December 22, 2011, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
These are the darkest days. And they are so full of light. Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which I regularly refer to as the holiest day of the year for me.
I find the darkness is deeply comforting. Maybe because I can see all the light and glory that’s contained within it.
I always remember the moment I realized that I loved the darkness. It was many years ago, in Devember 1996. I was sitting on the 31st floor of a building downtown, at my first job, and I stood and watched the sun set out a window. I had an interior office, so maybe I was walking back from the kitchen or the bathroom. I don’t know, but I wasn’t sitting at my own desk which was in a small room with a whiteboard on the wall with a running list of “things you don’t want the bargain version of” (I recall only “surgery” and “sushi”). I had many hours of work ahead of me; it wasn’t anywhere near the end of my day. But the sun slipped below the horizon and it was dark. And I was struck with a powerful sense that this was absolutely okay. For years the short days had troubled me, and I’d railed against them, but suddenly, that evening, I felt differently. I was reassured by the dark. I felt held by it. I was dazzled by the beauty of the lights that spangled the buildings all around mine. I also felt a new, bone-deep certainty that the days would lengthen and that the light would come again. We were just turning, all of us together, the 31st floor, downtown Boston, this state, this country, this world. Somehow the dark made me feel in a visceral way connected with the world’s population, not just now, but through history.
We are all turning. And we always have been. Maybe this essential truth is part of why I’ve had T.S. Eliot’s we must be still and still moving in my mind non-stop for days (well, and the fact that I re-read Four Quartets last week).
People often assume that I find the darkness of the winter difficult and depressing. Perhaps oddly, I don’t.
That evening so many years ago feels now like a harbinger, like one of those moments when the future glinted through the present like a strand of gold thread running through fabric. Somehow I sensed then what I know now, that the dark is full of staggering, startling, serendipitous beauty. These days, I’m certain that without dark light has no meaning. To see the dark’s glorious, shadowy beauty we have to surrender to it. We have to let go of our fear of the dark. We may prefer the light, but the truth is there’s nothing to fear in the dark. Once we let our eyes get accustomed to it, we can see the treasures that dark can hold.
Light and dark is a theme that runs through my life and which animates much of my writing. I speak often of the darkness at the heart of the human experience, of the black hole around which my own life circles. For me, that darkness is impermanence and the unavoidable, brutal truth of life’s brevity. Yet without that darkness, would life’s stunning, breathtaking beauty have as much power. I doubt it. The inexorable turning forward of my time on earth is the shadow that hangs over my every day and a truth so blinding that to look directly at it feels like staring into the sun. Even as I write about embracing darkness in order to see the beauty it contains, the metaphors of light flood in. But aren’t total darkness and blinding brightness almost the same thing?
Every year light and dark get closer and more interconnected for me, not less. Every year I feel the rhythms of the earth’s turning and the solstice more keenly. We are always turning, towards the radiance and away from it, and the subtle changes of light and dark beat somewhere intimate and essential for me, as though in my own bloodstream.
It is Wendell Berry’s lines to which I return in this season, over and over again:
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 traveled by dark feet and dark wings.