Into the Darkness

The Blue Ridge mountains have disappeared behind a veil of snow.  Flakes hang like down in the air, swirling and eddying around dark silent pines and the corners of buildings.  I step out into the gathering dark.  Winter afternoons are really evenings; winter doesn’t offer anything as warm and golden as an afternoon.

I take scraps to the chickens, gather three cold eggs from the nesting boxes, and hurry to the garden to cover the little beds of lettuce, spinach, and hardy winter greens.  A few snowflakes dot the green leaves pressed close to the frozen earth.  My fingers numb, I fumble with the clothespins and hope that the thin covers I’ve given them are enough to shield these small plants from the worst of winter’s cold.

Inside, I wash the eggs, my icy fingers aching at the touch of hot water.  Christmas carols are playing, a fire dances in the woodstove, and my little dog jumps up on the sofa, relieved that I am finally sitting down to write so that she can commence with the more important business of napping.

It is the solstice, the darkest day of the year.  It’s also the end of the ancient Mayan calendar, which has struck terror, apparently, into the hearts of a number of non-Mayans.  Earlier today, at the grocery store, the cashier told me that yesterday, the store was full of people buying groceries for “the end of the world,” and she wondered when they thought they were going to be able to eat them.

There’s magic in this day, but it’s not the Disney magic of spontaneous musical numbers and happy endings.  It’s not the magic of Christmas, with its warmth and light, its sensory and symbolic overload.  The magic of the winter solstice is a quiet magic, a subtle reminder.  It is winter pared down to its essence.  It is darkness, and it is cold, those elemental forces that have threatened our frail human hearts and bodies since the beginning of time.

It feels like an especially cold, dark day this year.  We’ve watched family and friends struggle with their own personal darknesses.  We’ve grappled with our own, with abuse, addiction, illness, loneliness, despair.  We’ve all been chilled by heartbreaking violence, that horrible alchemy that transmutes the name of a town into a synonym for tragedy.

My grandfather, my hero, sits in a nursing home as Parkinson’s eats away his devilish sense of humor, his rich memories, his intoxication with life, his glorious egotism that made him wonder aloud once what the world could possibly be like without him in it.  The little Toto-dog curled up on my sofa is dying slowly of cancer.  This creature whose tiny body can hardly contain her massive attitude and her abundance of perfect love, this fur-child who slept under my babies’ cribs, may not be here when the year circles back around.  And so this middle-earth each day fails and falls.  The darkness encroaches, the cold sifts down upon us, numbing our good intentions and twining its icy tendrils around our hopes.

So here we are, balanced on the cusp of the new year, feeling the tug of the darkness, searching for meaning in an often senseless world.  I want to say something profound and beautiful about how light can’t exist without darkness, how hope is strongest precisely when things seem most hopeless, but all my words fall flat.  I don’t know what to say in the face of darkness and doubt and despair.

I realize it’s colder in the house than it ought to be, and go to the woodstove to throw another log on the fire.  The fire is out, the stove black and cold.  I crack the door.  A faint breath of air fans a few embers to red-orange.

It’s cold, and outside, the sky grows darker.  I leave the stove door open, and flames begin to flicker.  I think of the small offerings of this day–three eggs, tiny green leaves flattened against the ground, the soft sound of my dog’s breathing as she sleeps beside me, the memory of my grandfather’s mischievous grin.  These things cannot last.  We’ll eat the eggs and the greens.  My dog and my grandfather can’t live forever.  But all these things are nourishing.  I can take them in, strengthen myself against the darkness, and try to remember that life gives way to life, that tomorrow the days will start their slow lengthening, and that the Blue Ridge mountains are still there, slumbering beneath a cloak of snow.