Imagine traveling to a land with no Sun. Travel far north enough in Norway and you will find yourself at Earth’s northernmost year-round settlement, called Svalbard, located right below the North Pole. Yes, that’s Santa’s North Pole. I spent Christmas there one year. We even saw his workshop. Which, for the still-believers, looked like a cottage nestled in the glacial mountain range– but I couldn’t really tell you what I was looking at, or anything in Svalbard, really, because it was Polar Night, where for four months there’s no visible difference between midnight and noon.
What was that like? Imagine walking through the howling arctic winds at 30 below zero into pitch black darkness, banshee winds and snow crunching underfoot like styrofoam. This is a harsh, unforgiving environment.
Whether an Explorer of 1813 or 2013, I learned your experience varies only slightly; we may use gas and electricity instead of whale oil and fire, but even today you are at the mercy of the elements and technology. In my modern hotel, the grocery appeared indefinitely closed and there was only one option for food: the hotel bar, which served a variety of frozen everything.
One particularly memorable event was dogsledding on Christmas Eve. Imagine happening upon this vision: sheets of snow and wind tearing through a yard of dogs where they lived in crates, who were howling with excitement — or so we were told. I wavered between compassion, grief and horror, because looking at their icy snow matted fur, how couldn’t they be suffering, living outside in subzero temperatures? I also felt pretty sure I’d happened upon a mythical, supernatural scene. I was seeing the hounds of hell, guarding the gates of Tartarus. It sort of terrified me. But then, because everything in me was frozen- feet, hands, brain- I had a hard time feeling.
In this environment, there’s no room for mistakes. Many explorers of this early outpost did not survive, where navigational errors, lack of preparedness, sudden changes in the weather or inattention to your environment could prove fatal. It takes a hardy, clear-seeing character to settle here. One early settler left these words in her diary, now displayed in the town museum: “The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed by those who shall live in Svalbard.”
As we looked at the window displays, this was not what the on-site travel agency promised, -a polar majestic beauty, and perhaps a glimpse of the famed northern lights! Bah! We didn’t see the northern lights, polar bears, ice glaciers or even the mountain ranges surrounding us. We didn’t see anything. Our fellow travelers, whom we met at the bar and had travelled from as far as New Zealand and Africa, co-miserated about this. One gorgeous blonde, well-manicured and severely disappointed woman told me she was trying to move up her plane ticket by several days.
Yet, for all the adjusted, err, dashed expectations, our trip to the North Pole remains one of the most memorable experiences of our travels. We talk about the lutefisk, a Scandinavian fish delicacy that we ate at Christmas dinner in the big communal dining hall, and how even the bacon topping couldn’t disguise the awful taste. We reminisce about the young nervous New Zealander sitting next to us who confessed he would pop the question to his girlfriend, this night. We were the only ones he told, he said. For the rest of the trip, when we passed in the halls, waving a brief hello, we eagerly searched both of their faces, wondering, did she say yes? We remember dressing up like astronauts to brave the 500 foot walk from our room to the lodge, and then undressing to our sock feet only a minute later, as it’s Scandinavian custom to remove your shoes before entering a home or lodge. We remember the delight of a blazing fire, the simple blessings of connection, warmth, the funny stories we re-tell.
Capricorn season, in some respect, is a lot like my experience in the North Pole. There’s an icy edginess to the festive holiday expectations, and for the weather alone, adaptation to some level of hardship is implied. It’s also the end of a cycle, the end of the calendar year. As Saturn, the timekeeper and grim reaper, looks backward and forward, we cut our losses, take stock of our resources, and plan our ambitions for the year ahead — not always the best “law of attraction” frame of mind from which to plan our resolutions.
It’s also a time of reminiscing. Certain memories are burned on our brains at this time of year, and not always happy ones. Yet doesn’t it speak to the wisdom, humor and resilience of the soul, how we manage to find the jewel in a harsh holiday experience? The time Uncle Lester set the Christmas tree on fire and we had no presents –but wasn’t that funny?
As we get pared down by life, our expectations whittled to a bare minimum, there’s something spiritually satisfying about that. Don’t you find this to be true, in your own life? When it’s always about getting or not getting what you want, life is a real bummer. Our Spirit loves getting back to the essentials, reminding us of what’s truly important: love and connection, peace and pleasure, those eternal, unchanging values. And our Spirit needs the time to do this. Frankly, it’s the only time of year when we have the time, and the stillness, to devote to connecting within.
To the Capricorn Hermit -for whom time, simplicity and unhurried solitude are luxuries unmatched by its flashier versions- all we ever need is exactly what we have, right here in front of us. Capricorn is utterly pragmatic. A warm fire, a warm soup, a warm heart. A meditation cushion, a good book to read, a pet to be walked, a mountain trail to hike. From this place, true happiness dawns, looking far less like a spectacular sunrise and more like the slow dawning of realization: I am here. I am okay. All is well.
Whether I imagine myself as an explorer of the North Pole, or Capricorn, I think, yes, the ability to adapt and the art of resignation are what’s needed. Resignation is not a negative thing, something we do begrudgingly, but an ability to meet what is, and work from there. We don’t give up our dreams; we give up pretending. That life, we, or others, should be any different. Instead of trying to book the first ticket out of Svalbard to chase northern lights that may or may not happen as my bar companion did, we choose what is. From that place, an enlightened Capricorn form of happiness emerges, and it is the one form of happiness that endures –contentment.
Enduring happiness. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Will resolutions and checklists help you find that? No judgment, here. You can set your goals, and get into the Capricorn spirit of accomplishment right now. It’s solid astrological advice. But if that’s not for you –if you find that this time of year is consistently fraught, with pressure, expectation and high emotions, that any attempt at do-ing rather than be-ing is “pushing the river”, there is an alternative. You can be a Hermit. You can settle into the stillness. You can read a book. Claim solitude. Simplify. Connect to your Spirit within.
Capricorn (and Saturn) often gets a dull reputation, but this archetype knows far more about the art of happiness than we give it credit for. Especially when life doesn’t match the promises made by the colorful brochures in the window. Perhaps what we most need at this New Moon is to surrender our expectations about what we think we want, for what truly makes us happy.