The Longest Night

The Longest Night

. 4 min read

[Update: The Reverend Vito Aiuto won the contest from my last post by correctly guessing the verse that inspired my short story about Jacob: Genesis 45:26. I am headed to give him an actual present in the flesh right now, but I also want to give him this gift: all of you go buy and listen to his gorgeous new album, Esther, right now for Christmas!]

I am writing this at 2:15 pm Eastern Standard Time from Brooklyn, New York, where I sit on the couch in my apartment by the window watching automobiles and pedestrians flow by like detritus on a swift river. The sun is slung low and gauzy and has only just appeared to frame me for a few brief minutes on its sideways journey through the sky, so I pause to close my eyes and feel the warmth on my cheeks and enjoy the orange glow on the back of my eyelids while pretending it’s summer and I’m lying in a field or on a beach. My breathing slows. By 3 PM the sun will set behind the brownstone across the street and by shortly after 4 PM it will be completely dark outside to contextualize the 30-degree temperatures and icy wind gusts. There will have been only nine hours or so of actual sunlight in New York City today, much less if you factor in the skyscraper skyline.

This is the worst day of the year; it is also the best: winter solstice for the Northern hemisphere. Worst because this is the shortest day of the year with the longest night. It is the low-point of every year for me. I love light; I struggle with darkness. Most everything I love to do in life requires sunlight and warmth. Few of the things I love can be done (or remain appealing if your only options) when you are trapped for months indoors. I don’t always love my coping mechanisms. I can be a monk in the morning and a monster at night. I struggle to sleep, always.

What would it mean to welcome and explore all of our seasons? Especially the ones hardest for each of us? I am a lover of peak-summer and that’s what feels to me like flourishing. Here I am at summer’s opposite. Much of my energy is spent attempting to minimize winter and maximize summer: warm-climate vacations, refusing to hibernate by staying busy or planning, filling silence with noise, resisting any deep time spent in and with my own shadows. But what if we need the seasons the way we need air, the way we need breath? Try something with me. Go ahead, start from the beginning and begin a new breath, a real one, right now. Go slowly. Pay attention. Start breathing in. Doesn’t it feel a bit like spring, like life pouring slowly into capillaries? Now draw in until your lungs are full and hold it there, feel the sway of summer, the potency, the power, the potential. As you slowly release the spent air now imagine the fall season, get to the end and force out even the fragments of breath that usually lay lodged down there, purge that waste like colorful leaves. Now you’re out of breath. How does it feel to sit in that? Now you are vulnerable and in need. You wonder how long you can last like this. Now you grow a bit scared and want to save yourself and go back to not thinking at all about how much you depend on the gift of breath but you can't. Now you feel you might die as if by drowning. Now it is winter. Now is the longest night. Who chooses this?

Albert Camus wrote, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” I’m glad for him, but I have no idea what he means by that. Winter has proven more powerful than my inner resources to imagine it away or endure it. Winter is interminable and insufferable. Winter ruins me. It ends me. But what if there are gifts given in knowing, surrendering to, and working with the time you are actually in? What if wisdom is going with the flow of the seasons? What if we need the cycle of our spirits for growth? If so, then maybe winter makes offerings to us too.  Maybe seasons of darkness become times for fallow and fasting, for rest and recovery, for silence and solitude. Long nights become times for resting in the dark, for journaling your inner shadows by a fire, for reflection and recommitment to deeper more honest work when it returns to fullness. Winter invites you to come to the end of yourself. Death for the sake of new life to come. Breathlessness which is the precondition for inspiration (to be “in-spirited” or “breathed into”).

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Under the cover of night and threats from a tyrant, some years later, three seekers far from home followed a long slow clue through the night to an unlit dusty structure where animals fed and a new beginning was swaddled in cloth. Tomorrow there will be one more minute of light. The light will grow and swell and expand, day by day, until those who dwell in a land of deep darkness on them the light will shine and shine, until it spends its strength and retreats once more and I find myself again here at this longest night and ask, “What might God do with me in my darkness?”