one problem with the two-act structure, which is that it lends itself to a slightly different arc than before. Previously, you wanted to start loud/fun, then gradually get more and more somber, seamlessly, until the moment of darkness. This time, you need a bit of a “mini-climax” at the end of Act I. This requires a song that doesn’t interrupt the “gradually more contemplative” transition, but which still lets you end with a feeling of satisfaction.

Next year my plan is for this song to be “Time Wrote the Rocks”, which is one of the most popular songs of the evening, and I think can be done in a suitably “contemplative but epic” fashion. I certainly invite others to experiment and try whatever songs seem right to them, based on the themes they are exploring that year.