Sunset today is at 4:32. It’s the shortest day of the year. In New York, it’s common winter small talk to complain about how awful the cold and dark is. I’ll often chime in, adding my grievances to the list, pining for Julys in Michigan where I’d come out of the studio at 10pm to see swallows still swooping around. The summer light sweeps you up—pulls you along and along like it’ll go on forever.
It’s different now. This winter my days in the studio have often been starting around 3. I get in and, on a good day, there are 40 or so minutes of daylight blazing in from my western-facing windows before the sun dips below the building across the street. And then it’s dusk. And then it’s dark. I get to work.
Last night in the studio (is it night if it’s dark at 5?) I listened to a podcast with Rob Bell interviewing anthropologist/psychologist Alexander Shaia. One aspect of their conversation was darkness--- specifically the period of intense darkness that comes with the time leading to the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. Shaia described that in the Celtic tradition, this season is a time of “holy darkness” essential for the “rediscovery of vitality and creativity.” “Darkness is the beginning,” Shaia explained, “...we come back to this dark time to sit in a hallowed darkness knowing that it’s always the face of a new beginning.”
Have you ever been in total darkness? For me, it’s a favorite part of any cave tour. It seems to usually come somewhere in the middle, once you’ve gotten a little bit comfortable walking around in the bizarre subterranean wonderland. Your tour group comes to a wide spot, maybe with some benches lining the sides of the chamber, and everyone is invited to sit down with the columns of otherworldly curving stone curtains and crystals, the impossibly long stalagmites formed drip by drip. It’s such weird stuff it’s hard to believe you’re seeing it—and then BAM! you’re not! The tour guide flips off the lights and there’s no difference between eyes open and eyes closed. It’s just dark.
That kind of darkness transports you. You can’t see the cave. You can’t see your body. The dark is outside, inside, around, within. Encased in rock, but unbound from the visible, your mind is free to travel.
That’s the deep potency of the dark as a place of beginning. There’s something that stirs in that cover of emptiness. Darkness is a womb. It has the power and protection of the interior. It’s a place to dream.
In the podcast, Shaia also shared that, for the Celts, dark wasn’t considered an opposite of light, but as something fundamentally integrated with it. Working in charcoal, this sense of the integration of light and dark comes naturally to me. To make a white shape, I line it with black. To make a black shape, I line it with white. Neither can be without the other.
In this spirit of integration, Shaia explained that, for the Celts, lighting candles during winter months wasn’t something the Celts did against darkness, but to “decorate the darkness.” Conjuring images of twinkling Christmas lights, he continued, “We light candles in the dark season, we decorate our houses with lights, we put lights on a tree because… [W]e want to make the darkness luminous.”
To make the darkness luminous.
I was on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico once with a dark deck accessed by some twist and turns of halls and stairs. It felt like tunneling through Hogwarts to get there—but suddenly I stepped out into the open. Away from the colorful 24-hour buffet and the chirp of flashing slot machines, the ship’s huge motor hummed, the wind pulled my hair, the waves pushed on and on, and the sky held it all, pricked with stars.
Like candles on a Christmas tree, stars make the darkness wonderful.
It’s why I draw during the buzzing long light days of summer and the still nights of winter. I push black and white around a page, marking and erasing, highlighting and blurring. I’m beginning again and again from a blank page, from a flash of a dream. My heart aches from love and longing. I want to make the darkness luminous. I want to make it so you can see the wonderful mystery of the un-seeable.