April 03, 2005

The Hitching Post of the Sun

These days, I have to spare my old bones and joints some wear and tear if I want to survive marathon training and make it to the starting line in one piece. (Seven days to go. Please point your telepathic antennae my way and send all the good karma you can muster. I’ll need it.) So, a few times a week, I trade road or trail running for pool running. I look pretty goofy as I slide, encased in bright blue Styrofoam, into one of the fitness center pool’s two swim lanes. My aqua jogging belt is nearly as big as my entire torso, and my Styrofoam booties look like blue bricks strapped to my feet.

There have been occasional glory days during this New England winter, when our piece of the world was pure and hushed, draped in glistening white, adorned with crystalline icicles and tree limbs transformed into elegant, lacy works of art. But for the most part, our winter was long and mean. And dark.

I go to the pool in the morning and, for months now, have been doing my laps while gazing out the pool area’s windows into an inky sky still peppered with the last stars of the night shift. There were mornings when the moon looked in at me as I pushed my way through the water. Being in the pool with the other early risers, nearly all senior citizens, was like being in a secret, liquid club. We took our exercise under fluorescent lights, gazing out at a twinkly black world that would just start to wipe the sleep out of its eyes as we hit the showers.

A few weeks ago, something changed, and we all felt it. The power of the sun. Tina, the lifeguard, turned the fluorescent lights off, and the pool was lit only by golden morning rays. Fingers of light. The sun’s long, radiant arms stretched through the windows and into the water and onto our grateful faces. In the pool that day, exercise became universally secondary to tilting one’s face into the sun, eyes closed, and savoring the heat of the embrace. “It’s so wonderful!” cried one woman in a flowery bathing cap that protected her hairdo. “It’s like being on vacation in the Caribbean!” Her friend nodded and laughed, “It is! Let’s enjoy it, then, because it’s probably as close as we’ll get!” The two women left the circle of seniors doing aerobics to the Beach Boys' Help Me Rhonda and stood still, smiling, in a shallow corner of the pool, bodies turned toward a floor-to-ceiling window, savoring their quick trip to the sun.

That day was a herald. The sun was telling us he’d be back soon to warm our corner of the earth. We were to get more snow – we still might – but that day, we were on the receiving end of a promise that spring was making its way back to us.

For eons, humans have waited, yearned and prayed for the sun’s seasonal return. They’ve made offerings, built temples, devised formulas and calendars foretelling its reappearance and apex in the sky. They’ve organized their lives, planted their crops and undertaken their voyages according to its place in their heavens.

I thought of a great granite altar I’d seen atop Machu Picchu in Peru. Machu Picchu is a place of a lifetime, and every inch of it fascinates and brings wonder. But this gray slab of rock sitting at a cliff edge had particularly touched me. It seemed to be reaching beyond its stone roots into the atmosphere, trying to communicate with the sky. Indeed, its ancient Inca carvers intended nothing less. The rounded stone spur that rises from the altar’s base is the Hitching Post of the Sun, Intihuatana in Quechua. Here Inca astronomers performed ceremonies to ensure the sun’s permanence and predicted key times of year and planting seasons. During equinoxes and solstices, Intihuatana’s edges align with significant geographic features in the surrounding mountain landscape, hinting at the Incas’ broad awareness of and reverence for the world they inhabited.

In June, at the summer solstice, the descendants of the Inca will celebrate Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun, and ancient places like Cusco and Machu Picchu will fill with natives and visitors gathered to thank the sun for continuing to shine. Many will stand beside Intihuatana, "the place where the sun is tied," and contemplate the invisible tether that hitches a life-giving orb to silent rock.

Perhaps I’ll be in the pool that day, lifting my face to the rays reaching through the windows and into the water.

Where shall we go next?

Book proceeds are still going to tsunami relief. The next donation will go to UNICEF, but I will investigate other organizations needing assistance in the wake of the March earthquake and will keep you informed by updating the January 2 post. Thank you.