Prayers for Dark Days

Here we are facing the darkest days of the year. The city of Madrid festooned its streets with twinkle lights in early November, but no one turned them on until the 25th. This was a pretty good trick; it had me looking forward to the even longer nights ahead when the streets would feel extra magical. How clever that we, as a culture, answer our needs for anticipation and celebration in the darkness, even if we do it almost by accident, even if we forget why we started lighting lights in the first place.

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Several years ago on this day, I was at the rock bottom of a bad heartbreak. I remember being huddled in the back of my parents’ car, sniffling as they drove me home through a nasty, wet ice storm, looking forward to the turning point that would come soon with the solstice; the nights would still be long, but each day would stay a little lighter a little longer than the one before. I fell in love with winter for the first time that year. I was grateful that the bones of things were laid bare in solidarity with the way I felt. I needed to see farther and clearer than ever.

Disappointment and pain and cold tend to make us retract, don’t they? There’s good survival logic in this. My heart used to beat fast when a few unseasonal North Carolina days would lure the daffodil buds out of the grass too early. There’s wisdom in knowing when the environment is too harsh for putting yourself out there. There is wisdom in knowing when to rest and when to burst forth. Yes, this is seasonal work.

Even now, even appreciating winter’s wisdom, every year I still contend with the fearful, claustrophobic associations I have with drawing back under early nightfall and cold weather. It’s not rest itself that makes me squirm. More than just keeping us inside, these days tend to bring out the grief and ghosts, don’t they? How many of us live our own individual and collective Christmas Carol storyline this season–being visited by spirits of past, present, and future?

It’s not difficult to draw the parallels with our harsher, darker socio-political situation right now.

When I moved across the ocean this September, I tasked myself with using this time to think bigger. I thought that would mean digging inside myself to find lofty ambitions, but so far it’s manifested as bigger questions. So far it’s meant that when I hit a dead end, I try to stand even farther back from the thing in question, putting it in a bigger frame.

Reaching back to winters past, I do remember an age when I looked forward to this time of year. In the sprawling canvas for my imagination–my childhood yard–no day was too cold to play outside. In fact, in winter, new places opened up to me. The trees were clean and quiet, the poison ivy had dried up on the forest floor, the snakes were safely tucked away, and the ticks were long dead. My heavy winter coat made for built-in cushioning so I could lie comfortably in the inner branches of the neighbors’ big spruce tree. The holiday season brought me deeper into the woods, brought neighbors out of their houses, brought candles out of the attic, and brought shepherds costumes out at church.

Regardless of your religion, in the western world, you have surely encountered the archetypal story that swells this time of year. And regardless of your beliefs, the power of a story held with so much energy by so many is undeniable.

What is it about this story that so captures the imagination? Outcasts on the move. The threats of a moneyed tyrant in the background. A secret whispered in the fields. Gifts from unexpected guests. A seed of a new paradigm brought forth in the dead of night, housed outside of the structures where one would expect that kind of thing.

The historians among us might point out that the original date of the events that birthed the story were not so near the solstice. Granted. So what is it about this story that pulled it to this time of year?

What portals open up to us in the dark days? What lessons do the grief and ghosts bring us in the night? What corners of our imaginations’ canvases are newly accessible now, cleared by the cold and dark?

Yes, this is seasonal work. May we not be dormant now, but dreaming. May we turn the retraction of survival into a deep dive that teaches us something. May we let die what needs to die. May we see clear through to the bones of things without distraction in the daylight. And when a long shadow makes it hard to see, may we use it as an opportunity to picture a new paradigm—one that could be born outside of the structures that would shut it out.

What do dark days do for you, dear reader?

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