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This Year’s Darkness

It always happens on Thanksgiving week: the rain, the cold, and the darkness all descend at once. One week, it is autumn: I think about winter as a future entity, a thing that will happen to me someday. The next week winter has descended, like a gavel to a bench.

As I drive home from work, the twilight bends towards night, and the gray of the fog, the drizzle, the sheen of the road, the glass-smooth water on the inlet, blend into one dark blanket. I navigate my way home by following the taillights in front of me. It is dark now, I tell myself. I feel like I’m breathing deep, sending oxygen to my toes, preparing for the plunge into winter, for the ten long weeks of darkness before February brings a promising light, a long burning glow beneath the cloud cover.

This year the darkness is darker. I don’t need to tell you why.

(Yesterday on the drive home his voice came on my radio. He was shouting to a crowd in Ohio, boasting about how big he had won. “I can’t stand it,” I said, leaning my head towards the backseat. I didn’t want Smoke, my eight-year-old, to be taken in by his bravado. “Who?” Stump, my three-year-old, asked me. “I don’t even like to say his name,” I said. “Me neither,” Smoke solemnly agreed. “Voldemort,” I said. Stump accepted that answer. It was dark, of course, when this happened.)

I have a new favorite book: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by the great William Steig. It’s for children, but it’s also for me. In it, Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble and accidentally changes himself into a rock. He is immobile and, because he can’t touch the rock, he can’t un-wish his wish. It seems to be an impossible predicament. How will he ever return to himself?

Sylvester’s parents are stricken. They cannot find him nor can they find any clues about his disappearance. Many pages of the book serve only to mark the passage of time, in which all parties struggle to come to terms with their new situation. Sylvester descends into a long, deep sleep. Seasons pass. And here is my favorite page:

wolf-2

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

This page is my favorite because nothing further happens with this wolf. He is not instrumental to the plot. This is his only page. He shows up, he howls in hunger, he leaves. He animates the story’s grief. The pads of his paws, through a layer of snow, touch the rock that is Sylvester. He will survive this season, but the season will require him to suffer.

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Cursed Independence

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a parent is not dress my child—to stand there and watch with my hands at my sides while he tries to get his head through the sleeve hole. For the past two weeks, Stump (who is newly three) has insisted on dressing himself. All the parenting experts insist that I should encourage this kind of independence. But really it doesn’t matter whether I encourage him or not. Stump doesn’t need me to cheer him on; he needs me to stay the fuck out of his way.

Stump’s rules are clear. I’m allowed to verbally coach him, but I’m not allowed to be physically involved. “That’s the wrong hole,” I might say as he puts his underwear on sideways, and he laughs and makes the adjustment. Everybody’s happy. But just as often something gets hung up—a sleeve is turned half inside-out, or a pant leg gets stuck above his knee, and I must stand there passively as he sorts through the problem. The other day, he had tried three times to put on his pants. On the first try he put both of his legs in the same side. On the second try, the pants were inside out. On the third try, they slid on almost perfectly, except that the waist was just a little crooked. As I reached out to straighten the elastic, I knew that I was making a mistake, but still I continued. I did it so quickly that Stump couldn’t stop me. “Why you do that?” Stump demanded. It was a good question. I don’t know why I did it. Without another word, he took off the pants. He looked at me coolly and started over.

Here’s a problem: most days we actually have to go somewhere, and we have to be there at a certain time. Sometimes a shirt has turned inside-out from all Stump’s dressing and undressing and I’m not allowed to right it, and he’s not able to right it himself and so we reach a standstill. He curls up, naked, in the laundry basket and lies there, dejected. If I approach him, he shoos me away. He might lie this way for ten minutes or longer, until he finally decides to choose another shirt.

This past Thursday, we started the process of getting dressed forty minutes before we had to leave for school. He put his shirt on and his underwear on without incident, but would not agree to any of his pants. As I watch the clock approach the time we had to leave, I realized that this struggle has not helped me cultivate patience. I never stop longing to intervene, to dress my own child, to hurry the process of getting ready. But this struggle has, in some strange way, taught me something about faith. It was 9:12 and we had to leave at 9:15. My son was not dressed and he would not let me dress him. Accepting this meant accepting that I had no control, and yet still I chose to believe that we would make it out the door. I put on my own coat. I put on my own shoes. Stump watched me and decided he would wear the pants with the cars on them. He put them on one leg at a time, and then, by some strange miracle, agreed to let me put his socks on for him.

When we got in the car, the sun was shining for the first time that week. We left at 9:16. Everything was okay.

Embracing Darkness

It’s November now, and I’m afraid of the oncoming winter and the speed at which it descends.

I’m afraid of the way darkness begins to swallow my day at both ends. Every week we lose about eighteen minutes of daylight, nine in the morning, nine in the evening, until those minutes add up to hours, and evening isn’t evening anymore–it’s night.

I’m afraid of the way rain descends like a blanket over the remaining daylight hours. When it arrives, it seems it will never leave. I wake to the sound of rain in darkness. Hours later, after tea and breakfast, I peer through the window, trying to assess the shape and force of the rain.

I am afraid of the feeling I get, a tension that sits between stomach and ribs, when I run from my house to my car, my head bent to keep from getting wet, and then bent all day in my windowless office, down, down, always looking down. I leave work in darkness, arrive to darkness, and all that awaits me is a cold house, a tired wife, and a set of tasks to be done before bedtime. That tension beneath my ribs grows and takes over my body until I am nothing but sinew and fatigue.

I am afraid of the television, afraid that it will take over my house like a monster.

I am afraid of the piles of clutter in my house, because now there is no sunny, open yard to escape to.

I am afraid of my nearly 2-year-old son, afraid that his climbing, inquisitive, joyous spirit cannot be contained indoors.

I’m afraid of the noise, the epic screeching noise of cooped-up kids in my very small home.

I’m afraid of the Christmas season, of all the projects I take on and never complete, of obligations I’ll perceive but never fulfill.

Photo by C.S. Berney

I remind myself that winter is a season. Seasons pass. More importantly, each one has its purpose, a goal it wants to involve you in, a prescription for your personal growth.

Spring: Renew.

Summer: Play.

Fall: Gather.

Winter: Look inward.

Earlier this week, I drove alongside the bay at high tide and thought about how the Pacific Northwest, now more than ever, feels like home. It was a balmy morning. I had awoken to the hammer of rain, but by the time I left the house, there were cloud breaks. The world was wet and the sky was dynamic—storm clouds and patches of blue. The kids and I walked the four blocks to Smoke’s school and it was a world of giant puddles and dead worms and, even better: a giant red toadstool that seems to double in size every day.

toadie

I thought about how darkness can be kind, like a womb, how it can push me deeper into myself, reengage me in the creative work of knowing my own soul.

Winter, I am sorry, but you are harder to love than summer with its endless twilight and warm lakes. You are harder to love than green spring and crisp fall. You are just plain hard to love, but I will try.