Wednesday, December 23, 2015

O Holy Night: Darkness and Light

The church was always dim for the late Mass prelude on Christmas Eve.  Red candles burned in glass lanterns surrounded by pine boughs along the windows, the sanctuary lit only by small warm overhead lights.  We would take a seat towards the front, where we could see, though there was little to see; just to hear.  The organ always played first, a voluntary that started with a single note trill, a call out of the darkness.  There was something about the dimness that made the music even more magical, and I always found myself a little disappointed when they turned up the house lights to begin the service, looking forward to the moment when they'd turn them off again and hand out candles for "Silent Night."

And maybe that dimness, that acknowledgement of the darkness, is why I've always loved the winter solstice.

On a whim, I decided to go to my yoga teacher's solstice workshop, to mark the passing of the the darkest days, to find my body on the mat again.  She runs a class like this one every year, a candlelit affair with live kirtan and lots of savasana.  It's the sort of thing that feels luxurious when you have children at home and cookies to be baked and email to respond to and a thousand other reasons you can't go.

In truth, it had been a long time since I made time for a yoga class in general.  I let life get in the way; I don't get home in time for the evening class; I prioritize time with my children; I tell myself that it's better to get a run in on the weekends and burn some calories than to go sit still and reconnect with myself. None of these are very good excuses.  I could make time if I tried hard enough.

I  signed up online at the very last minute, and drove in the dark past home a different way than I usually go, along back county roads, past farms and small neighborhoods outlined in the pinpricks of Christmas lights.

I was early, not overly so, but enough to make small talk with others who had come for class, women who asked me warmly where I'd been, how my kids were, how work was; who told me that it was good to see me again. It was like coming home, almost, to people who didn't judge me for leaving. Which made it even funnier that when I parted the curtain to enter the studio and set up my mat, my teacher's face appeared on the other side.  "You can't come in," she said, smiling.  "Seriously?" I responded, worried that she was taunting me for missing class for so long.  "Yes, seriously!" she said, face still laughing, pulling the curtains closed behind her.  I returned to the bright chatter, waiting for her to tell us to come in, wondering what could be waiting on the other side.

When she finally called us over to begin the class, she explained that she wanted us to enter the space of darkness together, in silence, without our mats (she had set up mats for us already, across the entire floor to allow us to move as we needed to), to come with nothing.  And as we walked in together, I knew that she'd been right, to let us mark this solemnly, with the absence of sound and light.

We sat, cross-legged, as she asked us to imagine going into a dark forest, the trees closing in overheard, the scent of pine and soil and moss thick in the air, grounding ourselves through the earth. We were called deeper and deeper into the darkness, she said, deeper to the core of the forest, but without any fear; instead, she invited us to embrace the darkness, to become part of it, to dissolve into it.

When we celebrate the solstice, we celebrate the end of darkness, the beginning of longer days, the reemergence of life, victory over death.  But like those Christmas Eve preludes long ago, when I sat next to my father drinking in the candlelight and music, there's something about the darkness that is important and beautiful, too.  I revel in the quiet, in the dimness, just as I did when I was a child.  Sometimes, after everyone goes to bed, I'll turn off every light except for the Christmas tree, which glows in the corner.

Because without embracing the darkness, without becoming it ourselves, without going deep into the unknown, we can't see the stars.
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