I’m writing in the late afternoon amber light, a week past solstice, sensing but not quite sure that the daylight is lingering for a minute or two longer. I can use such encouragement at the moment, and am grateful for the returning of the light. But at the same time I relish these short days and their invitation to rekindle my seasonal practice of qarrtsiluni. Many years ago, I was following the trail of a seldom told story and found Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen’s 1932 book, The Eagle’s Gift. Rasmussen grew up in Greenland, the son of a Danish missionary and Inuit mother. Among his achievements as a legendary polar explorer was a 16 month journey across north America to Nome Alaska with two Inuit companions.
He had a keen interest and ear for stories.
Here are the words of Majuak, an Inuit elder from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing qarrtsiluni to Rasmussen.
“What is qarrtsiluni ? I’ll tell you that now. But you won’t get anything more from me today.’ In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals or the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up. The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale. And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights. The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young -ay- down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.
It was that silence we called qarrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth. For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst. ‘So come all holy songs.’”
Malcolm Margolin, the founder of Heyday Books has said that we can never be more than a visitor in another’s cuIture. With that in mind, with respect and appreciation and fully aware that my practice is inspired by but not meant as an attempt to recreate the Inuit way… I really value this idea of silent, patient reflection in a spirit of homage to great life holy and full of awe. So often I find myself pushing forward, trying as it were to make things happen. It’s my default mode, even though I believe that Rumi rightly reminds us that ‘that which we are seeking, is that which is seeking us.” The practice of qarrtsiluni is a great way, to humbly remember to quiet that striving mind and let myself patiently receive.
So, let’s enjoy New Year’ eve, eat, drink and be merry, hope for a work towards a transformative year ahead, but consider holding off on those calendar driven resolutions until we’ve sat quietly alone or with good company.
Let’s give ourselves some qarrtsiluni time (skip the dark and gloom if you must). Let’s think fair thoughts, alone and together, and may our new songs, rise to the surface and break forth, carrying us together in our quest for a life of meaning and contribution to each other and the planet. I look forward to the expression and celebration of these “new songs” together. For the moment, I’m turning down the lights.