Lessons from the Dark

I’ve heard it said often lately that a long, dark winter is ahead.  Multiple friends have whispered to me, “I’m really afraid of winter this year.”  And I can tell it isn’t just winter they speak of, it’s this winter, 2020, Covid-tinged and made more traumatic by months of death, fear and uncertainty.  It isn’t new—the same unfolding occurred over 100 years ago with the pandemic of 1918—the first wave of illness and death harsh and swift, but the second, the winter following the first outbreak—worse.  Are we repeating history?  What are we to do, as humans, coping with such intense misery and darkness? 

I actually think that, in some ways, we’re much less equipped than our foremothers and fathers.  Our ancestors knew loss and grief intimately.  They knew, literally and figuratively, what it was to live in the dark—to tune to the seasons, to hunker down in the winter, to live off canned vegetables and dried meats.  They watched closely the bloom of their fields, gathered the harvest and helped the fields lie fallow.  They saw snow cover the earth and knew it was good—good for the seeds deep in the ground, good for the renewal of the soil.  They knew that unless things were covered by cold and dark, the new life of spring and the abundance of summer couldn’t come. 

Without modern medicine and understandings of sanitation and healthful living, our ancestors were also quite used to death.  Children died young, adults died of fever and accidents that we easily heal from today. 

Walking in the cemetery close to my house, I see the stories of death and loss—a mom who lost four babies, one after the other; a father, dead so young; multiple sons killed in war.  Sometimes I walk and read the gravestones just to remember and feel this reality—the closeness of death.  The pain those who have gone before us bore. 

Today it seems, we are so out of touch with death, with fields lying fallow.  We burn away darkness with electric lights, phones and the TV constantly running through Netflix shows.  We barely notice the cycles of the moon, reminding us always of this dance of light and dark.  It feels as if we are masters of our own universe, until moments like this.  Extreme death and hardship come upon us suddenly and we are demolished.  We are dumbfounded, railing against what is happening, shocked by the amount of loss and suffering. 

And well we should rail against injustices present—there is much that could have been done to keep this particular devastation from becoming so horrible, for so long.  Yet we also can handle this.  We can draw on the power and presence of our ancestors, and the stability of our own hearts, and we will get through this.  Moreover, we will become more and better because of this. 

I know this to be true to the core of my being in the only way a person can know it—through and in the darkness.  We may, as a culture, have developed many effective ways to keep the darkness at bay.  We may have, for years now, operated in the illusion that we can control and prevent the inevitable, sister death.  But still, at the core of us, woven into the fabric of our humanity, is the awareness of death—our own and those we love.  The taste of loss.  And we know, somewhere in there, when we can quiet the anxiety and fear, that we actually know how to sit with it. We feel our bones knit together with stories of loss and difficulty.  We know how to move through it.  How to do what needs to be done. 

When my sister was dying, and in the years after her death, this is one of the things that amazed me the most—strength.  I found, in myself and in my family, a strength that I had never known before, but was in me all along.  It was almost like meeting a whole new self—“oh hello, fierce and strong one.”  She rose up, roaring, to live.  When my mind was still racing to catch up with the reality of what was happening, this strength in the center of my being was doing what needed to be done.  And this wasn’t just the obvious— tending to my sister and my family, making plans, etc.  She also knelt at the altar of suffering, anointed the pain, prayed fierce prayers into the ether because every moment called for an awareness of the most intense grace, the most poignant beauty.  In all the chaos, she noticed.  She beheld beauty.  She marveled at the grace that was present. 

This amazes me to this day, and sometimes looking back it feels as if I was possessed—how did I know to do that?  How did I have the strength?  How was I not just a puddle on the floor by my sister’s bedside?  And in some moments I was—I cried more tears than I’ve ever cried.  I raged at God and all the angels.  I let Caity have a piece of my mind more than once.  In some ways it seems, all of that cleared the way for the most essential things—strength.  Grace.  Beauty.  And the most copious love. 

Now I know, it can be easy to read this and think—“well good for you.  You’re just different, more spiritual or special.”  But I really don’t think that’s true.  I think it’s just human.  It’s what we all do, what we’re all capable of, when we’re stripped of every ego agenda, of everything we thought we knew, and we enter the emptiness in front of us.  All the death and destruction actually pushes us into our essence.  We become who we are made to be. 

This is a great mystery and often I don’t understand it.  But there are days when I catch glimpses, when I hear Caity whispering to me—”Live my Er, live!”  When I know that her death has become my life.  That somehow, this ever-expanding love is and always was her Love—with me in her life, expanded in her death, and with me still.  That somehow, all the shit— suffering and death, the grief, the raging, the railing against the inevitable—has become the compost of some new thing, and if I let it—that new thing is me.  I am made new. 

I know this winter is and will be incredibly tough for so many of us.  There will be loss and great grief, sorrow and fear.  But also there will be strength.  And grace.  And so much love.  We can do this.  We are human.  We are capable of so much.  And if we let it, if we listen to the darkness and let it teach us, let it shape us and incubate us—we will become even more.  We will create more life.  Light will come, into and because of this darkness.  We will be brought to new shores. 

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