What is ‘beneath’ whether in the earth, the unconscious or in the half-buried repository of memories, myths and metaphor, is both vital and scary, both life-giving and deathly. Time is deep. The earth we inhabit is deep. Growth happens in those depths, in rich dark soil. The darkness is both a place of dread and a place of transformation.
Writing the depths
Robert McFarlane writes in Underland:
Into the underland we have long since placed that which we fear and wish to lose and that which we love and wish to save.
and Robert Pogue Harrison in The Dominion of the Dead tells us that:
To be human is to bury
Returning to the earth is written into us. The Latin humando means ‘the burying’, whilst ‘human’ is etymologically related to ‘humus’, the earth. We are matter. Being of the earth we live on is both our fragility and our rootedness and connection to all life. We may long for immortality and eternity but it is our finitude that makes life precious. Yet, when finitude descends, it takes us to the depths.
Writing loss, not despair
I witnessed this recently when a close friend lost her daughter. My friend’s daughter had far too short a life, yet if Seneca is right and life is measured not in years but in how truly alive we are, she packed more life, more aliveness, into her 38 years than most would manage in 100 years. She was someone with an enormous soul, someone who made a difference to the lives she touched. But no matter how extraordinary her life, no matter how much we can rationalise that her 38 years mattered and will go on mattering, nothing outweighs the the agony of losing a child of any age.
The death of a child is inherently ‘unnatural’ and robs parents of hope for the future. Dreams and possibilities are bound up with the next generation and losing this is beyond traumatic. Such loss brings with it feelings of unreality, of rage, of emotional exhaustion and parents often have a huge desire to trade their own lives as a price for their child, knowing that it can’t and won’t happen.
The fragility and preciousness of life co-exist but the dark side of this is that when loss hits, all we can do is give the loss its due weight. Grief is strenuous and painful, but not to be circumvented. Grief is arduous and distressing, but it has to be owned and given time if the result is not to be nihilistic despair.
It is humbling and salutary to watch those we love make this journey — living the loss with all its weight, not pretending ‘it’s okay’ and yet, in the midst of anguish, not turning from life itself, not ceasing to care about others, about the world. This is the most gracious, the most inspiring way to live through terrible loss whilst still holding fast to all that is life-giving.
My friend is also a writer and she writes about dark subjects; dark but never despairing. None of us know the turns life will take, but we can become people who, no matter what, do not give in to bitterness; refuse to allow the depths to spell the end of meaning.
The depths and the darkness are not cosy places, yet sometimes we need some time there, to resurface renewed and resilient.
Writing the dark
Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of the trees.
writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Flight to Arras. And goes on:
I longed for night and for the rebirth in me of the being that merits love. For night, when my thoughts would be of civilization, of the destiny of man, of the savour of friendship in my native land. For night, so that I may yearn to serve some overwhelming purpose which at this moment I cannot define. For night, so that I may advance a step towards fixing it in my unmanageable language. I longed for night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels himself inhabited by a things obscure but powerful, and who strives to erect images like ramparts round the thing in order to capture it. To capture it in the snare of images.
At moments of loss or at moments of transition and transformation, the darkness can be a friend. And for some of us this may be a cyclical pattern, hunkering down into our creativity in the winter, flourishing and becoming more outgoing in the spring …
In The Outermost House, Henry Beston puts it like this:
For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.
Darkness is an endangered species in the modern world. Like solitude or silence it is hard to find in the buzz and noise of life. Yet darkness isn’t only there to be illuminated. Sometimes we need to stay with it for a while, live with what it has to teach us. Beston goes on:
Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of the night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of the stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, to-day’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day.
How hard it is to find any environment not polluted by light. We’ve replaced fear of the dark with eradication of the dark and perhaps this ‘lighting up’ of the world is a response to our increasing inability to give time to dark periods of life. We are too apt to want grief to be over with quickly, to want difficult feelings to be supressed with a few pills …
Earlier this year I stayed in an amazing place in Roscommon in Ireland. Reagh is one of those rare places where the night is truly dark. I’m not someone who struggles with sleep, but at Reagh the depth of sleep was qualitatively different. There was a real sense of balm and gift in that darkness.
Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity. By day, space is one with the earth and with man — it is his sun that is shining, his clouds that are floating past; at night, space is his no more. When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.
Night can be magical — this is Ptolemy in the second century:
I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.
And this is the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in Lovingly, Georgia:
Last night couldn’t sleep till after four in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon — till late at night — wonderful color — I wish I could tell you how big — and with the night the colors deeper and darker — cattle on the pastures in the bottom looked like little pinheads — I can understand Pa Dow painting his pretty colored canyons — it must have been a great temptation — no wonder he fell
Then the moon rose right up out of the ground after we got out on the plains again — battered a little where he bumped his head but enormous — There was no wind — it was just big and still — so very big and still — long legged jack rabbits hopping across in front of the light as we passed — A great place to see the night time because there is nothing else.
Writing the hope and fear
We are about to enter Advent, a time when we not only look forward to the difference a birth can make, but also acknowledge our finitude and contemplate ‘last things’.
Darkness is part of life. We need to give it space. We need it in our material lives: the space of winter darkness in a seasonal cycle, of daily darkness not artificially illuminated. We need it in our emotional lives, the acknowledgement of loss and grief and hard emotions, the honesty to face our shadow selves and dive deeply into ourselves. And we need it in our writing lives, the fallow times, the deep times when something is germinating but we hardly know what and wonder if we will ever see the shoots in spring.
When we step outside at night in a place where the night sky isn’t drowned out by street lights, few of us fail to be moved. We feel an intrinsic connection to the universe. We feel that our lives are at once tiny and gigantic — because the life blazing across unfathomable distances is the same as our life; we’re made of the same stuff, part of life itself, which is immense and mysterious. When we face the magnitude of the darkness that is nonetheless filled with stars, we feel like it’s right that we are such a small part of it all, yet thrilled to leave even the slightest of mark on the clay of life. We feel alive and we care.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re on the site, take a look at the free courses available and at my forthcoming book, Writing Down Deep. I’ll be using the book as the core text for a community of writers next year and I’d love you to get involved — either through the highly accessible community track, or a mentoring track which will also involve one-to-one sessions and feedback on a writing project plus a residential.