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On Darkness, Contraction, & the Power of Story

In the northern hemisphere, we approach Winter Solstice. We face our darkest days. At this point each year, we are as far from the sun’s heat and light as possible. We bundle up, seeking warmth. Our bodies slow down and we long to expand our sleeping hours, to sync the demands of our animal bodies with the cold and the darkness. This naturally puts us in greater touch with the fertile and sometimes frightening contents of our own interior dark places.

In many winter-season cultures, storytelling was an activity traditionally reserved for the depths of winter. Spring, summer, and autumn all required expansive activity on the Earth - planting, foraging, migrating, building, herding, gathering, growing, mending, hunting, harvesting, birthing, preserving. In winter, things could slow down. In winter, it was important to conserve energy and stay warm. Near the fire, as darkness fell early, the stories came out - myths full of sacred meaning, great heroic epics, comedic tales to bring laughter, cautionary tales, cosmological tales that wove human story into the narrative fabric of Earth and Sky, stories which explained and anchored relationship with the plant and animal beings, stories about the past, dream stories, and stories about individual experiences.

Stories nurtured understanding. Stories nurtured empathy and compassion. Stories allowed for a range of acceptable character roles. Stories released pressure through shared tears and suspense and laughter. It was the stories that, in the beginning, embroidered us into tapestries of belonging, that cemented our fate as social animals, and allowed us to bloom as creative beings. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Muriel Rukeyser once reminded us.

In this age of great consumption, we in the West perhaps often forget that the universe of story lies within us as well as without. We are the generators of story - each of us is a precious and unique storymaker. Our stories come out of our quiet and mysterious dark places, out of the creative metaphor-loving subconscious - the place of deep memory, dream and imagination, the place of the deep Self. It is through our stories that we connect with others, but only if the stories are given voice.

This year, facing darkness and fear, facing separation and disillusion, we have become scattered to the far edges of our selves. This place of collective dissociation is not a safe place; this is, in fact, a dangerous place, a place of chaos. Notorious 2020 has provided us with additional challenge as we essentially lost the normal “out breath” expansiveness and sociability of summer and have moved directly into the contractive “in breath” of winter without stretching out and preparing our emotional and social bodies. So we are moving, symbolically and socially, from one contraction into another contraction. Our social-emotional muscles will soon begin to cramp, if they haven’t already. We are fatigued. We need fresh stories to soften these aching muscles, and to build deep-tissue connections.

New forms of communication abound, and old forms persist, but what we really need is new content. We need conversation and stories that help us to share our authentic selves and to make meaning. We need to be brave - willing to tell stories about our wounds, our fears, our mistakes, our growth, our dreams, our great loves, and our needs. To be receptive and non-judging as we listen to the voices and stories of others, we will need to practice patience and empathy. In doing so, we will be challenged to meet each other heart-to-heart, person-to-person, rather than in the cold danger zone of ideology-to-ideology. Our best and most universally powerful stories are those about personal challenge, personal loss, personal resilience, personally beating the odds, personally encountering the sacred, personal sacrifice, personal triumph, and personally experiencing mystery and facing unanswerable questions.

This moment is calling on us to become the heroes of our own individual lives so that we can reweave the strands of our collective stories in new and life-sustaining ways. Traditional stories teach us that while the dark forest can be a frightening place full of danger, so, too, can it offer magic, hidden gifts, surprise guidance, protective allies - even healing and wholeness.

Here is my challenge to you: this week, make a connection with someone through story. Phone a relative, write to an old friend, Zoom with far-flung dear ones, or convene a family meeting. Stoke the fires of story by asking questions. Examples: “I really want to know what it was like for you growing up in the 1950s in South Dakota. Will you tell me about it?” “The holidays are coming and I’d really like each of you to tell us about your favorite Christmas memory” “Were you scared of the dark when you were little? How did you deal with this fear?” “Do you remember the weirdest dream you ever had?” “What accomplishment in your life makes you feel the most proud?” Then, share your own answer to this question - tell your story. Repeat. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Keep asking, keep telling, keep weaving.

Artwork: The Princess in the Forest, John Bauer

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