On a particularly bitter and emotionally difficult winter solstice four years ago, I stayed up late singing by candlelight, and these words came to me in an endless refrain:
let this night be dark
let this dark bring light
let this light be strong
let my heart be light
This song has become my annual prayer for strength and renewal on the darkest day of the year. The intention behind the words especially rings true now, after several years of intensive transformation; despite my intentions to approach change with grace, I find that I still need to ask for a light heart in the presence of darkness.
When I moved from central North Carolina to southern Vermont at 18, I became a student of the winter. December was no longer a month of 40 degree rain; instead, I found myself trudging through one or two feet of snow, watching the moon’s crystalline halo turn the birch trunks into upended bones, learning the snow’s specific, quiet language. Though my body despises the stiffness and pain brought on by cold weather, the season offers my heart a new perspective on the natural world–if summer is the movie reel, where all beings move and grow at full speed, winter is the still frame.
That first winter in New England gave way to four more in Vermont, and another three in the heart of the Midwest. Every year, when the weather turns and the first snow falls, I grit my teeth and clench my fists against ice and blustering wind, threatening the sky that I’ll pack up and move south again if the temperature falls below 10 degrees. By this time in December, though, I find myself making peace with the cold.
After years of doing this dance between rejection and acceptance of the darkest season, I have come to celebrate the winter solstice as a moment of opportunity. I used to feel pure relief on the shortest day of the year, as if dawn and dusk on the solstice mark an invisible, protective line that darkness cannot cross. Now, I see the long night ahead as a sacred time when I can directly face that which troubles me, and acknowledge the presence–and impermanence–of that which challenges me.
In honor of this winter solstice, I offer up a recent poem that speaks to the delicate balance between daylight and darkness. I began working on this poem this summer after watching a documentary about Hang Son Doong–an enormous cave in Vietnam–and completed it this November, after a residency at The Atlantic Center for the Arts.
I wish you peace, warmth, and acceptance as the longest night of the year begins.
* * * *
to Carsten Peter
“We witnessed a thunderstorm going over us,
and it rumbled, and it echoed, and suddenly you heard splashing
and rumbling and water coming like water filling pipes,
and everything sounded in another dimension…”
–photographer Carsten Peter inside Hang Son Doong,
the “River Mountain Cave,” in Quang Binh province, Vietnam
Inside the cave’s passageways
where you thought there could only be
darkness inside darkness inside darkness
like the belly of a snake
ready to consume you,
there is light. You turn the corner
and there is light, and what’s more,
there is green. You have come this far:
for miles you traced a wide river
back to its natal place, noting new types of stone formations
in your small notebook, spending hours arranging floodlights
and yelling to the porters in broken English, waiting
for their voices to crackle back
over the walkie-talkie in Vietnamese.
You lit the chambers so you could photograph them;
there was no light unless you pressed the switch. Until now.
Standing under the sinkhole, you see how
the jungle has rearranged itself to colonize
a subterranean territory. In the heart of this cave
is the brightest sunlight filtered through leaves,
its most interior place broken open
to become inside and outside at once,
a live Mobius strip. The trees in this rainforest
reach for the light; they do not take their access
for granted. You describe them as slim, tender.
They are a hundred feet tall.
I have never been here, to Hang Son Doong,
nor have I seen a rainforest inside a cave
except in your photographs. But tonight in the meditation hall
I placed my eye inside my heart and I saw green
growing there, extending itself towards the light;
I saw the caved-in parts and the fallen boulders
that made way for the sun, after all this time.
I saw that the erosion of the mountain
over a few million years is what allows for this,
that darkness is what allows for darkness to end.
In the language of this one place, this cave inside the jungle
with a jungle inside it, broken means new space
where before there was only rock,
old as time.
(c) 2013 by D. Allen. All rights reserved.