New life starts in the dark Barbara Brown Taylor

SLDIU 2019

The longest darkness of the year is today: December 21. A day I look forward to because it means it can’t get any darker. This is as dark as it gets. Tomorrow will have more light. This is my annual So-low-that-down-is-up day.

I’m learning, though, that darkness can sometimes be welcome.

A lesson that has taken me decades to begin to absorb.

Part of a longer lesson I gave to my church in 2018
Full talk is here

The video tells this story:

Tape. Lots of it.  In our house, I always made sure we had lots of tape. Little boys and tape just go together. Scotch tape, masking tape, and the tape of all tape: duct tape. My sons used gobs of tape growing up. I used to put duct tape in their stockings. They loved all things tape.

In a time of darkness, tape helped create a memory that I will never forget. Our family had gone from 4 to 3 at the end of April. That first summer was one of uncertainty as we all figured out how life would be without my former husband being a part of our everyday lives.

I was worn out and scared. We spent lots of time with friends and with each other—people need each other during dark times.

So, one day that summer my two boys spent hours making a fort in the basement.  It was awesome.  A fort palace with sleeping and living areas—the blankets were fastened together with–? You guessed—duct tape!

The boys asked for a picnic—actually an entire camp out in the fort.

It seemed like a lotta work.  It seemed like a lotta clean up. A “camp out” seemed too much for a scared and tired single mama who was hardly holding it together.

But in a world where hard things had happened beyond their control, it seemed like this was something I could do for them. I agreed.

That night was magical and it will be forever engrained in my memory.

The fort was cozy with duct-tape-fastened-blankets close over our heads as we sat on the floor.  The furniture was close by, to form the walls. In a world that had become big and overwhelming, the fort was a cozy retreat that became a safe haven from the rest of this daunting life we lived. The dark of the fort wasn’t ominous…actually, the close, dark feeling in that fort felt safe. We ate dinner by flashlight…the little bit of light helped us see our carrot sticks and pizza. The pizza was from a frozen box…but it tasted like gourmet in our little haven. We could see each other under there, for sure, but the dimness of the space was part of what made it feel special.

After supper in that fort we watched Because of Winn-Dixie, a cute little movie in the fort. It was chosen fairly quickly and randomly without really knowing what it was about. The movie had different details but felt like it paralleled our own story…a child living with the loss of one parent while the other parent tries hard but good intentions also regularly messes up. In what seemed like a message from God, the tagline of the movie was something that stuck with me:

Discover what happens when you go looking for a miracle and a miracle comes looking for you.

Adam and Carter will still recall how much I wept during this little children’s flick.  They remember the evening now as an occasion to tease me over my tears…but warmly, somehow. Even all this time later, they too remember the flashlight-lit night under the blankets in the fort, where we shut out the rest of the world and were safely together in a little world held together by duct tape.

We fell asleep in sleeping bags in the fort, knowing we were together and we were ok.

I didn’t make them take it down the next day.  As a matter of fact, our first night in the fort was so memorable, we spent the next night there too. The cozy darkness broken only by the dim glow of the flashlight was something that just required an encore.

The nights in the fort reminded me that life could be good again.  That it was already good—and that felt like a miracle had found me. The little fort reminded me that darkness didn’t have to be something to be frightened of or avoided…when, even just a flashlight creates a soft light in the darkness, it becomes a place of soft giggles and gentle conversation, a cozy haven…a place of healing.

Think of times in your own life when you’ve chosen darkness with only soft light because the dim light was actually something you wanted. Maybe it was a romantic dinner by candlelight, maybe it was a walk on a late summer evening at a camp with your cabin mates under a star lit sky, or sitting by a campfire on a lazy summer evening after dark, singing songs and roasting marshmallows.

The darkness isn’t always something to be feared…sometimes, it is a cozy place to connect. It’s the little bit of light that makes it feel like a place to be brave. When there’s only a bit of light, secrets are told, vulnerabilities are shared in a way that creates more closeness. The darkness creates a safe place to feel one’s feelings, share them with another and expose the tender parts of our soul.

Turn on the Lights, Carolyn Klassen

I am learning to appreciate the value of darkness.

To be clear: I’m of no mind to create adversity in my life to enjoy a time of challenge and distress. I’m no glutton for punishment, nor do I wish ill on anyone else.

But when I look back on my life, and I seek to understand the periods of my life of greatest growth, the most sensitivity to The Spirit it is when I’ve been going through rough times. I don’t appreciate it in the moment, but the veil seems thinner. I’m more vulnerable, more grateful to have survived another day,

The dark times are when I’m most acutely aware of the kindness of others. I still remember one evening when I was purchasing a jug of milk late in the evening, and I was plum done, a women with half a cart of groceries let me go in front of her in line. That sweetness was such a gift.

I notice others that I might otherwise ignore when I’m in struggle. It was easier to find a common spirit with a homeless person when I was postponing buying milk for my Junior Tribe Members towards the end of the month. We were both feeling a vulnerability of living on an edge.

Darkness creates opportunity for learning and growing; for self discovery, and for wisdom. Darkness develops our own compassion for others who struggle.

new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. Barbara Brown Taylor

Darkness is a place where the gentle soft light of someone holding a flashlight (or sometimes, just the dim light of a cell phone screen) makes an otherwise moment of blind terror tolerable.

I was writing a Christmas message to the therapists I work with this year this week. As I did so, I reflected on the idea of flashlights in darkness. On how dim lighting is actually a good thing. We don’t have the harsh overhead fluorescent lights on during therapy.

I said this to my colleagues:

Small lights in a big darkness. That’s us, as therapists.

In a world that has conflict, mental illness, trauma, and all manner of life experience that creates darkness in the lives of the people that walk through the doors, we are small lights.

Not harsh fluorescents that feel cold and sterile.

Not big floodlights which could blind and frighten.

Not fancy, flashy strobe lights that give glamorous glitz and startle a brain.

Rather, we are like small lights that create a cozy haven in the darkness; a quiet place for people to try out speaking their secrets aloud; a hallowed place to whisper the unspoken wail of some place deep within; a sacred space where seeds of hope can take root and sprout tiny tendrils of new life.

It has me think that we therapists are rather like little flashlights. We make a small bit of light that lets our clients look around, get their bearings, reduce their fears, and be able to look around.

The light switch on the wall, out of sight and reach and beyond possibility before, now becomes apparent.

Once a client knows where the light switch is, they go over and take care of their own healing.

I don’t think it is just therapists that hold a flashlight to help a client find their way to the light switch. There are so many people in my life who direct me to find my own powerful light–only one of whom is my therapist! 🙂

Who comes to sit in a cozy space with you, to listen and understand?

Who doesn’t try to fix or advise or even encourage? Who quiet and reverently sits alongside, acknowledging your struggle. Who gives the tiniest bit of light because, inevitably, when someone lets you know they care, a little bit of hope can’t help but spark?

Sometimes, the best places to be are the cozy, small cave-like homemade forts.

When it felt like I:

  • was falling apart, a duct taped fort is what put me back together.
  • wasn’t going to make it, a freezer box pizza nourished me back to wholeness
  • would never smile again, a child’s video had me laugh through my tears.

When it seemed the world was too scary to survive, it was a little fort with two helpless and sad little boys that made it safer.

I wish you the equivalent of dry cardboard pizzas, duct taped forts, a cheesy movie, and the safe world with small children during your time of darkness.

May you have someone in your life who loves you enough to give you the gift of letting you work through your struggle–who shines just enough light that you find your own light switch

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