There are times when it feels like the walls of the world are caving in, when the windows of psyche slam shut with curtains drawn so tight that no light gets in. The darkness can enfold and leave in a moment, or it can remain for a while. It’s during these times that despair can seep in through the cracks, like dark ink slinking across an old wooden floor. A broken pen, a full moon, days of snow or weeks of fire… and it can become difficult to see through clear eyes.
The soul and body will often lead you to the bed or couch, and sometimes this is exactly what is needed: to lay still, to stare into the darkness, to allow the self to unfurl under the comforter and be held by the sky. If we can do this without a screen as a bedfellow, the soul will often find its way back to a tendril of light. It might follow a comforting thought or allow a poem to land on the windowsill. We must never underestimate the medicinal power of meeting ourselves exactly where we are.
I am quite familiar with these interludes with darkness. Perhaps it’s because I’m a four on the enneagram; perhaps it’s because I’m an INFJ on Meyers-Briggs; perhaps it’s because I’m a lover of moon and night. Whatever the reason, there have been swaths of time when darkness wraps me into her robes and encloses me in a small space. There is nothing romantic about these dances with darkness, but I have come to know them well and to remember that the light is never far away.
She has been coming more frequently these days, lady darkness. She usually steals in through the back door in the evenings, when my energy is low and an eruption of some kind occurs with my kids. It’s not every night, but we have been making a more intimate acquaintance lately. Again, I speculate on the reasons: we’ve been snowbound and indoors more than normal; the portal of midlife opened for me years ago and there are days and weeks when I am more aware of this initiation; it’s February, my personal seed month when my journey onto this planet and into the underworld of anxiety began. While all of this is true, I’m also aware of the mind’s tendency to try to find a reason for the darkness, as if the reason will act as both a prophylactic and an escape hatch.
But there is no preventing darkness and there is no escape hatch for life. So while the reasons may offer a temporary anchor amidst the sea of uncertainty and is particularly acute during certain seasons, both literal and spiritual, the fact remains that one of our tasks of being human is to learn how to dance with the ebbs and flows, the tides of joy and grief and of darkness and light that are inevitable polarities and frequent visitors for all of us.
How do we dance with darkness?
The first and most essential step is to remind yourself that darkness is not only normal but necessary. We cannot know light without darkness, and it’s through our time spent in the dark forest that we learn about our internal allies and tools that serve as flashlights while we sometimes swashbuckle and sometimes surrender our way through the exposed roots and dangling vines.
Once we normalize the darkness, the fastest way I know to shift from darkness to even one spark of light is to drop into the physical body: take a walk, shovel snow, go for a swim, dance in your kitchen, take a bath.
And this bears repeating and underlining: when you’re dropping into your body, leave the screens behind!
Darkness seeped in one evening last weekend. We had had a beautiful family day enjoying the quiet of the weekend, talking with neighbors, playing in the snow. There are times when the rhythm of the four of us fills me with the deepest joy, for while it can be profoundly challenging to be a family of four highly sensitive introverts, it can also be deeply rewarding. As the day came to a close, we each went to our comfortable spots in the family room-kitchen to do what we love: Asher was reading Harry Potter. Everest was working on a project. Daev was studying. And I was cooking.
Such loveliness. Such harmony. Such love. Such blessing.
And then it shattered. Literally. A piece from Everest’s project shattered and tiny shards of glass flew all over the kitchen, including on the kugel that I had just taken out of the oven. And that’s all it took. In that one moment – the moment when I knew I didn’t have it in me to make another dinner – the lights went out in my soul and all went dark. Everest apologized. I put my head down on the kitchen counter, took a few breaths, threw something quickly together for dinner, and left the room.
What to do next? Wallow in my disappointment and the wave of exhaustion that swept through my body? I’ve been known to do that, and it never unfolds into anything fruitful. I decided to take a hot bath, and within moments of soaking in the salts and breathing in the lavender, a window opened. When I looked up into the light and beauty of the candleholder (pictured above) and remembered how Everest had made it for me a few years ago for my birthday, a few more windows opened. I drifted then along the canals of memory. I saw him at nine and twelve and fourteen, head buried into his endless projects. I saw Asher, lover of books, buried into his latest world. I saw my husband, our rock and lantern, lighting the way.
Heart open now, a memory of my grandparents arose: the year after college, still reeling from the first panic attack, when I decided to live in the little studio apartment beneath their house so that I could learn how to cook from my grandfather and garden from my grandmother. I did learn these things, but the real reason I stayed there was to soak up more time with them before I figured out what was next during those confusing post-graduate years. Nostalgia rose up alongside the grief of missing them, and in its wake left more softening of the heart: the heart lapped by the waves of grief, nostalgia and memory. It wasn’t necessary a happy heart, but it was a grateful heart: grateful for the opportunity, as Brother David Steindl-Rast teaches. Grateful for the lessons. Grateful for life, with all of its grief and passage of time and loneliness and loss and beauty and joy and love.
If you’re in a time of darkness, I am here with you. Whatever you’re feeling – whether it’s the challenge of growing through the decade of 20s, the initiation of getting married or becoming a parent, struggling with intrusive thoughts around relationship or health, grieving the lost possibility of having children, the wild hormonal ride of midlife, or any other loss or challenge – I want you to know that you’re okay, you’re not alone, and if you lift up the wet leaf you will see an imprint of light. We really are in this together, and while there is no magic formula that will permanently lift you above the dark times, there are small actions we can take that allow us to sink into the darkness without being swallowed, to bathe in it then wrap ourselves in its velvet wing where we notice a gem or two hidden in the underside. Pick up this gem. Know that you are being rocked and held. The light is not as far away as you think.