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 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.

We All Have a Part to Play

(This is a speech Accalia Chandler Jay wrote for the UK Secular Solstice)

It’s traditional at Solstice to talk about the distant human past, and all the progress we’ve made. Then we talk about the present, and the hard problems left to face. Then we look to the future, with hope for what we might yet achieve. But we’re also truth-seekers, and we believe in updating our traditions to reflect the current state of scientific knowledge, and the way we talk about the distant past doesn’t always reflect that. So here’s a story an actual archaeologist might tell you, a question an archaeology student gets asked to think about.

I want to take you a little further back than we normally go. Close your eyes, and imagine. It’s around fifty or sixty thousand years ago, and you’re living in Africa. The world is lacking almost everything that we today might take for granted. Don’t just imagine a world without agriculture, houses and electricity. We’re talking about a time before bows and arrows, before cave art, before beads and jewelry, before tools made out of bone. We haven’t found needles that date back to before that time, so we’re probably talking about a time before clothes. We’re talking about a time before axes, before fishhooks, before humans learned to make long thin blades to make more efficient use of their stone.

Evidence from skulls and bones says that humans were anatomically modern about a hundred thousand years ago. That’s when our brains got to be roughly as big as they are today. So you’re not a monkey, unless archaeologists are wrong about something. You’re a human. You look up at the skies and you imagine the stars are distant gods, or perhaps your ancestors watching over you. You hunt through the forest with spears and possibly spear-throwers, the precursors to bows and arrows. At night you light fires and sit around them with your friends in your tribe, cooking your kills, staying warm.

When winter comes, prey is scarce and plants shed their leaves and people die. They die from the cold, they starve, they fall to predators. And there is nothing you can do. You don’t understand what’s happening, you don’t understand why, you just know that sometimes the sun goes away and life becomes scarce and precious.

That’s what life is like, for roughly the first forty to fifty thousand years of humanity. From the time Homo sapiens sapiens first walks the savannah, to around fifty thousand years ago, you wander the earth with fire and spears and friends and that’s it, that’s what you’ve got. Which has puzzled archaeologists for a while – you’d expect the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens, the smartest species ever to be produced by evolution’s cutthroat selection process, to cause some kind of technological revolution.

Honestly, we don’t quite know what happens, but around fifty thousand years ago, something does. Between sixty thousand and forty thousand years ago – a long, long timescale, but a blink by archaeologists’ standards, a millisecond through a geologist’s eyes – suddenly things start appearing in the archaeological record, dated to that time. Bows and arrows. Hand axes. Beads. The earliest cave art. Needles. Evidence of clothes. Fishhooks. Evidence of sailing. We find the remains of people in Australia, which means somehow we managed to cross many miles of ocean to reach that continent.

There are some theories archaeologists have, and this perhaps isn’t the time for a serious debates on the merits of each, but one of the more prominent ones is that perhaps this is when language happened. Imagine it. Imagine you’re living in that world, and suddenly someone invents language, and you can talk to each other, and make plans, and joke together, and tell someone you love them, and discuss your ideas for a great new invention that might help you survive the winter better.

Except of course that isn’t how it works. Nobody sat down and invented language. We know it must have been gradual. A few thousand years is still a long time, even if it’s a blink by archaeologist standards. Perhaps you wander the savannah, and you and your friends make hand gestures towards prey or trees you want to point out to your friends, and sometimes you associate those gestures with a certain sound, and then eventually the sound stands for the tree without need for the gesture, and your daughter grows up in a world where everyone knows what that sound stands for, and her generation differentiates those sounds into different words for each plant, and her son grows up in a world with words, and his generation begins to talk about not just plants but about the sky and the time when snow comes, and a few generations later suddenly you have words for concepts like yesterday, tomorrow, maybe, fear, hope…

We tend to talk about technology, in history classrooms, in terms of great inventors. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb! The Wright Brothers invented airplanes! Babbage invented the computer! But there’s no answer to the question, who invented the bow and arrow? It looks more like a few young people in a certain tribe figured out a way to make better, sharper spearheads, and their method spread, and a few decades later someone on the other side of Africa figures out how to throw spears further by using long fibres like big elastic levers, and a few decades later someone is hungry and realises they might catch more prey if they attached those fibres to springy, bendable sticks, and thousands of years go by and then tribes begin taking for granted that they can make bows and catch more prey a few more of them survive the winter.

Of course there are great pioneers, too. It’s worth striving to try and be a great pioneer, a hero, someone whose name goes down in history as the person who developed the tool that helped thousands of people live better lives. But one of the most inspiring messages of the study of archaeology is:

Each of us has a part to play in history.

You should not be sitting there, imagining that you wander the savannah, and you’re hungry, and suddenly you, personally, invent the entire system of agriculture, and explain it to your peers, and your peers are wowed, and everyone immediately adopts your obviously better system, and your children don’t die when winter comes and prey is scarce, and the continent celebrates you as a great inventor.

Skip forward to around ten thousand years ago. Imagine being a hunter gatherer, and noticing that in the spots you’re using to dump your waste, sometimes more plants grow. Imagine the tribe occasionally deciding to return to those spots, where there’s often better food. Imagine harvesting seeds from corn, and some corn heads drop all their seeds as soon as they’re touched, whereas others are less fragile and let you pull the seeds off, and you gather as many seeds as you can and replant some in fertile ground, as the generations go by more and more of those seeds are becoming the collectable, less brittle type, because those are the ones the humans replant. Imagine you sometimes use a stick to dig holes to bury the seeds in. Imagine some bright young thing in your tribe figures out that you can use a big stick to make long scores in the ground to plant many seeds at once. Many, many years later, that will become the first plow.

Imagine seeing your friends splinter bones to find sharp shards to cut their meat more easily, and figuring out you can use the sharp shards to poke holes in hides so you can tie them together with fibres, and your children use better and finer shards to make cleaner holes, and your children’s children’s children learn embroidery. Imagine leaning sticks against one another and binding them together at the top to make shelters from the rain, imagine your children making the shelters waterproof by packing them with moss, imagine your children’s children’s children build houses that keep them warm in the winter.

Everything starts off small, clumsy, badly done. When we first domesticated wheat we couldn’t make bread; we just made litres upon litres of litres of beer and gruel. But we build on what others make, we refine, we improve, we create a better world, idea by idea, step by step.

Imagine you don’t notice the progress when it’s happening, but when you’re old and you sit by the fire and the young people in the tribe play around it, you realise they are better fed than you ever remember being as a child.

The acceleration is incredible. Today it isn’t a matter of your children’s children’s children standing on your shoulders to make a slightly more efficient stone tool; it’s a matter of your devices being obsolete ten years after you make them because we’ve already invented ways to pack more processing power into smaller chips. It’s a matter of progress so bewilderingly fast it can overtake and overwhelm you within your own lifetime. It’s a matter of using the internet to send messages to people across the world in less than a second, when our parents’ parents’ parents would likely never speak to anyone outside their own country.

But don’t let that acceleration make you forget: each of us has a part to play. You have something to contribute. You can try to be the pioneer who invents agriculture, but the truth is, they don’t exist. There is only the person who figures out you can make your crops grow better by collecting water and scattering it on them, or the person who tweaks the recipe for wheat gruel to make it a little less godawful, or the person who persuades their tribe leader to plant two crops instead of just one and helps their little band survive when a blight hits one of the crops and not the other.

And don’t let it daunt you, either. Because imagine standing on that savannah, nine thousand years ago, among the wheat fields of one of the world’s earliest farms. It’s dark, and the cold wind bites your arms despite the rough shirt you’re wearing. The plants rustle in the breeze, and the stars shine above you. On the edge of the field, a fire burns, and your friends sit around it singing a song to cheer them up in the middle of winter. Their voices reach you faintly. Breathe in, out. You’re making plans to go out and catch something to eat, if you can find it. Perhaps you’ve got ideas about making a monument that would tell you when the winter solstice is, using giant stones.

And imagine someone comes from the future and tells you, hey, someday your children’s children’s children’s children will stand where you’re standing now, except the floor will be covered in neatly cut stones so that vehicles powered by tiny explosions can run smoothly over it, and the buildings will be taller than the tallest trees in the forest and heated by tiny fires trapped in the walls, and the people will hurry around talking into tiny devices made out of something that isn’t quite stone which allow them to project their voices to people in places you could not reach if you walked for a lifetime.

They would have called that impossible.

But together, without even realizing what they were doing, each of them playing a tiny role, they did the impossible.

And now we sit here today, and some people tell us that it will be impossible for us to build glorious spaceships and conquer the stars, and ensure no child ever goes hungry or gets sick again, and bring peace, and cure the ailments we suffer from, and produce energy without hurting the planet. Bullshit. You have a part to play in that, too.

Politics and the Solstice

Summary: Discussing politics at a holiday event is very tricky. Sometimes there may be a good reason to, but I’d ask anyone running a Solstice to think very carefully before doing so, and exploring other options first.

Secular Solstice is about facing difficult, challenging truths and figuring out how to use them to make the future better. And for many people coming to Solstice this year, the most challenging truths they’ll be experiencing right now have to do with the US election.

Historically, I’ve made a conscious effort to not talk about present-day politics at Solstice – not because it’s not important, because discussing it is particularly tricky. Not just government politics – any time large groups of humans have ended up in conflict with each other, it becomes *much* harder to think critically, to listen empathetically. It lends itself to an us-vs-them mentality, to expressing anger and outrage.

There is a time and place for anger and outrage. They help provoke us to action when we might feel powerless. But there is also a time and place for bringing as many people together and reminding them that we are ultimately on the same team – the team that values reason, evidence and compassion, and using those tools to make the world a better place.

Not everyone is on team reason-and-compassion. There are people whose active goal is to hurt their enemies, or gain power. And there are people who actively disagree with reason, who think changing your mind is a mark of weakness. They are welcome at Solstice but it might be an alienating experience for them. That’s fine. You can’t please everyone.

But different people have experienced different evidence, might have different filter bubbles or biases and believe different things about which policies have which effects. It’s *valuable* to have people with conflicting viewpoints – keeping each other honest, sharing news and ideas you might not have thought to consider.

Politics is tricky. If possible, I’d recommend addressing things indirectly, through metaphor. If you feel it’s really important to talk more directly about it, here are some thoughts and suggestions:

Issues, not people. Problems, not solutions

There are important things that *are* worth talking about – how to solve climate change, how to address racism, how to improve education. But you can talk about these without talking about ideological opponents, painting them as bad people working against you.

For present day issues that are still under hot debate, I’d recommend going a step further: talk about the issues, but don’t use Solstice as a place to discuss concrete solutions.

Oftentimes, solutions need to be complex and nuanced. It’s hard to communicate complex solutions in a compelling story at a community event. It’s also important not to ritualize solutions, because as we gain more evidence it may turn out that our preferred solution is no longer the best one.

Solstice is about creating traditions that help remind us to think critically, to always seek out new evidence, to never let our search for truth ossify.

My Approach in New York

At the Solstice I’m running this year in New York City, I decided to address the US election in a very circumspect way. I felt that to completely ignore it would feel tone-deaf – it’s been very challenging for a lot of people to process, and Solstice is a time to come together and process things. But we’ll be addressing it through metaphor, telling stories from humanity’s past that can shed light on our future.

At the beginning of 2016 I had decided to theme the event around smallpox eradication. I’m sticking with that focus, but tackling it from an angle that hopefully will feel a bit more relevant in the current climate.

People will have space to interpret that in a way that feels right to them, without worrying about anyone telling them what to think.

What is the Secular Solstice?

It was born as a small thing. 20 friends gathered in a living room, singing songs about the first winter campfires and the latest technologies shaping our world.

We lit oil lamps, LEDs, plasma balls and imitation lightsabers – and then slowly extinguished them until a single candle remained. We told stories about a universe that is often cold and uncaring, and the humans who labored to make it less so.

We extinguished that candle, sharing a moment in absolute darkness together.

And then we rekindled those lights, singing of a tomorrow that we might make brighter than today.

Since that night, solstice has grown and evolved. The next year, there were 50 people who came to New York City from San Francisco and Boston. The year after that, there were 150 people, with people driving up from North Carolina and Ohio. And meanwhile, smaller events in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.

To date, there have been secular solstices held across the United States, in Australia, the UK, Germany. Some are huge community events with hundreds of people, others are intimate gatherings of friends.

A Commitment to Truth (even when it’s challenging)

This holiday was created for people with a worldview rooted in both science, progress and compassion. Who want to make the world a better place, and who understand that sometimes this means learning new things that challenge your worldview.

The Secular Solstice is a time when we tell inspiring stories that remind us we’re not alone. That challenge us to work to make a better future. But, crucially, those stories have a firm grounding in our latest, best understanding of the world. (Sometimes this even means taking a second look at the stories that were foundational to solstice).

Light. Darkness. Light.

From Running Brighter Than Today:

Individual communities adapt the solstice to fit their own needs. But there’s a core emotional arc that really defines the holiday: the journey through darkness.

It begins light, enthusiastic and joyful. It transitions into somber contemplation. Candles are gradually extinguished, until a single candle remains. Someone tells a personal, vulnerable story about the hardships they or the community have faced. The story ends by finding good reasons to hope, to keep trying, even in the face of absolute darkness.

Then the lights are reignited. You sing together about the world humanity has built together, and the future you will help create.

We dive into more detail – what kinds of songs are good to sing, what kinds of stories work well – in the Arc Breakdown.

Silly songs. Sacred Songs.

The best Christmas songs range from:

  • Really ridiculous jingles that are easy to sing while drunk, telling the stories of chubby old people who watch you in your sleep.
  • Fun pop-songs that sound totally reasonable playing on the radio
  • Deeply beautiful carols that transport you to a place of quiet tranquility and hint at something sacred.

For the solstice to really stand on its own and fill the gap that many secular people were longing for, it would need songs in each of those categories.

Want to host a Solstice?

Midwinter is still a few months away, but if you’d like to host a Solstice gathering in your town, it’s valuable to start planning now! (In particular, reserving a venue if you expect a large number of people)

There are several articles to help you get started in our resources section, and if you’d like some help getting a handle on it all, you can send an email through our contact page.


Redwood Ritual: Dust in the Wind

I recently spent some time in a redwood forest in California. There was a particular grove of trees arranged in a near perfect circle and a clearly defined space to enter, which cried out to do something sacred with it. I spent the weekend experimenting with various rituals surrounding it.

The ideas that first occurred to me were not obviously better than “just lie in the center of the grove together, look up and meditate, and then quietly whisper whatever thoughts came to your mind for a while.” So I started with that, and gradually added and removed things. (When all is said an done, this is a pretty solid Minimum Viable Ritual which may in some ways be better than anything more elaborate).

By the end of the weekend I hit something close to a local maxima – perhaps not the best possible direction for a redwood ritual, but pretty decent. I was looking for something that actively reconciled two worldviews – the notion that the natural world is often beautiful and valuable, and “technological optimism” – the notion that technology has and can continue to make the world safer and more valuable, even if that technology has risks and if it involves taking apart the natural world to make other things we care about. Continue reading “Redwood Ritual: Dust in the Wind”