Who’s Afraid of the Dark?
o go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight,
and find that the dark,
too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
– Wendell Berry
Several years ago at a conference centered around divination, I was approached by a publisher who had heard about the collection of Daily Blessings – a collaborative project between illustrator Cassandra Oswald and myself.
Now the person who approached me worked in acquisitions for a large company that publishes a number of different card decks. They were intrigued by the notion of publishing a deck of blessings that could also be worked with as a divination tool. I knew that many people in my community were waiting for the Daily Blessings to be published because I received (and still do receive) requests every single week for exactly that – so I was game.
Then I showed her a few samples, and I’ll never forget what happened next.
She actually flinched, even cringed.
Her reaction was automatic and visceral. The blessings were great, but the white-on-black artwork was too…how shall we put it? Depressing, dreary, dark – some of the words that she used.
One of the most challenging blessings, as you can see above, is…black itself, without any white at all.
Would I be interested in taking the blessing phrases and working with a different artist in order to make a deck that the company would take to market?
(Depressing? Dreary? Since when has black meant these things…?)
She showed me artwork along the lines of what she was thinking: light pastel watercolors done up in what I think of as the high fantasy artistic tradition.
(Oh. No. no. no.)
I would have loved to say yes. But how could I?
The reaction to the darkness the daily blessings elicited that day has given me much thought. She is a smart woman with her thumb on the pulse of the burgeoning spiritual and “New Age” movements. She knows that the typical charge in our Sacred Arts communities is “love and light” not “love and dark”. She understands that many in our communities refer to themselves as “light workers” who illuminate and dispel darkness and “dark” negativity. She sees how culture, media, and entertainment have taken darkness and blackness and aligned them mostly with the scary and the unknown – sometimes in an exotic and alluring way, but mostly in just a one-dimensional frightening way so that darkness is bad and is meant to be banished or destroyed.
So, when the acquisitions person from the big, impressive, publisher wrinkled her nose at my beautiful black blessings, I knew that this publisher was not the right fit for me, and my response upon being asked to work with a different artist was a simple: “No thank you, I’m not afraid of the dark and neither are my people.”
I could not be interested in ‘using’ another artist for many reasons (as if artists are to be used). I had a working relationship with a talented young artist already for this collaboration, and the artistic style she and I had chosen was not accidental. Her concrete artistic choices have become an integral part of the daily blessings – separating them is unthinkable.
When I first approached Cassie with the idea of the Daily Blessings, I did not have in mind 365 unique and original art pieces. That came from her, as only one with her gifts and unique sensibility could conceive.
But I did have in mind the idea of white images and text on a black background. I wanted us to visually represent the concept of blessings written upon the dark like stars in the night sky. Dark is most essential to those little points of light. Even in an aurora, the darkness supports the luminous.
My love affair with real darkness is one that I come by honestly and it runs in the family. I like to think in truth a love of darkness runs in all families in different ways, shapes and forms. Some of my earliest memories are waking up at my grandparents house when everything was still very dark outside, usually around 3 or 4am. I would creep from my grandmother’s bedroom into my grandfather’s bedroom, because I knew he would be up – and if he wasn’t awake he would be getting up soon, for he was a military man and came from a farming family; and he kept the early morning hours found in both traditions.
Sometimes I would nudge him awake and ask him to play the guitar for me, and he would, in the darkness, play his acoustic guitar and sing me songs – starting with gospel standards, moving into honky-tonk and blues.
Sometimes he would already be up, sitting in the living room; and I would go and join him and sit with him, in the darkness and the quiet. As I’ve written elsewhere, he showed me about black and dark: life-giving, nurturing, and nourishing, and as sources of blessing – not as something to be feared. My mother inherited the same trait and can be found sitting in the darkness, cup of coffee in hand, most mornings, engaged in her own prayers and rituals.
I was the first to go to college in my immediate family. Now the college itself was a unique one; but just being there for me was a culture shock. Another student told me once that he thought I didn’t belong there – because I was strange: I didn’t seem cultured and intellectual, or I was blonde with brown eyes (not blue – imagine!), or I was an outspoken woman (as opposed to…), or – worst of all – I refused to give him money to buy booze for a party (as if I had any to give). But you know, I sometimes feared he was right; maybe I didn’t really belong there.
I had no idea what I was getting into, but college finally worked for me. When papers were due, I would go to bed early-ish, somewhere around 9pm, and get up at 3am – the same hours my grandfather and mother would get up. And then, when the parties were over, the drunks were in bed, the bars were closed, I would stealthily make my way across campus to one of the common rooms where I could write and work without being disturbed.
No one was awake. It was me and the all-black maintenance crew who was headed up by an older man – small, tough and protective – who reminded me very much of my own grandfather.
Being awake before anyone else, in the dark, talking to the janitors, was one of the times in college when I felt most at home and also missed home the most.
Good, black, dirt is an essential medicine in my family. We love to grow things and so we need the humus-rich soil that allows growth to happen. Good, black, coffee has pulled me out of a serious asthma attack on more than one occasion. To me and for me, going into the dark has always been restorative, it cleanses of too much light and too much noise, it allows me to be still, to be (as the Baptist hymn says) just as I am. Darkness calms and soothes.
I know I am not alone. Darkness asks us to rely on senses other than – deeper than – physical sight. Our delicately tuned body comes alive in the darkness in a way that it does not during the day. Paradoxically, it is in the darkness that one is best able to hear ones inner voice, to listen to the ‘Holy Helpers’, whatever they happen to be; to hear the calls and heed them, and thereby to really know and remember one’s own heart.
It is in the dark that I find rest, I find wonder, and fathomless mystery.
I do not think it is coincidental at all that when left to our own devices, all mammals preparing to give birth seek out one thing in common – a dark place in which to labor and bring forth new life.
A few weeks ago we were driving in the car with our little boy, who was chattering about colors – all the ones he liked and did not like. He blithely declared – freely, lightly – that he did not like the color black. We were surprised, and asked him why.
He knew the answer and went on to explain that in movies dark things are always scary and bad. Out of the mouths of babes!
So we asked him to help us think about darkness and black outside of movies – in his own experience, in nature, in people, in stories, in his art work (much of which is dark charcoal on paper), on the piano that he loves to play, on our black kitten, or in the ink mommy and daddy use to write, what about raven feathers found on hikes and dark woods, what about night skies full of stars? What about his darker skinned friends at school and mommy’s dark eyes?
And isn’t there such a thing as being blinded by too much light, of having too much sun?
(Too much light, by the way, is harmful to the health of everyone, as we live in a world that is increasingly saturated with artificial light and darkness itself has become an endangered species.)
He said “oh, yeah!” In his own life, he truly loves the color black, loves darkness, loves night time. It’s everywhere, and in people and creatures that we know and love, and it is not like the movies say it is.
And then he wondered…why then are the dark things so often portrayed as only scary, only fearsome, only bad?
Our language and our ways of thinking reflect this back to us every single day. The way we think as Sacred Artists and spiritual people does not match up with our living experience: between the two there is a wide and deep gap.
The challenge of the real dark: we all admit of darkness – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. To deny the dark, the real and blessed dark, pits us against ourselves, against an essential part of who we are. The dark places us directly in front of what we do not know; it places our own ignorance before us, and that is something much easier to run from than to dive into.
To deny the dark is to deny the tough-as-nails problems of life. How could we expect to find a meaningful spirituality that looks away from these problems? Or how could we expect to work on the tough-as-nails problems of life by denying that they even exist?
So why work hard on bridging the gap between our thoughts about and our actual experience of the dark?
The answer has two parts:
It’s probably more comfortable not to do anything, at least for a while. But you know what happens when you put off important things. Eventually, those chickens do come home to roost – and as those of you who have raised chickens know….they can make quite a mess!
No matter how good our intentions, sooner or later, denying the dark – as opposed to accepting what is in our actual experience – comes back to bite us on so many levels, too many to innumerate. It is a wound we keep on perpetuating that cuts and slices into places, ideas, creatures, and people that we love and hold dear; a wound that cuts and slices into us too – for it is not grounded in truth, insight, or wisdom.
The second part of the answer is this. To be true to what is real, to real people and real life…the reward for this direct honesty in thought and life is a magic that is real. That is, it is nothing you have to make up. It will have and hold both light and dark, gravity and grace, as do I, as do you, as do we all.
In this embrace is the real beauty of our lives, and it makes life most worth living. Why accept anything less?
In love and blessings,