Celebrating in the Dark
I’m about to commit a sacrilege.
Read on out of sheer, audacious curiosity, or safely avert your eyes. It’s all the same to me.
Friends in Alaska, Puget Sound, the Midwest, and the East Coast brace yourselves.
The winter sun in Colorado stares everyone in the eyes. It’s a cheer monger. A brilliant bully. Relentless. Annoying. Its best moments happen just below the horizon, when it fires up the sky and paints with crimson the bellies of overflying geese. Otherwise, it’s an arrogant stalker. It should be arrested for indecent exposure. Hey! Try wearing a cloud or two, Mister! Would ya?
There. I’ve said it.
Really? You think I’m nuts?
I suppose I am. I need some rest. Too much sunshine makes me edgy. Just like too much dreary weather used to make me sad. Very sad.
During my sophomore year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, the sun went missing for 16 days. Headlines told us the suicide rate shot up. I believed them.
Ten years later and still farther North, in Grand Marais, I woke one August morning from a nightmare. The green and flowering meadow where I lived was suddenly, irreversibly covered in snow. All color and contour eradicated. I wrote: It was the face of someone loved, first waxen and dead, then, fallen off to white bone.
You bet. This nightmare signaled big trouble. I was already depressed. Soon, I spent whole days unable to leave the house and had earnest thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, I found a therapist who saw me through until April.
It’s not unusual in northern climes to dread the onset of winter. There are real hardships. But our antidote was to pitch ourselves into Christmas. To prove myself among the Swedes and Norwegians, I pushed hard. I made all my Christmas gifts, and got them done on time. I baked for an army. I threw parties. After Christmas (still 4 months of winter to go), I read and wrote fiendishly. None of it helped. Each year, the onset of dread came sooner, until I felt the weight of winter nearly all year long.
In the summer following my months in therapy, my therapist handed me a copy of Psychology Today. The article he wanted me to read was about Seasonal Affective Disorder. There were my symptoms described in orderly fashion. There was an explanation of the pineal gland’s response to lower sunlight countered by our cultural training to thrust on, be outgoing, spread cheer. There were also shocking modes of dealing with S.A.D. Back off. Avoid sweets. Exercise outside. Do less. Light candles. Take hot baths.
I decided to live.
I wrote my parents announcing my intention to not “do” Christmas. I baked just enough to warm the house with good smells. I bought strings of little white lights. I didn’t entertain. I sweated once a week in a dimly lighted, wood-fired sauna. I walked or skied or snow-shoed nearly every day. (Even 15 minutes would do). And I rested. And it worked.
Over the next couple of years, I learned to thrive in winter. Winter became my favorite season, and the winter solstice my highest holy day. I also taught myself to create ceremony. That first time, I was alone. It was the longest night. I turned out every light. The fire hummed in the stove as the darkness settled all around. As I called out to all that I knew as Holy, I felt the darkness open up to me, hold me. The darkness in me also opened up. It was as big as the night sky.
When, at last, I lit a candle, I knew the primal relief that the longest night was over. I also knew a light within me. It illumined the darkness, like starlight, without obliterating. It would carry me into my days and into the world.
Our kind evolved with a planet that has a night as well as a day. No matter how well we’re adapting to our advanced technologies, our DNA is still prehistoric. I believe we turn our backs on this truth and on darkness at great peril.
In a culture of flashy screens, glaring security lighting, and 24/7 demands, we’ve turned darkness over to the demonic, the violent, the terrifying. We feed an addiction to adrenaline. Next thing you know we’re preying on our own sanity, our own kin, our own selves. How many examples do you need? Look anywhere on the streets, in the headlines.
We’re frayed, sleepless, agitated, enraged, frightened, caustic, ineffective. We could use a deep soak, weeks of rest, a dormancy to ensure the production of fruit.
So, I will celebrate the season as I have for 30 years: In the dark, in gratitude for the dark, honoring the dark and my need for it. And in the dark, in ceremony, a place will open within me to welcome the light.
Maybe, just maybe, it will snow.
Come on, could ya? Cover up for a couple of days and give me a break? Just this once?
That would be nice.
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Cheryl Conklin provides mentoring, spiritual guidance, healing, and training for those who seek personal empowerment and authenticity. She is also a writer, public speaker, educator, and professional landscape gardener. Into her work, Cheryl brings a BA in English/Creative Writing from Macalester College, a Master of Science degree in Counseling from UW-Superior, training in PeerSpirit’s Circle Way, experience as a successful business owner, and more than forty years exploration and practice in the expressive arts.