Making Friends with the Dark

IMG_0012I have trouble getting out of bed in winter. It’s dark and cold and my body is stiffer than it was last year. Just this week, I decided to take a bath at 7:00 a.m. to choke the chill out of my bones. A bath. I turned the lights low, pulled the shower curtain taut, and sank into the black water. Carry me home, I prayed.

I have not always been friends with the dark. When I was younger, I had terrible nightmares about what might be lurking in the great unknown – whether the ravine outside my window or the thoughts inside my head. The first blink of morning saved me from myself.

It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Australia that I began longing for the dark. When I first opened the door to my studio apartment in University Village, the stark, white room had a chilling effect on my sanity. Although the sharp, clean angles suggested tranquility, my insides were tangled by homesickness. I spent my days sitting on the toilet, sobbing on the phone, and, most importantly, trying to sleep.

Homesickness begged me to give in and return stateside. After only six weeks, I had lost ten pounds (or four-something kilos) on a diet of  pizza, pasta, and peanut butter sandwiches. A local doctor, whom I had already seen twice since arriving, attributed my nerves to an overactive adrenal gland. As a temporary remedy, she proscribed adrenaline-suppressing pills. As a permanent remedy, she wrote a doctor’s note sanctioning my return to the States for treatment.

At night, I stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and planned my exit – options  included booking the first flight out of Oz or stepping in front of a bus so that my need to leave would be undisputed. But now, now that I finally had permission to leave, I was hesitating. Who or what could possibly be calling me to live in this hell? I had always been told that hell isn’t a pit of fire and brimstone, but rather the emotional state of being separated from God, one’s center, or home. The only thing I felt connected to was my white, hot fear.

One morning, unhinged and unable to sleep in the nascent light, I got out of bed and groped around my desk, looking for answers, voices other than my own to illuminate the way. My fingers brushed the cover of a book that a friend sent – Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. Like a mad woman, I flipped through the cream colored pages, letting my body lead my mind until the words began to rise all by themselves: We have to find the courage to embrace our brokenness, to make our most feared enemy our friend, and to claim it as intimate companion.

I knew then what I had to do.

Surrendering to the dark was my only hope of making peace with the light.

And as it turned out, surrendering to homesickness looked a lot like interior decorating.

Day one, I covered my walls with strips of colored construction paper adorned by scripture verses. Day two, I bought flowers from King Street and arranged them in the only vase I had – an electric water heater jug. Day three: votive candles and a toothbrush holder from Chinatown. Day four: a black and white picture of Aborigine children holding hands from the Glebe flee market. Slowly my white walls became awash with color – images of hope drawing me back to the center of life.

Eight days into my campaign for change, I made one last redecorating attempt: a cheap black sheet and laundry pole from K-Mart. After a few cursed attempts, I wedged the pole between the sides of my window. Next, I picked up the sheet and pulled it outward until it ripped in two.  Breathing hard, I looped the sheet over the laundry pole and pulled it down over the glass until only the edge of light remained. The room was so dark when I finished that I had to feel my way to the bed where finally, blessedly, I collapsed.

Since that time, I’ve relished the reprieve of the dark and the rhythm of surrender it bids me into night after night. How comforting it is to know that life is cyclical, that no season is permanent, that the light will come as sure as God’s mercy. The dark is a kind of mercy, too. We would do well to heed its rhythm as the days grow shorter, and we make friends with our limits. Now is the season of un-doing. Leave your writing un-published. Leave the fields of friendship un-plowed. Leave un-answered the invitation to “good, not great.” Do only what is essential. Plan your strength for spring.

Come Sunday, the dark will come sooner, and I will wake later.

4 responses to “Making Friends with the Dark

  1. Beautiful. This is something I’ve been realizing more and more lately. I think it’s one of the ways you know you’ve really grown up. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I so needed this word. Thank you.

  3. “And as it turned out, surrendering to homesickness looked a lot like interior decorating”.

    My father came as a British migrant to Australia in 1947, following his war service. Just didn’t go home for reasons he never talked about. I always had a sense that he had a deep longing for his own culture, people and landscape that he kept stuffed down.

    I was stunned by your insight that surrending to homesickness looked a lot like interior decorating……my dad partook in the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme …fully trained and qualified Master Painter
    & Interior Decorator! Fancy name for a painter & paperhanger.

    I am truly awed by how instinctively the soul gravitates to what it needs for nourishment at the deepest depths when it’s all a sh*t-storm above decks!

    The holyhellion name drew me. In the 60s/70s, dad and I used to watch the series of British movies, St Trinian’s. I think he might have thought he was doing OK as a dad (or doing something wrong), as I was far more well-behaved.

    This post has soothed a hurt. My thanks.

    • Hi Heqat,

      Thanks for sharing the story of you and your dad and our capacity to make a home no matter how lost we feel. I’ll carry with me today the picture of you and your dad watching British movies together.


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