Wrap Yourself in Darkness and Banish Fear

This essay was originally posted on my website for the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2012.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I believe that Wendell Berry’s poem “To Know the Dark,” which I did not discover until middle age, perfectly describes how I rid myself of my fear of darkness. And it symbolizes a way to tackle other fears.

My mother, knowing I was terrified of the monsters under the bed, always left a night light in my room. One night soon after I moved to the ranch when I was nine years old, my parents left me alone at home to go to a dance. I decided to cure myself before these tough sons and daughters of ranchers found out I was a “chicken.” So I went out into the darkness, alone, without a flashlight. I wandered into the barn loft; I climbed fences; as my eyes adjusted, I ventured out into the hayfield.

Part of the time I was terrified, but a couple of hours wandering around the ranch buildings and nearby pastures cured me and coincidentally made me love owls. (For the whole story, see Feels Like Far, p. 20.)

Once I’d confronted the fear– though perhaps not entirely rid myself of it– I found darkness to be important in keeping hold of my mental health. For example, by the time I wrote Windbreak, I’d discovered that checking the pregnant heifers anytime between midnight and two a.m. allowed me to really taste the darkness. (Windbreak, pp. 117-118; Land Circle, “Spring Weather,” pp. 9-11.) Once, I’m fairly sure a mountain lion shared the dark with me; the yearling steers got so spooked they knocked down a plank fence. And once I lay in a sleeping bag with my dog and watched the Perseid meteor shower and felt as if I were riding a clear glass ship through the stars. The memory can still make me dizzy when I look up at night.

And once, I had the potent experience of riding my horse home after dark, trusting in her to find our way. (Going Over East, p. 99. Also “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse,” which is posted on the Horse and Cow Stories Page of my website with a photograph of the horse.)

My ultimate experience of darkness, the event that transformed my attitude about it from acceptance to exultant love, involved a herd of buffalo. I urge you most strongly not to try it; I was desperate and lucky. (Feels Like Far, “Buffalo Winter,” pp. 72-85).

When I moved to town, I felt entirely disoriented in the light-filled city but as I wandered the stairs and rooms of the old house where I lived, I sensed its former inhabitants as friendly presences and found my senses expanding. (Feels Like Far, pp. 87-88.)

Since that first experience, I’ve tried to confront anything that scares me. I’ve managed to get over my fear of flying, for example, though I’m still not fond of heights.

Darkness, I believe, embodies humanity’s greatest fears. We appear to be growing more afraid of it every day because we are spending money we can’t afford to drive it away, to the detriment of every facet of our lives.

This literal darkness seems to be an enemy to Americans, though several states, including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, New Mexico and Texas, many municipalities and several other nations have adopted legislation designed to limit light pollution from streetlights and other fixtures. Among the rationales for such measures have been energy conservation, the reduction of glare and its resulting traffic hazards, and a desire to allow people a better view of the night sky. Several states have state organizations devoted to reducing light pollution, though South Dakota does not. Several websites provide information about “dark skies” initiatives, including www.darksky.org.

Subdivision dwellers surround their houses with lights that come on when anything moves in the area, guaranteed to drive away the wildlife. Towns pay extravagantly for lamps that blast light in all directions, not just down to the ground where it might be useful. We sleep in rooms with lighted clocks so we can tell the time at any moment of the night; sometimes we even project the time in garish orange letters on the ceiling. All night the little lights of our computers, telephones and other electronic devices wink steadily. Numerous studies suggest that constant light can damage our productivity and increase stress levels, injuring both mental and physical health.

So I propose that the best way to celebrate the solstice is to embrace the dark, both literal and figurative.

First, tackle the literal darkness. Even if you have never feared the dark, you likely have not spent much time in it lately. So celebrate the solstice by finding a place as dark as possible. I prefer to go outside, to sit quietly on a rock on my hillside or even on a chair on my deck. Take a flashlight if you wish but leave it off. Don’t take a watch. Breathe deeply until you lose track of the number of times you have done so. Close your eyes. Listen for the dark feet, the dark wings. Inhale the darkness until you can sense how it is a part of you: inside your heart, your skull.

If you can’t find darkness or don’t feel safe outside, create it inside. Take a blanket into a closet, or under the stairs; or banish electronics and draw the shades. Create as much dark as you can and make yourself a comfortable nest within it. Then simply breathe. Listen: first to the sounds outside yourself and then to the sound of your own heartbeat, your own blood in your veins. If you sleep, that’s fine. But give yourself time to absorb whatever may happen.

Another good practice you might initiate at this solstice season has practical aspects as well. Carrying an unlit flashlight in case of accident, learn to negotiate your house, any outbuildings, and your yard in darkness. The ability to move quickly without artificial light might save you in a fire or home invasion. You might even turn this into a challenging and useful game for the whole family. How quickly and quietly can you escape from your house?

There are two ways of spreading light;
to be the candle
or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

I’ve always collected quotations; it’s easier to find them about light than about darkness. Everyone from parents to teachers to priests to gurus both real and faux urge us to embrace the light. If we can’t light our own candle, some of these folks encourage us to take a happy pill. Very few mention that darkness can be a benefit.

I don’t want to suggest that such therapies are useless; sometimes they save lives. But in the glare of constant light we may temporarily forget things that will ambush us when our defenses are down, our eyes are closed, the pills wear off.

Deliberately confronting the figurative darkness, the shadowy places in our own hearts and minds, may seem more difficult than flipping on light switches, but I believe solstice is a good time to do it. Now the universe forces us to realize that darkness is inevitable as the earth turns away from the sun. Embrace the dark now, so that it doesn’t sneak up and wallop you on the head some cold February night. Remember that sleep brings its own darkness, always beneficial; we might consider winter a refreshing nap.

Here’s my example. For the book I’m writing now [Gathering from the Grassland, 2017, High Plains Press], I have spent considerable time the past four years reading journals and letters left me by family members: my father, mother, mother’s mother and others. Deciphering their handwriting, turning wrinkled pages, I’ve spent months watching them disintegrate, seeing truths in their writing that I did not see when they were alive. Busy with my own life, I knew they were failing, but I was enmeshed in the hard labor and bickering of that time, watching my husband slowly sicken and die. Reading those documents has helped me understand actions that seemed incomprehensible then.

Reading my own journals has been even harder. Like most people, I did things in my 20s and 30s I wouldn’t have done if I’d known then what I know now.

Worse yet, I took notes, so I can go back and read about my confusion. Sometimes I’m surprised that the facts I wrote down at the time don’t match the golden light of memory I’ve reflected over particular incidents. My writing and record-keeping habits will not allow me to simply burn these journals and rewrite history. Instead I’ve pursued myself in my own history throughout the past couple of years and spent considerable time reflecting on the past. Yes, it was painful, but the enlightenment and release I’ve experienced has been worth it. I’m going to acknowledge all of this confrontation when I celebrate the winter solstice this year.

I can’t promise you that your confrontation will drive away the pain of loss and foolishness, but I believe anguish will decrease, and understanding will fill the gaps.

After crawling into my own dark places, I spent some time berating myself for failing to see then what I see more clearly now. Upon reflection, though, I’ve concluded that I didn’t do too badly with my knowledge at the time. I was loyal to those I loved–- though sometimes I was mistaken or lied to. Where it’s possible, I’ve atoned for the mistakes I made; in some cases I make amends daily.

In the cold darkness of this solstice season, look at your mistakes. Study them until you see where you went wrong or until you understand as much as possible about how they were made. Then lock them into a heavy chest; drag it to the center of the stone cellar under the house of your soul. Lock the door; set the dragons on watch. Leave the past mistakes behind. Go upstairs into the light and repair any error you can. Apologize. Pay the fines. Then do better next time.

Leonard Cohen found the perfect metaphor in his song “Anthem:”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

The winter solstice– occurring at 6:12 a.m. eastern standard time on December 21 [2012]– is the longest night of the year, when darkness covers the land. That moment also marks the beginning of the return of the light.

Dive into darkness knowing that the light will come. Ring your own bells; offer your cracked self to the universe and wait in the warm darkness for the light.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This Solstice I am wrapped in a particularly deep darkness because my partner of nearly 30 years, Jerry Ellerman, died on September 18, 2020 from injuries received in an automobile accident. I face this long cold winter with only my Westie, Hattie, for company.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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14 thoughts on “Wrap Yourself in Darkness and Banish Fear

  1. Berta Morgan

    Good morning. I don’t know if it helps but you are not alone. We are out here reading your thoughtful posts, sharing your experiences, and linking them to our own. Keep writing and sending it out into the universe. I am listening.

  2. Glenda

    My condolences for the loss of your friend. Like you, I am alone now with my canine friend. Your posts are welcome and enjoyed. Your readers admire you and care.

  3. I care, too. Christmas Day will mark 30 months since my husband of nearly 56 years died. I’ve just recently become acquainted with your work and am thrilled to know about your writing assistance to so many. Lois

    1. Sorry for my long delay in responding, Lois; I thought of you — and others with losses– on Christmas Day. So many of us share these feelings, and that’s sometimes hard to remember in the dark of the night. Thank you for your response, and I hope you enjoy my blog.

  4. Jake Kammerer

    `Linda, thanks for sharing. Again, my condolences. A widower myself I understand somewhat your loss and the darkness of which you speak. But, your ability to share your thoughts so well and offer aid to others shows your humanity and soul. I plan on viewing tonight the conjunction of the two planets, Saturn and Neptune, which hasn’t happened in 800 some years. Here in Silver City the skies thankfully are quite dark. Really enjoy your writings, but now you’ve got me interested in a couple more books! (Reading is a great Covid pastime!)
    Merry Christmas, take care, Spring cometh!

    1. My apologies for taking so long to reply, Jake. I’m glad my words can help others; they are my wan of trying to find my own route through the darkness.
      I assume you are related to my friend Marv Kammerer and I hope you saw the planets that night. I did, and thought of you and all the others who were watching.

      1. Jake Kammerer

        Yes, Marv is an older brother; I, @76 (day after Christmas) am youngest of 13- Marv and other bros never let me forget I alone was at fault for taking Mom from them @ Christmas, leaving he , his twin bro and younger bro at the ‘mercy’ of the oldest ‘sisters-in-charge’ that he claims were the fault of he and his brothers’ “emotional depravements.” (I have to admit to defending with “Yeah, but Dad and Mom saved the best to the last!”, gathering from them “S—“! ) No, we were blessed with a lot of love and sibling bickering.
        I hope that the New Year is good to you. I live in a very small bubble with this virus, don’t go anywhere to speak of and only if necessary. Will get the vaccine as soon as possible, like you, I hope. However, my thoughts are that we have not seen nearly the end of this thing for quite some time to come. But, solitude is not to be cussed when much can be gained by it, as monks of old proved.
        Looking ahead to ‘Green Grass”!,, later, jk

  5. Melissa

    So sorry to hear of your loss Linda. I love and appreciate the way your writing always grounds me. Welcome to the loners club; we are never alone.

  6. Condolences from another reader who was first impressed by your speaking at a SCN conference many years ago and continues to follow your thoughtful and thought provoking posts today. I was just thinking about the solstice and how it marks for me the turn from winter darkness to more daylight and the beginning of another year, hopefully less strange and less stressful than the one we have endured. I wish you peace and inspiration.

    1. Thank you, Sarah Fine, and I apologize for being so tardy to respond. I have been struggling with the meaning of the solstice myself, since I have been enveloped in darkness since the death of my husband, Jerry Ellerman, on 9/18.And as seems to be the norm, many other things went wrong at the same time, so I’ve been busy with things that I would rather not deal with while in mourning. But that’s the way life is, isn’t it? We don’t get a special Mourning Vacation when we can concentrate. I have been sitting outside in the sun on warm days, and that helps.

  7. Julie Weston

    Linda, your Notes always spark thoughtfulness and inspiration, and I thank you. I am so sorry for your loss of Jerry. Indeed, your being alone with your Westie makes this season even darker and the way of it is so stunning as to knock you flat.

    I thought you might like to know of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the first in the United States outside of cities and parks. I helped with the application several years ago and we were accepted by the International Dark Sky organization. I live in it. Having our dark skies lessens our darkness with starlight nearly every night in our high mountain desert in Idaho.

    May you find peace and comfort in the days and weeks to come. I hold you in my heart.

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