Darkness visible

These are the darkest days.  It is fully dark by 5pm here in Boston.  And when we wake up, it’s still dark.  The days are short, but they feel long at the same time.  Yet, strangely, I don’t find this depressing.  I have written before about my very specific memory from December 1996, working one evening at my first job in a high-rise building in downtown Boston.  I looked out the window and had this sudden, startling realization that the early darkness no longer upset me.  I noticed all the twinkling lights, and I felt surrounded, safe.

I think of that evening all the time, still.

For some reason, people are often surprised to learn I don’t find the early arrival of darkness gloomy.  I don’t.  It’s also true that I find the winter solstice a fundamentally more hopeful day than the summer solstice.  This is, perhaps, another manifestation of how hard it is for me to truly be here now: I always allow what’s coming to occlude – or at least to shadow – my experience of the moment.

I also think all the time of Wendell Berry’s lines:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.  To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings. – Wendell Berry

I’ve written about darkness, and about light, a lot (2011, 2013, 2014).  I also really like that picture of candles in Jerusalem, apparently.  That was a trip full of both dark and light, and one that triggered in me the choice of my 2012 word of the year, light.

The world is dark.  But I can’t stop seeing light.  There is so much to be grateful for, and I’m simultaneously deeply aware of the ways that our ordinary lives are fragile.  2016 has not been an excellent year on any count, for our family or, to my estimation, for the world at large. And yet at the same time I feel oddly buoyed by the darkness at this time of year, alternately exhausted and hopeful, the latter beyond what’s rational.  I wonder where that undercurrent of joy comes from, while being grateful for it at the same time.

This all made sense to me when I read Roger Cohen’s editorial in the New York Times last week (with tears rolling down my cheeks).  He called 2016 “a truly awful year.”  But he also asserted that “The most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. ”  These thoughts are lyrical and made me cry, reminding me of long, deeply-held beliefs of mine that it’s darkness that gives meaning to light, of my oft-repeated thoughts on the ways I’m drawn to the liminal, the edges of things, where dark and light bleed into each other.

They also help me understand why it is that I feel a strange sense of lightness amidst all the darkness and heaviness of this year, this season, this week.  It’s partly because I’ve learned, in my adulthood, to lean into the darkness that flits around the edges of my experience, to see the blooming and singing of which Berry writes.  It’s also because in this difficult, dark time I’m also reminded of all that is good, as Cohen so beautifully describes.  Indeed.


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5 Comments

  1. Nadine
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    “I noticed all the twinkling lights, and I felt surrounded, safe.” I know that feeling very well. You put it in the perfect words. xo

  2. Lee
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your post and the link to the NYT article. Both so eloquently express what I believe to be true.

  3. Posted December 5, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Roger Cohen’s piece was beautiful. It reminded me of everything that is important in life and a life well lived is all we cab ask for. It helps when I think of my mother who passed away this summer at 82. I like what he said about immortality: “When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

    Although we miss our parents when they pass away that is all we can ask for out of life. A long happy life. it seems foolish to mourn excessively when the order of life takes the path that it should.

  4. Lee
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Sheila, I also lost my 82 year-old mother this summer. I grieve and miss her but I know it was time. She, more than anyone I know, knew the value of the cycle of light and dark.

  5. Posted December 5, 2016 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Lee. I wrote several pieces about my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. It is an awful disease and leaves the loved ones feeling so helpless. She more than anyone knew it was time to go and I was grateful after all her suffering that the end was peaceful and she was surrounded by her family. Contact me if you like: sheilablanchettetheauthor@gmail.com