I have been fascinated lately with the play of light and dark so, these little tidbits illuminated the subject even more for me. Both are about the night sky which I love and miss living in a big city. In the country or mountains I find myself staring at the stars brightly calling my attention upwards.
The Asian Lunar New Year is observed on the night of the new moon, when the moon just begins to emerge from its darkest moment. I never realized or contemplated that the year is born in the darkest moment of the night, in the darkest moment of the month and, for the Asian Lunar New Year, close to the darkest moment of the year.(Islam and Judaism also celebrate a lunar new year though at separate times.) It is not the brightness of noon that is the new year it is the darkest of night. The celebration begins just as the first sliver of moon is observed.
Thinking about St John of the Cross and other people’s dark nights of the soul, this made me realize the new moon arrives in our soul when we begin to see hope again. Hope is a more subtle presence, it does not simply appear when the full moon is present. We also often think dawn arrives with the sudden burst of sun as it rises over the horizon, when actually the light was been creeping through the sky for much longer.
Earlier in January, I learned another interesting story about darkness. The Inca are one of a few cultures to create constellations from the stars in the sky and from the dark spaces between the stars. When you look at the Milky Way, and you are in a place with no or little light pollution, you can observe spaces where there are no stars. They are called dark cloud constellations. The Inca created characters and stories to occupy those dark spaces.
The Incan constellation stories mimic harvest cycles and interplay with each other in the sky. Unlike the Greek and Roman constellations which are portraits of mythical gods immortalized in the stars.
The Andeans view the galaxy of the Milky Way as a river where different animals can be seen, formed by the dark spaces between the stars. They see a llama called Yakana who is feeding her calf. To the right, near the middle, just below the Southern Cross they see Yutu, or the constellation of the Tinamou*. Next they see Hanpatu or the Constellation of the toad. And finally, Machacuay, the name given to the Serpent. To the left of the llama they see Atoq or the fox, then again, Yutu, the Tinamou.
They say the Yakana would stroll in the middle of the river which runs in the centre of the sky and at midnight descend to earth to drink water from the sea, when no-one could see him. If he didn’t drink this water, the whole world would flood. Also, if any human was fortunate enough to be visited by the Yakana during the night, they would receive abundant wool of many colours. Then the person would be able to go to the village and exchange the wool for llamas and then they could have two or three thousand animals
These stories are from the Incan of the Atacamenan Desert, the driest place on earth. More stories can be read here.
I grew up learning about the portraits of light that form the night sky, so this had me thinking about the portraits of darkness that also form the night sky. These dark cloud constellations are formed in a blanket of stars so dense there is a canvas of light where the Incan formed stories from the dark spaces, in addition to the light spaces. They used both the dark and the light to narrate their lives.
Shirley Temple Black died last week. She was on of my favorite child actors with blond ringlets that danced, sang, and smiled the nation out of the great depression. She always focused on the sunny side of life, even as she often played an orphan. She was a needed character in a difficult time. However, I think if we focus too much on the sunny side, the daytime, we neglect the darkness that creates compelling constellations in our soul. Dark characters,who are no more bad, than the light characters are good. These doubts, depressions, and sadnesses form compelling stories which are sometimes chased out of the sky by love, while sometimes they chase the love away.
The reason I am fascinated with light and dark is whether we define our lives by the dark spaces or the light ones. Whether we determine someone to be good or to be bad. It is often the times that are darkest when we discover, and are reminded, of our strength and our vulnerability. Of who we love and value, of who we miss. The light moments, the moments so filled with love we cannot distinguish between the sun and our souls. These moments teach us about the possibilities of love, of warmth. Both offer growth in very different settings. Both offer strength. So are we born in darkness or light? Do we live in nights or days? OR are we born in some beautiful interplay of the two? Of some dance that requires both for either to exist.
Simply, I feel myself emerging from a dark night. A time when I barely comprehended the ground I stood on. The stars were present, though not visible at first, as my eyes and soul adjusted to the uncertainty of my future and present. Then at some debatable moment, the sliver of moon appeared, and while it is still night the light is growing. I am still walking slowly, unsure of where I am going. I am easier with the dark as I have learned to read the stars and the dark for maps and stories about my past and future. While writing this post this poem emerged.
Constellations of my soul
I sit and stare into the the night wondering where my feet will fall next. Whether it will be solid ground or a deep cavern, both I have seen, both I have felt. Only the light from a thousand tiny stars reach down to me. What happy moments form these constellations? Stories traced between moments of light punctuating eternal darkness. Beautiful reminders of love.
Many have experienced the dark night of the soul, and many more will come. This is when life as we knew it was cast in doubt or struck away from us. Barbara Brown Taylor has a new book coming out April 1 called Learning to walk in the dark. I’ve already preordered.
Thank you again for reading.