As a kid, I dreaded the stretch between New Jersey and New York City when our family station wagon would descend into the underworld, otherwise known as the Holland Tunnel, to cross through the dark waters of the Hudson River. Since then, every mid-December, I feel like I’m transported to the way-back seats of that station wagon to watch the lights of the tunnel sweep over us at regular intervals, all the time praying we make it back to the open air and neon swirls of what’s on the other side.
Part of it has to do with the truncated length of each day, only about 9 and a half hours long near the winter Solstice, but a bigger factor is the quality of darkness. When it gets dark, it gets really dark: a black charcoal darkness that makes driving home past sunset feel like I’m back in that tunnel, especially when I’m beyond the reach of street lights, and the inky clouds wrap tight around those on earth.
This year, the nights seem longer because the son of dear friends, someone we had watched grow from boy to man, died suddenly. I look into the big blanket of gray, frigid air with sadness in my heart — for the sorrow of a beautiful man’s life cut short, and for the seasons of pain my friends and their family are inhabiting. The anniversary of another big loss approaches in a few days, and despite the warmth and lights of winter holidays, I often experience December as having a particularly hard underside.
December has a way of reminding us of what despair echoes within and around us, but it also calls us to see anew in the dark. I think of how David Abram, in his writings, teachings, and in conversation with us, talks about “the good darkness.” In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes:
The story [of the sun’s journey] follows a kind of perceptual logic very different from the abstract logic we learned at school. It attends closely to the sensuous play of the world, allowing the unfolding pattern of that display to carry us into a place of dark wonder.
In this time of more night than day, there’s exactly “the unfolding pattern” and the subsequent “dark wonder” now visible not just because of what this darkness reveals, but what it conceals, which for me encompasses a lot of bright and shiny distractions. These long nights make it easier to see in the dark, and to see how much our lives are patterned by forces and sources far more vast than our thoughts and habits of thinking.
It turns out this darkness isn’t really a tunnel, but a time to wander through the open and mysterious space on the other side of whatever we’re tunneling through in our lives. It’s also this: a call to learn more about the art and necessity of slowing down, and although I’m a slow learner, I’m looking toward how I can hang out more with what is in between cooking something hot to eat, sleeping more than usual, and right now, watching the dark cedars wave hello or goodbye against the darkening sky.