In January the decent into darkness finally overcomes me. The celebrations are over and the northern winter has arrived. Below zero temperatures make a walk to the mail box or drive to town feel like an expedition. The fire in the stove draws me close and my world shrinks to a few rooms.
Occasional forays into the frozen landscape focus my attention, as crisp, sharp air fills my lungs. Simple pleasures take on new meaning – the flush on my cheeks when I come in from the cold, soaking in a hot tub, or snuggling into bed under a pile of down.
Oh, and there is the incredible beauty of the pure white blanket and the infinite variety of ice crystals. I marvel at the way tiny rainbow sparkles appear on the snow when the sun finally makes an appearance and I can billow smoke rings in the air with my breath.
Yet the sun seems far away – low on the horizon and quick to fade behind the distant mountains. Shadows are long and the light is barely enough to offer hope. Fire is the only comfort. A meager replacement for the golden majesty – it is the source now.
I remember to gently surrender, lower my expectations, and give myself up to this terrible darkness that still frightens me. I think of Jesus surrendering to the cross, or the handsome black and yellow caterpillar that hangs himself upside down and waits for his body to split wide open. Without doing anything (except for surrendering all) the caterpillar transforms into a stunning emerald chrysalis, gilded in gold, from which finally emerges the Monarch butterfly.
From Denial to Awe
I was not raised to respond to shadows this way, but rather to avoid and deny them. I was taught to distract and numb myself against the nameless void that seemed to hover always around the next corner. No one suggested that there may be a purpose or meaning in these times of grief and loss. Pain and fear were to be disregarded as quickly as they appeared. We had to push ourselves harder and harder to outpace the emptiness that constantly threatened to shroud our lives in darkness.
I had to learn to embrace the shadows and see them as allies, by gradually releasing my resistance and surrendering my habit of denial. I spent some winters in a tipi, a simple cabin, a small cave, and finally a hut I dug below the ground, the size of a small bedroom. I learned from the plants and animals around me how to go inward and be still, finding pleasure in breathing and satisfaction from the simple sense of being alive.
By living close to nature and no longer insulating myself from my environment, I saw how all life forms in the north go through a quiet, dormant phase in winter. This enables them to burst forth in spring with a breathtaking vitality that can only come from death and rebirth. Nature taught me that everything that appears to die is reborn, and I needn’t be afraid of this mysterious cycle.
A few years living on the land, beholden to its seasons, taught me to trust in the perennial capacity of life itself. I came to regard spring with wonder and awe. Even now, as winter seems destined to go on for eternity and I am seduced into despair once again, at the first signs of spring my memory is jolted and I awaken from my dream of perpetual gloom with the gentle laughter of surprise.
A Time for Healing
In our mad rush for more comfort and distraction, we have forgotten to allow time for healing. We think that if we stop and wait in stillness, the great dark storm will overtake us and we will be swept away in its fury. We have few elders to tell us this is not true. So we fight off our fear of the unknown and insulate ourselves in our controlled comfort zones, disregarding the cycles of death and rebirth going on around us.
To deny death, the most certain aspect of life, is to reduce ourselves to a level of ignorance that can only make us feel impossibly small and tight. As we turn our backs on discomfort and habitually deny pain, we cut ourselves off from the vital signals that direct our completion. By avoiding the darkness, we disable our own fulfillment.
This is not an easy lesson to learn. You cannot get it by someone telling you, or by repeating what you have heard. You have to live it yourself. You have to confront your fear of the cold and expose yourself to the undertow of darkness, until you see for yourself that it is a necessary passageway to contentment. Whatever form it takes in your life, you have to stand and face your fear.
Then, slowly, it becomes apparent that this was not the end you imagined. Your life does not disintegrate beyond repair. Instead, the shattered pieces reform themselves and something new appears that you could not have imagined. What was lost was merely an idea of perfection that never existed in reality. And what replaces that charade is a vital living current that makes everything new and filled with wonder.