Here in Michigan we’ve had a long string of unexpectedly mild autumn weeks, making it easy to forget that winter is nigh. Two days ago - on the last day of November, - I walked the dogs wearing nothing heavier than a sweatshirt. I even left my gloves in the pocket of my jacket, something I rarely do after October because my hands are always so cold.
But, about 4:00 every afternoon, a stern reminder of the impending season becomes abruptly evident. Darkness falls, and it falls fast. At our house we are in total blackness by 5:15. Headlights stream down the road as people wend their way home from work, many of them having left the house in the (dark!) hours of early morning. December brings increasingly shorter days as we race toward the winter solstice on December 21, the penultimate day when the hours of darkness exceed the hours of light.
At this time of year, we are quick to counter all this extra darkness with more Light. Christmas lights. Hannukah candles. We light up the world outside as well as inside. I have timed battery candles all over the house, and at 5:00 they begin flickering on automatically, first those on the mantel, then the cluster of three on the coffee table. Soon the tall candle on the buffet table in the dining room reflects it’s light in the glass of the French door, giving me a double dose of light as I work in the kitchen. I plug in the Christmas tree lights and even my small table top tree illuminates the darkest corner of my living room.
It’s a natural inclination, it seems, this desire to dispel darkness. Light represents warmth and joy, while darkness - well, there’s something a little scary and unsettling about it. Since Thomas Edison harnessed electric power and offered us the ever-present Gift of Light over 100 years ago, we’ve used it to keep the dark at bay. We want to SEE, so that we can DO. We’re uncomfortable in the dark because, really, what is there to DO in the darkness? How can we accomplish that one last thing on our to-do list?
In a book called Waking Up To The Dark, author Clark Strand says that our failure to “honor the darkness” has cost us our souls. “We come from the dark, and we return to the dark,” he writes. “The darkness does our thinking when we let it, and it is the darkness in which we move.”
Light and dark are linked inextricably in the natural world - from day to night, season to season, birth to death. By denying ourselves the full experience of darkness, we defy our own natural rhythms. “Because we no longer honor the darkness,” Strand writes, “we have lost touch with the journey of the soul.”
I suppose it’s natural to think about the Soul when you lose someone you’ve loved very much. I confess, I’d never given it much thought before my mother died last spring. In my somewhat sporadic religious upbringing, we didn’t dwell on the Soul, other than to learn that we all had one, it was the part of us that could be “Saved” by faith in Christ, and would then "go to Heaven” when our physical bodies died. It was almost as if the Soul got “activated” by death, and lay dormant somewhere with us until it was time to begin the next part of its journey.
But Irish poet John O’Donohue offers a different idea. “The body is in the soul,” he writes in his book Beauty. “The soul is the real container of an individual’s life. The eye assumes that it is the physical body that holds a life. However, rather than the soul being simply a component or presence within the body, the soul surrounds and pervades the body."
Part of my grief recovery process has been an effort to find meaningful ways to keep my mother’s soul close to me. If I can’t have her physical presence, I’ve looked for ways to be reminded of her soulful essence. I cook her best recipes, wear her clothes and jewelry, keep photos of her nearby in every room. Because she loved animals and nature, I watch for butterflies and birds, I pick up feathers (so many feathers!) on the ground and save them in a special decorative box. These things have brought me comfort, as if I’m still able to share something with her.
That “something” may be the connection of our two souls. “Everything that happens to us in the world passes into us,” O’Donohue writes, “and it all becomes part of the inner temple of the soul and can never be lost.” Perhaps she and I are connecting on that soulful level through all the things she valued and experienced - her love and enjoyment of her family, her home, the natural world around her. If, as O’Donohue contends, “your soul is well prepared for the arrival of death for it knows that death cannot destroy you...it cannot disassemble you,” then my mother’s soulful essence remains intact and accessible to me.
This has been a long and vicious year, friends. It has brought more loss to me and my circle of friends and family than any one year I can recall. Nor has the wider world been immune to the upheaval. The political climate here in the US is fraught with division, anger, and fear, and this new form of “climate change” appears to be spreading world wide.
It’s tempting to look at the encroaching dark days of the solstice as a fitting symbol for this current darkness in our lives. Perhaps instead the darkness offers us much needed time to go within, to step off the road so glaringly illuminated with fear and unrest, and to acknowledge the quiet work of our soul. “All through your life your soul takes care of you,” O’Donohue writes. “Through all these times, your soul is alive and awakened, gathering, sheltering and guiding your ways and days in the world."
Maybe tonight I won’t be so quick to light the candles, or flick on the light switches. Maybe the darkness can be soothing instead of scary. Maybe it’s the perfect time to be still and listen to the voice of my own soul.
As O’Donohue says: “This is the art of the soul: to harvest your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience."
This is SOULstice.