sol·stice (slsts, sl-, sôl-)
1. Either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.
2. A highest point or culmination.
[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin slstitium : sl, sun; see swel- in Indo-European roots + -stitium, a stoppage; see st- in Indo-European roots.]
Encroaching on 70 circumnavigations of our nearest star, it is “natural” that life imposes certain modes of thinking, and feeling, for better and worse. The passing of years brings an accumulation of one’s own history, the threads which make up a life – events, relationships, joys, disappointments, tragedies. All the hum drum stuff of our daily lives is added up, measured out in a bloom of liver spots, shrinking flesh and wrinkling skin, aching joints and diminishing mobility. We see it in our friends and family, and, perhaps reluctantly, in ourselves. In a constant shift of perspective, life alters its terms within us. The gaping length of single spin around the sun, which in youth seemed endless and found one eagerly looking forward to imagined rewards of the coming year, now seems all too brief. Contemplations of “the next” are limned with a silent “if.” It all makes a perfect sense, and philosophers and poets have long since mined the realm to seeming exhaustion. One would think we collectively all understood.
On some levels the human experience is collective, and we are able to store up the knowledge of our shared experiences in mechanical and intellectual ways, so that this experience is drastically changed through time. 150 years ago messages in the advanced world were sent by Morse code, and before that carried in letters by horseback or ship, while today vast volumes of digitalized information are sent in tsunami proportions at the speed of light. Likewise myriad advances in medical technology have turned once-fatal matters into mere annoyances. Thanks to these shared and cumulative realities, our lives are radically different (at least those in the so-called advanced countries, or those who are “rich”). And yet, as the old hymn goes, “you gotta cross that river for yourself.” As that crossing approaches many markers point the way: friends and family begin to die, your own body shape-shifts, its asymmetries becoming more pronounced, and in little or large descending plateaus, your physical functions deteriorate. And, at least to my observations, the kernel of your “self” solidifies. Most of the people I know – and I presume it applies as well to myself – are essentially the same, psychologically, as they were 40 years ago: those given to anger remain angry, those closed off from wider experiences are more closed off; those eager to learn and experiment continue to do so. This observation inclines me to accept the Greek sense of Fate – that we are born and can do only what that original gift allows (these days it would be measured in genetic components, slivers of DNA intertwined such that one is a composite of mother and father). I can point to the tooth of mine which is exactly as my father’s was, or the drooping eyelid that replicates that of my mother – and on down the genetic gifts or curses of each strain of my own DNA. I see the same in my acquaintances. Whether, in turn, one becomes more forgiving of the quirks of those friends, or whether one crosses them out of one’s life, doubtless marks one’s own in-stamped nature.
.Greco-Roman bronze sculpture of pugilist
In the past few years, in my own life, death has visited directly within my family, and more generally among acquaintances and friends. Last December my father died, aged 98. It caused scarcely a quiver in me, thanks to a near life-long alienation from him. At a very young age – perhaps 9 or 10, I’d already checked him out of my life as best my circumstances permitted. At the time I didn’t really seem to know why, though much much later I was told that he’d whipped me with some regularity – which he owned up to in a letter I demanded he write after my mother’s death, some 27 years ago. That, along with almost all memories of my childhood were totally expunged from my mind, and even with that knowledge I cannot remember it at all today. And yet, this year, I did imagine and shoot a new film, Coming to Terms, which in its manner is about a father dying and so, perhaps, in the manner of art, I absorbed this event and creatively transmuted it.
Harry Frederick Jost at 98, 2011
Sensed far more closely and personally, in the last years, were other deaths which though in some senses far more distant, seemed to have touched me inwardly far more deeply. Though it is not as if death had not visited before to leave its mark. While in prison, in 1966, I received, sent by a friend, a black framed newspaper notice announcing the death of a young woman, Kathy Handler. She’d been briefly a lover before I went in. It was said she committed suicide, though other rumors had her having taken acid and going for a misguided swim in a cold Lake Michigan. (And recently I learned that the friend who had sent the notice, who had been in an early film of mine, had died some time ago – Laura Volkerding, by name.) Whatever the truth, my response – under the sway of reading a lot of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and other philosophers in my “free time” in prison, and having felt vaguely responsible – was to write a text which on leaving prison a year later became the film Traps, my first foray into sound. The film is a rather devastating one, certainly it is weighted with deaths – not only that of Kathy, but in the tone of the times: those of the Vietnam war, the penumbra of violence which encompassed the era, and led shortly afterward to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and more locally, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered by the Chicago police.
Traps, frame grabsKierkegaardHeideggerCesare Pavese, notebooksRobert Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968
In 1978, another death left a mark, again with a sense of guilt. The former partner of a close friend of mine had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where we shared an apartment. She later moved to San Francisco, and in 1978 I had a brief pass through The City for a screening. I had meant to contact her and see if she would come to the screening – she was in the film world – which I thought she might like, and also to see her. In the rush of life I had forgotten to call her, and did my screening, and the next day left. As I sat down in the plane, and opened the San Francisco Chronicle and leafed through it, my eye caught an item which was titled something like “Masseuse hit in crosswalk” or something like that. In glancing the name caught my eye – it was my friend. The time was the same period when she would have been coming to, or at, my screening. She was dead. For years I have carried with me a consciousness that in some strange, indirect, irrational manner I may have caused her death simply by having forgotten to contact her.
Brenda Bierbrodt, 1945 – 1987, picture from HS yearbookMyself and Brenda, 1968 – Photo © Linn Ehrlich
Some time later, in 1983, aged 70, my mother died of pancreatic cancer. My father, who in my view had, in his manner, coerced her into participating in his post-Army evangelical fundamentalism, had tried “laying on of hands” and “talking in tongues” and belatedly had taken her to the military hospital in Niceville, Florida, where “exploratory surgery” revealed a terminal cancer. In a phone call to me in San Francisco he said she had “a year of quality living” and they would go on a world cruise. Then he put her on the phone, and I immediately heard the rattle of death in her voice and set off in my VW van, driving straight through as fast as I could, and arriving two days late. So much for a year of quality living. She was dead and shortly after my arrival, after a shower and shave, I went to her funeral services with the fundamentalists singing her praises, and a teenaged proslyetizer coming up trying for a conversion in this presumed moment of vulnerability. I politely suggested he fuck off. The rattle of death had become something familiar during my stint in 1978 caring for Nick Ray in New York, where I’d been asked to help him make a final film, but was cast instead as nurse-caretaker and cigarette run-boy. He was riddled with cancer, and the toilet was often red with the blood he coughed up.
The eighties was the decade of the AIDS epidemic, and being in the arts world, gays were a given. Many, including some of my friends, died.
Grave marker, illegitimate son of Kaiser Friederick Wilhelms II, Berlin
In 1987, I think it was, I met Jon A. English, in process of looking for someone to write some music for my film Bell Diamond. He did that film, a very modest bit of composing, as the film needed, and along the way we became friends, and as time passed, he did the music for a number of my other films – Plain Talk & Common Sense, Rembrandt Laughing (in which he also played a lead role), All the Vermeers in New York, Frameup, and Uno a te, uno a me, e uno a Raffaele. He was wonderful to collaborate with, and a wonderful person – and it didn’t hurt at all that he was a great musician and composer. And we became very good friends. Sadly, as the years passed by, his health slid down, step at a time, the consequence of an early diagnosis for Hodgkins disease decades before. He was “treated” then, in the 70’s, at a very early stage of the “cure” for this, and way over-blasted with radiation. In turn the areas that had been hit, were drastically aged, and his neck, esophagus and the whole upper area of his torso deteriorated as time passed, and periodically he’d be hospitalized, dropping to a lower plateau each time. Asking him to work with me became a balancing act of gauging if it would be too much for him, versus knowing that his creative soul liked nothing more than to do music. He died in 1996, at the age of 54, while I was living in Italy. There were some people of my acquaintance whom I would have readily shifted places with him.
A year and a half ago, a long ago girlfriend from 1964, Laya (Firestone) Seghi, – with whom I have stayed in touch since, and very infrequently seen – wrote me a lovely letter describing a trip she’d taken with her husband, Tom, to see and meet family in Israel, where her mother lives, and in the mountains of northern Italy, near Venice, from where his family originally emigrated. It had been a wonderful journey, and her description, elegant and simple, had a kind of unselfconscious literary quality which made the story she told all the more wonderful. Reading it simply made me feel good – for me, and for them. I recall being genuinely joyful on reading it. Not long afterward I wrote expressing my happiness about their trip and lives, but also including word that in my own life things had taken a turn and my wife Marcella had decided she should go on her own way. It wasn’t what I wanted, but at the same time I thought Marcella should do what she felt was best for her, and if severing our paths was it, then it was OK with me. She was half my age, and I could understand only too well. A few weeks later I received another letter, which as the previous one, had a literary simplicity and directness which marked it, but told a very different story, though written with the same disarming clarity.
Laya, in film Leah, 1967, fotos © Linn Ehrlich
On returning home to Miami, following their trip, a nephew of Tom’s was getting married in Chicago, and they went north for the occasion. There, for the first time, he showed her the home he’d grown up in, in the Italian-American Bridgeport neighborhood – which happened to be adjacent to where I’d gone to college at IIT, and where I had lived a year and a half. His home was now lived in by Mexicans, who welcomed them in, happy to know a little of the history of the house. And they visited his brother’s grave in a nearby cemetery. That evening at the wedding party, they danced, and following on the heels of their joyous journey to Israel and Italy, and their 40 years together, she thought, as she wrote, “I am truly happy.” And in the same moment her husband had a heart attack and died, literally, in her arms. Needless to say, she’s had a difficult time since – having to put into hard practice the things she does as a living as a psychological counselor.
And then, as if that were not enough, this past August, her sister, a long-ago rather famous early radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), whose own life had taken a hard turn, and who was a friend of mine back in 1964 – the reason I met Laya was her sister was my flat-mate’s girlfriend at the time – died in New York City, apparently of a heart attack. Laya, being close (as much that Shulamith allowed in her later years) to her sister, and being the family in the USA, became the person to deal with the aftermath, which included a memorial service attended by many feminists of Shulamith’s period, and those after. [I will in a later posting publish the comments made at the memorial, as I think it is instructive, in many ways, of the tenor of those times.]
Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012
When I returned to the US this past March, it was in some parts consciously to visit friends and family, in a kind of “last hurrah” – to see, perhaps for a last time, those people still living, who were my friends in life. I’ve seen a few already and hope to see them again – Linn and Marilyn and Peter in Chicago, Bruce in Minneapolis, Marshall in Butte, Terri in Livingston, Swain and Kristi in Missoula, and just today, Ron and Mary Lou here in Portland. And as I anticipate traveling a lot in the US in the coming year, I expect and hope to see them all again. We – all more or less in the same time-wise peer bracket – are aware, whether said or unsaid, that any visit could be the last. As time brings its curtain over us, I think for those of us for whom the Fates accorded us the space, we’ve become closer, more forgiving and understanding of each other. And in a manner not accounted for in the casual “love you”-speak which affects us casually, we have learned, in a very real sense, where love animates our relations, and, however obscure and difficult to pin down in a clinical sense, how much we have meant to one another.
As a person habitually transient, living in places scattered across the globe, for periods of a year here, 3 or 5 there, I have very consciously kept in touch with those people in my life who in that ineffable manner which over the years shows itself, left a deep implant. I know well enough that probably, in most cases, had I not kept the lines open, dropped by this decade or that, that these thin threads would have been lost. Such is the life which I chose or was given.
And, as life is capricious, and neither announces its beginning or end to us, to all those whose lives have crossed mine, in ways deep, however inarticulately we were able to express it, should my life end tomorrow, or yours, here’s thanks for having known and shared our brief time on this planet we are so busy violating. I am a hard-core atheist and we won’t be meeting anywhere “else” some other time, so it is best to say it while here. Love to you each, and I am glad our paths crossed on this brief journey.
Kurt, la famiglia Rebosio, Laya, Bill, Errol, Linn, Peter, Dennis, Marilyn, Susannah, Ron and Mary Lou, Elayne and Erinn, Barbara, Swain, Robina, Bob, Roger, Tom, Marshall, Roxanne, Alicia and Morrie, Rick and Julie, Martin, Claudia, Alenka, Jon, Dan, Terri, Hal, Jolly and Bob, Michael, Jane, Steve, Kate, Lynda, Eugenia, Edoardo, Anna, Erling, Nancy and Howard, Hilary and Stuart, Clara, and Brad and Miki and children, and Joel, Rui, Jean, Steve and Todd, Jane and Mark, Marcella, and many others known briefly in passing or lost to memory. And then there are a few people I suppose I’d prefer not to have met, left out knowingly.
In 3.5 billion years, our Sun will have boiled away all the water on earth, some billions of years after life became impossible on this planet. In 6 billion years it will become a red giant, and then collapse. 8 billion years from now it will be “dead,” an Earth sized diamond with the mass of a star. This is a white dwarf, and it will still be hot enough to shine with thermal radiation. But it will no longer generate solar fusion, and so it will slowly cool down until it becomes the same temperature as the rest of the Universe; just a few degrees above absolute zero. This will take about a trillion years to happen. The Sun’s death will be complete.
5 thoughts on “Solstice of the Soul”
jon- i suppose that our character determines our fate to some degree..I also think that axiom is just easy to remember ,has a ‘nice ring’ and hence has become a comfortable position& expression of fait accomply….it certainly pushes us off certain precipices and away from others..we embrace her and not him,this not that,but what is placed in front of our face is beyond character..for instance,i never squandered an inheritance,social standing or athletic prowess..heck,i didn’t turn my back on a family tradition of high wire circus performers and neither one of us was born in an undeveloped country which could very well preclude our communicating online….so it goes.
i am writing not to disagree,but rather to commend and thank you for sharing a piece of your life with me..i appreciate your candor and yes,character..Keep on busing(try the train if you can afford it) and Farewell on this trip-your life..
Jon, I can’t tell you how much these posts have meant to me over the years. I remember how happy I was when I first came across your website (and subsequently your work). Finally, I thought, a filmmaker who has done it the right way, and who is willing to share his most candid thoughts with no ego, no bs. As a budding cinephile at the time, my apostasy of popular cinema, though liberating, left me alone and directionless. Needless to say, you were one of the few I looked to for guidance. How I think about film in relation to art, politics and life – much of that can be traced back to you. Thanks for all that you’ve shared. Certainly one of the most concerned and heartfelt collection of writings I’ve encountered on the web. In lieu of the somber mood, allow me to say Keep ’em coming, and I hope to read more.
While of late my back, a chronic problem since 1977 when I got rear-ended the first time, and then again in 78 (both in LA), has been rather “a pain” I grin and bear it. I joke with friends about my “turkey bag insurance” but it is a relief valve. I’m OK though taking in the stories of my peers and my age do prompt these thoughts about the imminent end. What one ought to do at this juncture. It’s not morbid, just reality. I like reality – actually there’s not much choice.
Thanks for your kind words. Keep on keepin’ on, as I think Mr Natural or one of R Crumb’s characters philsophized. Spinning around the sun. Best and you keep doing the same.
c’mon jon, cut the crap, it’s a part of our continuum, we write, we create, we piss people off and we exit…and then…we do it again… with better students. Don’t take yourself too seriously we believe in your Creativity. Your good at what you do, now go laugh at how bad you really are.
Hello Jon, my name is Brenda. I am Brenda Bierbrodt’s great niece. I was born in 1981 and named after my Auntie Brenda I never met but heard so much about from my mom Debi. I don’t have many pictures of her but the one I have I have been told you took of her. I cherish it and look at it almost daily. I do resemble her and just would like you to know how happy it made me to come across the photo you have on here. I have never seen this one. It took my breath away. As I was scrolling thru the page I immediately stopped because I knew it was her. Any info on her that you would like to share in your spare te would be great!