(This piece was prompted by a Journal project hosted by the blogger Karen Walrond. I suspect that this isn’t quite what she had in mind when prompting us to “write about light”, but this is what happened, so I’m going with it.)
I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
― Barbara Brown Taylor
One of the albums I keep in heavy rotation during this time of year is Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night. It’s not quite a Christmas album; he takes pains to call it a “winter album” in the liner notes instead, even though most of the songs are traditional carols. I gave it to my mother for Christmas one year – she’s always up for new music – but it quickly got a thumbs-down from Dad. “It’s too…morbid,” he said, making a face. In a sense, he’s right – it came out smack in the middle of Sting’s lute phase, with a mostly medieval songbook and none of the familiar melodies you’re used to. There’s a snatch of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” on the horn in the midst of one song, but that’s about it. It’s music more for sitting by the fire and thinking rather than for merrymaking and wassail.
But – that’s precisely the point, and that’s precisely why I like it. In the liner notes, Sting makes the case that there’s something about the very coming of winter each year that we need – the dim light, the cold, and the quiet encourage us to stop, settle down, reflect, and rest and replenish ourselves, to ponder all that’s happened to us and have some peace. It’s the world’s way of trying to get us to take a nap. Ironically, it’s also when the daylight can be most dazzlingly bright if it’s reflecting off snow, and sometimes there are cold and crisp days that make you want to be outside and sucking in deep lungfulls of nearly crystalline air. But we can only endure the cold so long before heading back in to the fire again, and by coincidence it’s starting to get dark again anyway.
On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, “Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.” – Doctor Who
I was totally on board with the fun and the jolliness and excitement of Christmas as a kid. But as I got older, I started to seek out more of the quieter things. There were plenty of moments of joy, and I still have great fun playing Santa – I cannot wait to see my niece and nephew’s reactions to their presents this year, in fact – but sometimes it feels like there’s a manic note to the frivolity of Christmas, like we need to be happy or else. Being sad on Christmas is supposed to be Just Not Done – everything has to be Fun and Happy and Exciting and Big and Bright and Shiny. And we’re trying to push ourselves to do this right at the time when the sky is at its most dark; I saw a chart recently that showed the difference between New York’s daylight hours during the summer and winter solstices, and in winter we get a full six hours less.
I also know, though, that this quest for the light has its roots in the deeper past. Winters were much harder and much more brutal for our forebears – starving or freezing to death was a very real possibility, and trying to brighten things up and make merry and feast was a show of bravery and a rallying of morale in the teeth of real danger. One of the biggest driving forces of civilization in the northern Hemisphere has been trying to soften winter’s blow, trying to save most of us from dying in the winter. We need to warm and brighten things up, bring the bounty we save for Christmas to our lives year-round.
We may have taken that too far, though. We still have people go hungry and cold, but most of us eat like kings compared to our ancestors, to the point that much of the food grown for us simply gets thrown out. We have bright lights all over our cities and in our houses, so we can stay awake until two in the morning if we want, reading or watching moves or having dance parties with the dog or whatever we want. And the heat! We can turn up the thermostat and keep things balmy enough to wear short sleeves or even go naked in the middle of winter. But that kind of 24-hour dance party isn’t good for us. We need to sleep sometime, and the ease of lights and warmth don’t always let us see that.
There’s other things we may have lost as well. I moved to New York City about 25 years ago, and I realized today that it’s been about that long since I’ve seen the Milky Way. Hell, it’s been that long since I’ve seen most constellations – there are simply too many lights in the city, spotlights and streetlights and apartment building lights and neon signs and everything else. A few years ago I spent a winter week in Moab, Utah, and spent a good twenty minutes outside in the snow staring at Orion in wonder – simply because, at the age of 41, I’d only just noticed then that one of the stars in Orion’s belt was tinged red. …What else had I missed?
And the world may also be warming up more than it should. It’s early December here, and we’re still having weather more appropriate for October. I’ve been able to get along with a thin early-spring coat and go without gloves or scarf, and for a couple days over Thanksgiving weekend I didn’t even need a jacket. These are scary things to be realizing at a time when the world is discussing the effects of climate change on the world – to debate whether, in our quest to warm up in the face of winter, whether we may have fled the dark too much.
There’s a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there’s a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain’t no either-or proposition. We’re talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can’t hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. — Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure
For years, one of my favorite carols was actually the Coventry Carol, which I loved mostly for its quiet melody and its melancholy tone. And then I learned what it was about; it’s about the Slaughter of the Innocents, the moment in the Gospel when King Herod, in an effort to kill off Jesus, orders the massacre of every baby below the age of two.
And this didn’t dim my fondness for the Coventry Carol one bit. It’s a sad part of the Gospel – it’s damn tragic, in fact. The only way Jesus escapes that fate is through divine intervention and several years’ sojourn in Egypt with His family; and hooray for that. But somehow I think the Christmas story loses something if we ignore those other tiny lives that were snuffed out, and if we overlook the fact that there is sadness to the Christmas story as well.
There’s sadness that comes with every Christmas. Maybe not every day, and maybe not every Christmas. But sometimes Christmas just sucks for people sometimes, whether they’re facing money trouble or family drama or sickness or just plain life downswing – and forcing them to be happy and put a brave face on it feels unbelievably cruel.
And not letting ourselves let in the sadness can also hurt us. One of the worst fights I ever had with a family member was on a Christmas Eve, and I’m sure a lot of it was fueled by us both trying to Be Happy Because It Was The Holiday and we’d both been squelching a lot of feelings and were both walking around like a pair of pressure cookers in dress shoes. Another Christmas my mother had a total meltdown in the kitchen because Dad had been sick, and the combination of worry for his sake and trying to soldier through and Do Everything all on her own had just worn her down to fumes, but she’d been hiding that from everyone because she was supposed to Be Happy until she simply couldn’t hide it any more.
People who are unable to stand within the dark places of life, those who are always running towards their happy places, are the same things as candles without flames. There is no worth in a candle without a flame, and we only add the flame when there is darkness. Without darkness, there would be no need for warriors and angels. Warriors are not made because the whole world is happy and angels were not formed because there are no demons. ― C. JoyBell C.
One of the compliments I’ve gotten of which I’m most proud came from Leon Uris, who read a short story I wrote when I was in my 20’s and called me to talk shop after (and how that happened is a whole other story). While we spoke, he said that “you know, you’re really unafraid of looking at the darker stuff in life. That’s pretty impressive for someone as young as you.” He was talking about my story, but I’ve come to realize it’s true of me overall. Avoiding the darkness has always felt somehow dishonest to me – we’ve been trained to think that dark is scary, or dark is bad, but night is filled with stars and moonlight, and its own kind of beauty and a chance for rest and calm. If we pretend the dark isn’t there, or try to avoid it, then we can’t see what there is in us and in the world that needs fixing. We can’t see clearly unless we let the dark in sometimes.
Sometime this weekend I’ll be putting up a tree with my roommate and bedecking it with lights. Elsewhere in the city one of my friends may be lighting a menorah at that time. But outside the world will be trying to go dark and still and quiet, even underneath the city noise, and wherever I can, I’ll try to join it there too.