The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.


7 thoughts on “The Darkest Day

  1. I”m a 5 element acupuncturist, which means that our healing paradigm includes understanding that the rhythm of the seasons is present in our bodies and is the key to healing. Winter is the water element; it’s about fear of the unknown and dark, about the courage to live for the hope of the spring. American culture doesn’t do well with winter, because we are taught that stillness is something to be avoided. But we need the still and quiet. We need a place to be, not do. We need the hibernation and the quiet to rest and pull inwards, so that we have a balance for the bursting energy of spring and the wild joy of summer.

    I tell all my patients to meditate…and don’t do it myself. I too, found myself at loose ends last night. Everyone was busy. I didn’t want to work on the computer, read or do anything. So I laid down on my bed and meditated, with the window open a bit and winter caressing my bare feet. In the presence of quiet and cold, I relaxed into the welcoming embrace of winter. I took myself back to the winter hike in the forest that my graduate program organized while I was in training. The cold was fierce, the snow-covered forest quiet and still. That still peace soothes me and I can feel the frazzled irritation that the frenetic pace of the holiday season lose it’s edges.

    Has my life changed? No……but I feel like I stored up a little bit of quiet for those times when I need to buffer myself in the midst of crazy.

    Peace of the solstice to you.

  2. Sarah, I’m with you again as you write and struggle and feel. This time of year is difficult for me also, and even our family gatherings feel a bit sad and incomplete. The books you mentioned are ones I’ve read–Pema Chodran’s is one I’ve read and studied multiple times and always find a new aha moment in it. I’m finally learning to let go my expectations for meditation and to just notice what comes up, then let go, breathe and start again. Sometimes my mind actually seems to have nothing in it. Then I worry about the nothing. Oh me! Oh my!
    Peace, to you and your boys.

    • Thanks so much, Susan. There is much relief in mindfulness, and I’m watching that moment of choice -the spot where sadness enters and can be indulged or put in its place as “thoughts” with attention refocused on what is in front of me. I’m slowly working my way through, rereading chapters night after night, slowing down. A bit of Mary Oliver doesn’t hurt either!

  3. I am in a similar place myself. I finally just tried meditation again last night. I had been very devoted to it after reading “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” by Karen Armstrong, but after my little brother died, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, go inside my mind. I’ve been reading “Mindsight” by Daniel Seigle (that spelling is probably wrong) lately and it convinced me it was time to try that path again. I actually found your blog while looking for UU Buddhist groups in the Detroit area.

    I truly hope your mindfulness practice – as well as the close of the holiday season – brings you some increased peace.

    • I’ve been continuing my slow re-read of Chodron and a light meditation path. I’m sitting with the restlessness and working to find quiet. It’s a work in progress, but the practice itself is rewarding. Seeing the holiday season end helps as well. Wishing you well on your journey and peace after the loss of your brother.


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