In a dark time, the eye begins to see. – Roethke
This is the darkest season. Here in the northeast, we have two days until the shortest day of the year. I love the photo above because I think it could be sunrise or sunset. It’s the morning, though, day break from the air, a week and a half ago.
It’s fair to say that the contrast, interplay, and interrelation between light and dark is one of the central preoccupations of my life. I’m fascinated by the way one allows the other, the way we need both to live in this world, the fact that light and dark are at once polar opposites and so closely related as to be two sides of the same coin. When I search my archives for “light” I come up with 33 pages of results.
You might imagine that I have strong emotions about this particular time of the year, these week of deep darkness.
And you would be right. I used to dread this time. I can easily recall the physical sensation of gloom and fear that came over me as the days shortened. And it’s true that in the spring, perhaps around February, I am buoyed when I begin to notice that the days are creeping longer.
But I don’t dread these dark days anymore. I actually love them. There’s something deeply reassuring to me about this season. I’ve written extensively about my attachment to the solstice, and that is surely part of this comfort. It isn’t hard for me to summon a roomful of candles, and to know how quickly they can dispel the darkness.
There is more going on, though. I suspect it has something to do with the Roethke quote above, or with Wendell Berry’s lyrical lines which run through my head all the time:
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
Berry asserts that to really know the dark we have to surrender to it. We have to let our eyes adjust, which means we must go in without any external light. And that, in that darkness, there is a beauty that we never imagined.
It’s a short leap from thinking about the darkness out the window to the darkness inside myself. I am still getting to know the darkness there, learning to gaze into the ragged hole that exists in the center of all of our souls, practicing pushing on the bruise and feeling the wound. I have often described the feeling of that intense darkness as staring into the sun. Again, light and dark are so close together as to be inextricable, sliding across each other, both occluding and showcasing as they do so.
Maybe that’s what this life is: an eclipse.
I read Margaret Renkl’s beautiful essay in the New York Times, Falling A Little Bit in Love with the Dark, today, with interest. She too recognizes the gifts – threatened and rarer though they are- in darkness. I haven’t thought through her point about how rare true darkness is, in a world in love with light (metaphorical and real). My favorite line:
So I am teaching myself to rest in uncertainties, to revel in the secrets of darkness.
It has only been when I have really let myself lean into that darkness, accept that my deepest wound is the profound sadness of impermanence, that I’ve started seeing the gifts that are there. As I sink into the way my life actually is, everyday I find unexpected gems buried in the mundane. Sure, I also cry a lot more. I grieve and mourn constantly, far more than I imagined possible.
But there’s also beauty here. Surprising, staggering, serendipitous beauty. Divinity buried in the drudgery. Dark feet and dark wings.
Every year I feel more at ease in these dark days, protected, somehow. I realize now that this is a manifestation of my increased comfort with my own darkness. I have begun to see.