Photo Credit: Flagship City Food Hall

Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

As I sit down to write, the eve of winter’s arrival is upon us. Winter is the season of quiet, of contemplation, of slowness, and of rest. The ancient Greeks explained this annual changing of the seasons via the myth of Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, and her return to live in the Underworld with her husband, Hades, for half the year. During Persephone’s absence from her mother, Demeter systematically transforms the earth into a place of cold barrenness; so great is Demeter’s grief that she only relents upon Persephone’s return, which heralds the coming of spring. Notions of spring feel far away at this point while winter raps at our doors. In fact, this new season officially arrives in Erie today, December 21, 2021, at 10:59am, the exact moment of this year’s winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year on the astronomical calendar.  

Here in Erie, the solstice will afford us a scant nine hours and six minutes of daylight between sunrise and sunset; however, by the end of the night tomorrow, the days will once again begin incrementally to grow longer. This divine dance and cycle of interplay between darkness and light has been observed with fear and fascination since the dawn of human history. The waning and waxing of the light have been marked by human civilizations across time through festivals and ritual observances — both secular and religious. Holidays like Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, and Kwanzaa feature candles as central symbols that coalesce around themes of light. “Even this late it happens:  the coming of love, the coming of light,” poet Mark Strand aptly observes in his 2002 poem “The Coming of Light.”  I can’t help but think that the timing of these disparate holiday celebrations all points to our common human jubilation at the impending abatement of darkness.  

Outside of our proverbial door, there remains for many of us a looming shadow. There remain fear, sadness, and uncertainty.  Prognostications of yet another COVID-19 surge, and the arrival of the Omicron variant cast a dark pall on this time of merriment. Winter brings with it flu season and manifestations of seasonal affective disorder under normal circumstances; in addition, the pandemic unrelentingly continues to weigh upon us all, and it’s tempting to just hunker down in avoidance. Yet, the holidays invite us the chance to do exactly the opposite — to spread joy, to revel in happiness, and to share our good fortune with others. It’s an invitation that we would do well to accept.  

My own holiday celebration this year will see me returning to my childhood home in central Illinois — a place over 500 road miles away from my new home here in Erie. My drive will take me through three states over the course of nine hours, stopping only to pick up my sons in northern Illinois. For the holidays themselves, I’ll gather with my boys, my mom, my brother, and his family in this place that we all have called “home” at some point. We will enjoy catching up and celebrate being together, but we will also remember those whose absence we feel most keenly during this most wonderful time of the year. It’s been eleven years since my father last sat at the head of the holiday table, and my grandparents are long gone. With every year that passes, I worry more and more at my mother’s advancing years and fragile health. I see my boys growing and our family changing as they prepare to leave the nest and enter the world. It’s commonly said that we never know how much time we have with those we love, and as 2021 recedes, I am ever so grateful for this chance to enjoy time with my extended family. I am fully aware of just how lucky I am. I’m likewise aware that there are so many who do not share my good fortune.

Despite the fact that “the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger” with the arrival of winter, we, following the model of Wenceslaus I of Bohemia and the fabled “Good King Wenceslas” of the traditional holiday carol, reach out to those who are in need of our help. We give from our bounty without expectation of restitution. We sing songs and carols to commemorate the coming return of the light, and we take this time together to gather our loved ones close. And each day, more and more light returns.  

Following the family festivities, I will return home to Erie, feeling refreshed and renewed. The quiet monotony of Midwestern highways offers the promise of hours of contemplation and deliberation time, and as someone who enjoys long drives because they provide me the chance to get lost in my thoughts uninterrupted, I am confident that my drive back home will afford me the chance to think about what comes next. I mentioned EC3PA’s “Take What You Need and Give What You Can” initiative in a previous blog post, and I’m committed to creating more programs of this ilk in the coming year. Quite simply, I contend that it is our duty to help each other in as many ways as possible. We can and will continue to create and nurture a culture of care and help that reflects the very spirit of the EC3PA family.

At the holidays and always, I want to ensure that we remember our obligation to fellow members of the human race and spread goodwill and cheer. We will continue to respond to the command issued by Wenceslas to his squire: “Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly.” At EC3PA, it will always be a time to for us to come together and look out for each other as fellow members of a common humanity. And as the days grow longer and a new year dawns, we tread forth boldly in hope together.

I wish you and your families the happiest of holidays!