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Balancing the miracle of light with December’s darkness

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By Sunday, Dec 2, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 1

I reached my arm into the fridge the other morning only to notice that the expiration date on the gallon jug of whole milk was December 2nd — my youngest daughter’s birthday. My 11-year-old noticed, too. “The date on the milk is Corkie’s birthday,” she announced at the dinner table as she dunked a duplex sandwich cookie into a diminutive plastic cup of milk. I smiled at the connection. As she chewed, a wave of sadness washed over me. We won’t be celebrating with cake and presents this year. Cora died in September 2015, just weeks shy of her sixth birthday, due to complications following a heart transplant.

The author’s daughter, Cora, on her 5th birthday; December 2, 2014.

Suffice it to say, when the calendar turns to December my stomach invariably lurches. The fact that I’m grieving does not preclude me from finding joy during this season of inevitable darkness. Nonetheless, there is darkness — and it’s not just because Cora died. For many, the approaching holidays — often the entire stretch of time between Thanksgiving and the New Year — can be rife with feelings of loneliness and isolation that stem from myriad places. Is it possible during the holiday season to make space for both the darkness and the light — holding one in each of my two hands — all the while striving for balance?

This year, December 2nd marks not only what would have been Cora’s 9th birthday, but also the first day of both Advent and Hanukkah — two religious seasons that, while celebrating the miracle of light, give pause to reflect on the past and anticipate what is to come. The eight days of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, remember the reclaiming of the holy temple in Jerusalem. In order to rededicate the temple, the Jews needed oil to light the menorah — but there was only enough oil to burn for one night. When it burned for eight, it was a miracle of epic proportions.

For Christians, the season of Advent promises light after a period of darkness. Observed during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, it is the first of the liturgical seasons in the Christian church. It is a time of preparation, but not simply for Christmas; it is a time of penitence and expectation that allows the faithful to embrace the present while simultaneously mitigating the past and the future.

This struggle between light and darkness is perpetual. In the Northern Hemisphere, darkness deepens as the days get shorter. Leaves fall from the trees, animals store food for the cold days to come, and snow blankets the earth. December 21 is the Winter Solstice — also known as midwinter — an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. This secular observation is one that mostresonates with me, not because I cling to it as a substitute for religion, rather due to its genesis in nature. Recognition of this event, which varies across cultures, largely points to a time of rebirth. Of returning to the light. Which can only happen with a preceding period of darkness.

Starlight on the Winter Solstice.

Why, then, is the darkness so terrifying? For those whose families have an empty seat at the holiday table, it makes sense. I fit into this category; but there is a gaping absence at every meal I share with my children, 365 days a year, not just when we gather at the holidays. And the darkness differs for everyone. Why then, at this time of year, does it feel so hard?

My writer friend, Suzi Banks Baum, cuts straight to the chase: “It’s as if the dark parts are unwelcome in this brightly lit season,” she explains. Exactly. Which is why it is so incredibly important that we navigate what Suzi calls the “many dark and difficult feelings that bubble up while the world is looking all jolly and ho, ho, ho.”

I am inspired by Suzi who has made a practice of writing around themes of winter, solitude, and the inspiration she draws from the heavy pause that the natural world takes as winter approaches. “I have carved out a practice that allows for a full range of emotions that float in a sea of memory during this holiday season,” she explains. Which, at the very core, evokes balance. Suzi calls it “making room for both the celebratory aspects of this time, that honor the close of this year and the coming of the next with its new possibilities, and savoring the difficult aspects — mourning the loss of friends and family, feeling the shortened days as the Winter Solstice approaches, and not wanting to hold any of it off.”

Cora, at home, where she found immense joy in most everything she did despite her lifelong journey with heart failure.

It is now December. It is Cora’s birthday; it is the first day of Advent and Hanukkah. In my home, the Elf on the Shelf arrived last week; soon, my daughters and I will cut a white pine from the perimeter of our property and string it with lights and tinsel; we will hang stockings on the wooden banister in anticipation of them being filled; we will craft jaunty paper chains from red and green construction paper to wrap around the dining room chandelier; we will decorate rolled sugar cookies with royal icing and colored sprinkles that will cling to the bottoms of my bare feet for days following; we will be merry and bright.

But will we really? Regardless of what winter holiday you celebrate, as you hustle and bustle through the streets in the coming weeks — searching for stocking stuffers, posting parcels, and spreading good cheer — I invite you to pause for a moment and consider this: The world is full of darkness to be found at every turn; to acknowledge its presence — to hold space for it — is not the same as letting it engulf us and extinguish our light. Hold space for the darkness, and always look for opportunities to seek the light.

I will celebrate Christmas this year while missing my daughter. I haven’t forgotten about Cora. It’s a precarious tightrope walk, one I embark upon every day, and it requires exquisite balance in order to be properly executed. Some days, I am more successful than others; often I walk gracefully, while at times I stumble. Those friends who dare to utter her name or ask me how I am doing will not cause me to lose my footing and slip into the depths of despair: I am forever toeing that incredibly thin line, and I suppose I always will be. That said, there arises a common thread that has the potential to bind us all together, regardless of our differences; all it requires is a simple shift in perspective. For some, this involves finding the light in a season of darkness; for others, it requires acknowledgement that despite the ostensible merriment that abounds at this time of year, darkness encroaches. I am confident there is space for both; in fact, I promise there is.

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  1. Carol McGlinchey says:

    Thank you, Hannah, for your truth and light in the midst of your personal and our planetary darkness during this Solstice season. I am sure that your honest and heartfelt words are a comfort to many. With appreciation for your sharing this may you feel loved and supported in all ways, always.

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