There comes a time in the epic saga of parenting when you have to decide whether you’ll introduce kids to darkness, so that something of the mysteries of having a human life could be their companion, or whether you’ll let the world do that for you, so that they could be challenged for years as they confuse mystery for mayhem. Ah, parenting, whose landscape is littered with abandoned imperatives and loopy convictions which couldn’t endure the trial, professional provisos and talk show wisdoms that are designed to guarantee repeat business and not much more. It is a skittish business. Grand parenting, too. And aunting, uncling, eldering, mentoring, neighbouring and the rest. Our culture isn’t big on kids growing up, nor is it big on mystery. It’s big on mystery revealed, and our corner of the world is a torment, partly because of that. Insisting on having a One True God who’s in charge of the whole works doesn’t help much, unless you’re big on sin and disobedience. So, there’s work to be done.
In a culture like ours it is not an easy thing to contemplate, this idea of bringing children to darkness deliberately and with purpose. It is a culture drawn to light in the singular and driven way of the moth. Everything possible is illuminated and revealed. Pornography is a good example. Another is schooling. Most are programmes in ending uncertainty, building competence and extending mastery, by assaulting mystery and containing darkness. You cannot go to a restaurant without a soundtrack that guides your conversation by banishing any quiet you might seek. None of those guys trust you to your silence. Visually you are allowed very little darkness, city or suburb, in the name of security I guess. You can’t drive down a road without being signed, cosigned, designed, resigned and signed again, every possible subtlety articulate and glaring and declared. It’s relentless.
Darkness and shadow do not have good PR, as you know. Nobody wants to be left in the dark. Being lucid means being light bound, and both seem advisable. There’s a well known book that divides the humanity in simple and ruthless terms into Sons of Light (among whom you’d want to be included) or Sons of Darkness (reserved for people who don’t know what you know). A poet I admire, William Stafford, wrote with certainty that the darkness around us is deep, and you can tell he didn’t think that was a good thing. When psychologically attuned people consider The Shadow they are generally trying to do something about making it less shadowy, and frankly it is darkness that gives many of them job security. I supervised an employee once who announced with pride that she’d begun to teach dying people how to be comfortable with their discomfort – another secondment of human cleverness to the project of banishing shadows inner and outer.
And there’s Christmas: the most light-flooded, the most illuminated, the most shadow-banishing project of them all, whose timing – the winter solstice – is no accident.
I know that the world seems plenty scary enough, and dangerous, without subjecting children to darkness unmediated. But we could ease up on the anxiety long enough to consider that darkness, with all its mysteries, has always been the place where healthy cultures brought their children to learn life. It isn’t where they were brought to be warned about life or defended against it, but where they were given the chance to love it instead. That is what most initiation ceremonies are for, to give children the ability to love being alive.
One year, right around this time and full of the emptiness of Christmas, I tried to do something else with my kids. We ended up in the north country, a good distance from the ambient light pollution that many kids now think is natural, and it was cold. There were two feet of good snow on the ground, and we had a small cabin to ourselves. With great ceremony about mid-morning on the twenty-first we turned off all the lights, all the heating and electricity, and as the day went on we talked about how it must have been hundreds of years before us, right at that time of year, for people who lived right in that spot. When night came on the shadows grew mauve and, in the way real darkness has of being itself, luminous. The cold wrapped itself around us, the poplars cracked with frost, and standing outside with the last amber of sunset gone from the sky we could, gorgeously, see. The lake ice close by moaned and shattered in the gathering, frozen dark. It was a powerful thing, that night. It was full and alive. The kids complained a little and found this a strange thing to do, but mostly they were awash in awe, and somewhere in that night they met darkness’s true heart: mystery. They remember it still, and I am hoping that mystery has a presence in the lives they are choosing and forging for themselves. I hope that the solstice, if they take note of it at all, has a full darkness to go along with the livid street life they’re more and more used to.
Mystery is my mistress, has been for a long while. Whatever teaching I’ve offered over the years has enthroned mystery as a patron saint of all our meetings. At my school we wrestle hard the mysteries of being a human, alive. So far, the mysteries have always won.
On the night of the twenty-first we’ll stand outside again and listen to the dark, and watch the silence, and imagine some of you doing the same, maybe with some kids close by. Here on our end of things we wish for you rich shadows, wondrous darkness to go with your certainties, proper twins, faithful companions. Would that this time of year give us again a taste for such things.