Inside the Dark: A Solstice post
Inside the Dark
“There is always the possibility of understanding as long as we exist in the utter darkness of the sky, as long as we live in emptiness.” From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki
OK. I admit it. Autumn is my favorite season and by the time December leans on Solstice, I’m all in. Oh, not so much for the Christmas holiday: though that story is a good one, I suffer from typical disillusion with commercial gifting and social obligation. But the solstice is a different story, and as the light grows shorter, as the night comes on faster, I feel that delicious anxiety about the turning of the planet. At this time, I take my long walks as that dark comes on. It lights me up.
For a long time, I thought it was the angle of the light. So low in the sky, a drift, a cold haze. If there’s snow, the angle seems bluer than in February or March. If there is no snow, then that angle seems almost dusty. Late afternoons, the dark rushes down. Rushes! It drops like an anvil. Every dusk seems quick-dusk, our lives in the scheme of things.
I remember my father, leaving the house to milk his cows at this same time of day, stepping into that cold. He felt alive facing that evening work. I remember following him to the barns and sometimes, in the middle of milking, he would step out of his barn and into that new dark. Why, with so much work on his hands, did he step out? For air, to straighten his back? But he stood still, and he looked at the dark, at that fresh night, staring at the point where the light spilling from the barn faded, that demarcation. Staring. Sometimes I stood by him.
A long Solstice ago, the Beach Bards, a storytelling group that I’ve been part of for 25 years, said poems and stories in a bar to celebrate this change of season. After a significant number of beers, we invited the crowd to howl the dark away, to howl the light back. What wild howlers tossed their voices to the ceiling that night, lifting and dropping in a off-key wolf chorus. We laughed at ourselves and felt very good about the howling and the beer. But when the last yips faded, and we walked out into the night, we welcomed the not-howling silence. What was inside the empty unsound of that long dark? That seemed the real story, the deeper poem, the greater howl.
One Solstice, in our big open meadow, we burned a brush pile of last years’ Christmas trees to honor the solstice and to dispose of the trees in ceremony. We invited the neighbors, and we talked and howled again. But after those defiant flames, the fire died to dark embers, the curtain of the dark closed again, and we all turned outward to stare. Our bodies turned toward the dark. The earth turned in the larger dark. I often wonder if we can feel it, that shifting toward the dark, full of some secret—not just symbol of our brevity, but the universe’s longevity.
I suspect I live mostly in Apollonian light, so I need to feel the dark, not for its violence, but for mystery, the emptiness before imagination. The idea of what’s unseen. At Solstice, when I stare at the dark as my father did, as the howlers do, as the ancients did, I am awed and absorbed. I take some unworded meaning from these long nights, from that longest night of all. This unmeaning, this emptiness, is offered so completely, in such perfect metaphor, at no other time of year. What’s there, in the light that has no light? The question becomes more important than any well-lit answer. I want to know, and somewhere in my brain, if I am very lucky, sometimes darkness sends its pinpoint answers, tiny inklings, like stars after clouds clear. But mostly, it’s dark, and I stare at the mystery.