Halfway Out of the Dark: Thoughts on Yule

untitled-design-3

“This little light of mine,” I sang at the top of my lungs in children’s Sunday school, “I’m gonna let it shine!” The room full of preschoolers held up their pointer fingers as if they were reenacting a candlelight vigil.

“Hide it under a bushel?” we sang as we cupped a hand over our little lights. “NO!” would be the thunderous response, “I’m going to let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

I heard a lot about light growing up. I was taught God was light and that Jesus was the light to the world. Light embodied goodness, the divine, and power. “The light is more powerful than darkness,” the senior pastor liked to say. “When you flip a light switch, the darkness vanishes.” It didn’t come slinking back for another round after it’d put some mixed veggies from the freezer on its eye. Light prevailed, instantly. Darkness didn’t even stand a chance. Providing that lightbulb keeps working, you’ll be darkness-free.

Electricity was a common working metaphor for light, but I think it played a part in us missing why the metaphor for light would have been meaningful to the original writers and readers of the bible. They didn’t have electricity. They couldn’t just flip a switch. Light was important because they knew what darkness truly was.

Sometimes there isn’t a light switch to banish darkness with a single command. Sometimes there is no light. Sometimes things are just dark. And darkness can be terrifying. Read More


The Fall Equinox: Changing with the Leaves

10930209196_2a8efcf3d1_o

Flickr CC Kim B.

“Have you ever thought that maybe the trees would enjoy seeing you change color too?” an advertisement for sweaters asked me as I looked through a clothing catalog. That was several years ago, but I think about the question every year as I pull out the plastic purple tub containing my sweaters and scarves. The shades of yellow, blue, and red being packed away neatly for next summer are so different than the autumnal shades on the chunky cable knit sweaters that I gradually go through, welcoming back each one as I place it on a hanger in the closet.

This is how I celebrate the fall equinox. By changing color, too. “I changed color for you,” I’ll say as I walk past a tree in all the golden glory of early fall just to ensure she hasn’t missed my own new color palette.

I’d wanted to do something a bit more this year to celebrate the fall equinox. I’d meant to put some research into it and maybe choose something that felt me enough to try incorporating it into my own private welcoming-my-favorite-season-of-them-all ritual.

“I missed the fall equinox,” I said glumly to my husband last night as he crawled into bed next to me.

“But that’s the nice thing about no longer being in your old paradigm,” he replied. I was raised in a religious paradigm that was seeped in legalism and guilt. “The fall equinox isn’t going to get mad.”

“But the fall equinox didn’t get mad before,” I said. “I didn’t even know when it was. It was demonic.” Read More


Three-Fourths Out of the Dark: Candles, Rocks, And the Spring Equinox

10261218_862132647230586_689839717_n(1)

Starting a new spring equinox ritual.

You might not have noticed, I almost didn’t, but it was both Palm Sunday and the spring equinox this last Sunday. This means that we’re now, officially, three-fourths of the way out of the dark. It means that even though it’s still cold and dark and rainy, there are also nearly-neon yellow daffodils practically bursting for their neighbors to finally bloom in order for them to break into a floral rendition of Here Comes the Sun.

Spring caught me a little by surprise this year. I’d wanted to create an altar of sorts, a slice of sacred space in the middle of all the messiness, chaos, and monotony that is life. But I didn’t even realize it was the spring equinox until it was standing on my door, demanding to be let in even though I was still in my old-man style striped pajamas. I was so out of touch with the changing seasons that it was the Google image that first tipped me off. Read More


Fighting the Winter Blues

8533102693_4db51a2855_k

Flickr cc Stefan Lins

I shuffle from the kitchen in the direction of my desk, unshowered and still in my pajamas, a bowl of cold breakfast cereal with blueberries in my right hand and a mug of chamomile tea in my left. I pull out the chair and sit down at my oversized black desk. It’s perfect for art projects, laying out books while researching, or collecting clutter. Today it just has clutter. After settling myself into my chair, I turn on my happy light.

I live in Washington, not too far south of Seattle, so we don’t tend to get a lot of sunshine here. I love all that glorious green but we pay for it through the nose by giving up most of our sunshine visitation rights. And like a lot of Washingtonians, I’ve become rather well acquainted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) over the years. Last February, however, was different. Last year it felt like the smog of depression just wouldn’t lift (save those rare days when the sunshine lit up the sky and made all of us poor sun-deprived folks more than a little gaga). So I bought one of those fake-sun lights and added it to my morning regimen, right before showering and right after pouring almond milk on my favorite cereal.

The light does cut through some of that I-really-could-use-some-vitamin-D depression; it does help me wake up. But what I hadn’t expected was for it to become such a self-preserving, soul-saving morning ritual for me. Here it is a year later and I’m still using it. This February just in need of it as the last. February is one of the hardest SAD months for me; there are no longer any holiday lights to add some warmth but it’s still cold, dark, bleak winter. The winter solstice might mean that we’re halfway out of the dark, but February says, “You’re not out of the dark yet.”

After I turn on my light, I sit there crunching my cereal, and when I’ve fished every last piece out of the white ceramic bowl, a favorite wedding presents from two years ago, I start in on my mug of tea. The pace is slow and rhythmic, like breathing—breathe in, breathe out. I don’t plan my to-do list for the day. I just sit there focusing on my warm tea as I gradually sip it down.

I’m a recovering productivity enthusiast. Relaxation makes me uncomfortable, just-for-fun is hard. What is the purpose? I want to know. How is this being productive? What greater good is being achieved? How is this helping anyone? But there is nothing to achieve, no purpose to accomplish. I let my drive to be productive go, at least a little. And I just sit there greeting the morning, being aware of the now.

Breathe in, breathe out.

The timer indicating that it’s been forty-five minutes hasn’t gone off, and I’m done with breakfast. But I don’t move on to the to-do list. Instead, I journal or collage; play with poetry or read a novel; make a greeting card or compose a letter. I relax into the moment. I stay in the moment. I enjoy the moment. (Or at least I try.)

Breath in, breath out.

Since I was a kid mornings have always been the time of day I’ve seen as having the highest productivity potential—a chance to really get the day started off well. Part of this was my childhood church’s emphasis on morning devotions happening every day (and it literally had to be in the morning). Ideally, you would pray for about fifteen minutes, then read a chapter or two in the Old Testament, followed by a chapter or two in the New Testament, and then if you were really an overachiever (I was) you’d also add in a Psalm and a chunk of Proverbs. And then finish it all off with another prayer (being sure to include the different types of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication).

For me mornings weren’t spiritual, they were regimented. And I didn’t always keep to my rigid schedule, so often times there was a lot of guilt hanging in the morning air. Guilt, like depression, is heavy and sticky. And it’s hard to shake.

Some of this morning legalism was church related, and some of it was just me and my own purpose-driveness. But my forty-five minutes with my little happy light has helped with both. My new morning ritual has made mornings about relaxation rather than achievement; self-care, instead of perfection; spirituality, instead of legalism; fighting the winter blues, instead of fighting demons.

As Lent begins tomorrow I find myself looking forward to Easter, spring, and the summer solstice. I want to wear bright colors and unpack my sandals and run my fingers through the cool, green summer grass. I want a little more sunlight, dammit.

As a quasi-Lutheran, I somewhat observe Lent. I don’t fast. Even though I wasn’t raised in the liturgical tradition so Lent wasn’t a part of my life or faith, I’ve done enough fasting in the name of religion to last a lifetime. So I use it as a season of self-care, a chance find light and warmth in the winter. This year during Lent you’ll find me in the mornings with my happy light, thankful that we’re more than halfway out of the dark.

12547497_572634056245418_94533821_n

In related news, I not only got a pretty awesome inner-child-inspiring card from my friend Stephanie, she also sent me some homemade sunshine. Homemade magic. It’s currently next to my happy light. Go find some light, dear readers. Go make some sunshine. 


Halfway Out of the Dark: Candles, Christmas, And the Winter Solstice

11153760234_82620f4c80_z

Flickr CC Markus Grossalber

It was thirty-two degrees that morning as I stood at my regular bus stop next to 7-Eleven. I’ve never done well with cold temperatures, so I pulled out all my winter gear: down vest, black water-proof jacket (a wardrobe staple in the Seattle region), thick socks, winter hat, and gloves.

Right below the bus stop sign there were glass candle holders with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The weather hadn’t been that great that week—lots of wind and rain (it’s Washington, so mostly rain). But the four candles were burning.

There was a balloon on a stick that was stuck into the ground reading, “I love you.” Another read, “Thinking of you.” There were flowers strewn around the ground. The artificial ones were still standing up smartly, still holding their color. But the bouquets of real flowers hadn’t survived all the rain and had turned into a soggy mess of petals, stems, and tissue paper on the concrete.

I’d brought flowers, too. I’d written a card. I’d made a sign reading that the regular riders of our bus route remembered. That I remembered. But now it was all gone, just a part of the water-logged mess.

But the candles burned on.

I hadn’t known the victims—a seventeen-year-old boy and his father. They’d been sitting at the bus stop around five in the afternoon, right at peak when they charge you an extra 25 cents. They’d just been sitting there at their regular stop. At my regular stop. And someone drove by and shot them right there.

The younger brother was there too, but he wasn’t hit. But that’s not true, not really. He wasn’t hit; he was shattered. His world ended at five o’clock in the afternoon as the rush hour traffic was just beginning to form.

Lives were taken. Lives were shattered. Evil left its mark. Darkness entered our bus stop and our neighborhood.

But the candles burned on.

Candles like that don’t keep burning forever. They have to be lit, and relit. It was morning. It was cold. But someone had already been there to light them. Someone made sure that they burned on. There were puddles of wax around the candles. They had obviously tipped over, spilling hot wax onto the cement. But someone had righted them. Someone had relit them.

The candles burned on during the longest nights of the year.

As a small child I didn’t even know when the Winter Solstice was but I’d been warned against it. I imagined pagans dancing around bonfires, casting spells, and playing with tarot cards as The Satanic Bible peeked out of their back pockets. The Winter Solstice was spiritually scandalous. It was the time when all the dark things crept out from under that dusty, cluttered spot under your bed; all the mischief and mayhem that lurked in the shadows, afraid of the light, beckoned to one another to come out and play.

But now, as an adult, I’m beginning to find a tremendous amount of comfort in the Winter Solstice. It’s a time of darkness, but not dark doings. It’s a time for light to shine. It’s a time for the candles to burn on when we need them most.

Every time I stand at my bus stop I’m reminded that somewhere, very nearby, a family is mourning. For them this festive time of year is undoubtedly a time of anguish. Their hearts are grieving, hurting. If the Wise Men showed up at their home, they’d bring myrrh.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

I have two friends whose fathers passed away recently. They’re living in the shadow of death as Jingle Bells pays on the radio; living in the isolated valley of grief and loss.

There were four warm, friendly white-haired women who sat in front of the husband and me at church—I think of them as our Lutheran grandmothers. These adorable older women have helped their church to feel safe to me despite my Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. And I found out this Sunday that one of them passed away. Her funeral service will be three days before Christmas, on the longest night of the year.

I had to call 911 last week because of a domestic disturbance across the street. I looked out the window when I heard scared children screaming, “No, Dad! No!” to see an angry man waving a large kitchen knife aggressively as his children jumped into a car that quickly pulled out of the parking lot, driving them to safety. I feel like I haven’t even recovered from the scene, so I know the children haven’t.

So much darkness. So much hurt. And that’s only looking at the small sliver of humanity that I have access to. When I turn on the news or read articles online I’m greeted with more darkness, more bleakness. So much violence. So much pain. So much sorrow. So many people in need of shelter and safety. So many people who are afraid, and rightfully so.

I don’t know how to handle it, this darkness. So much death and grief and brokenness, so much pain. The darkness is so thick that sometimes it makes me feel like I’m chocking. And December, despite all of the holiday lights and super sales, has a way of making that worse.

December is a time of year that can bring with it great joy and also great sadness. It’s like the Great Multiplier. Whatever feelings you’ve been experiencing already are multiplied, accentuated, and accelerated. When you’re already feeling an ache in your chest, tears are already threatening you at gun point, it makes it even worse. So much worse.

One of the most comforting moments in this month for me is on Christmas Eve. The nativity, whether it’s history or myth, brings comfort in the middle of these cold, dark nights as I hold my red pew hymnal and my candle while singing Joy to the World. It’s a joyful, beautiful, precious, light-filled moment.

The candle burns on.

I have a thing about candles. They can be symbolic or spiritual or sentimental or sensual or scented (and I’m sure all sorts of other alliterations I can’t currently think of). A little bit of light in a very dark time.

This little bit of light doesn’t fix everything. Or anything, for that matter. It doesn’t mean death hasn’t touched our lives; it doesn’t mean that existential crises have come to a close; it doesn’t mean healing has finally been achieved; it doesn’t that we’re feeling all sappy and sentimental every time we hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Last Christmas playing over the noise of people shopping. It doesn’t mean things are fixed. It doesn’t even mean things are okay. It doesn’t mean we like the holidays or any of this.

Candles don’t fix things. They don’t heal things. But they provide just a little bit of light.

To me the light—symbolic and literal—this week of the Winter Solstice and Christmas reminds me that I did it. It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas. Or the Winter Solstice.”

The holidays can be an extremely hard time of year for a lot of people. And if you’re feeling that way, may the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, remind you that you’re halfway out of the dark.

In a few days the holidays will be over. In a few days we’ll be changing out the calendars. In a few days you take down the holiday wreath, burn the tree, and never be forced to say merry fucking Christmas for an entire year. In a few days the sun will begin to resurface. In just a few days.

Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.