Beyond the lights

Sunlight MazeI have been reading a lot about the spiritual/emotional experience of the dark night of the soul. I know I’ve written about it before, mostly because I have been experiencing one. Mother Teresa spoke of it and Saint John of the Cross from the 16th century famously put words to his experience. It can often be a blend of depression and searching. Its a moment when what used to give you happiness just doesn’t, usually you try harder and harder and still nothing. Your source of light is gone.

I recently watched Beyond the Lights. I knew it was only going to be a mildly good movie. The acting was mostly mediocre. Ok, I mostly went to check out the beautiful leading man and hear some great singing from the star. It was the story that mostly redeemed the movie for me. The story was about her life beyond the lights, and her search for light.

Noni is about to release her first solo album and just won a Grammy for a track she created with a popular rapper. At the hotel, after the Grammy’s ceremony, her mom (who works as Noni’s manager) finds Noni perched on the balcony ledge about to jump. The police officer assigned to guard her room for the night, comes and saves her, not only by catching her as she jumps but by reassuring her that he sees her.

The movie continues through her struggle with depression, to finding real friendship and love with the police officer. Finally she finds her true self and releases herself from the popstar persona she had created.

So why am I explaining the plot of this movie?

I’ve started thinking about this idea of night and its end. We see people emerge out of these moments and think well the sun must have come up again, and while that is true, from my experience where the light is centered has shifted. While Noni’s energy used to come from the crowds of adoring fans, friends and Mom, she realizes they don’t know who she is, they love her persona.

The crisis happens when she doesn’t love the persona anymore. As she comes to terms with her suicide attempt she admits that the persona did jump off that ledge, and it took the glimpse of her valuable true self to bring her back up, even if it took time for her to gain strength and to nurture herself again. In the closing scene, after breaking off her relationship with her mom and police officer boyfriend, she is now rebuilding the Noni that first loved to sing. As she is preparing to take the stage her mom calls to ask how she’s doing. Noni, first brushes off the request, then catches herself and says, “tell her I’m scared.”

A casual observer might ask why. She survived, is receiving great praise for her renewed self and is about to take the stage in her home town in front of 1,000’s of fans. She is realizing just how terrifying it is to be your authentic self. She was taking the stage without the carefully crafted persona.

So where was Noni’s new strength and light coming from, what was supporting her on this new venture. It was coming from within. The light that she once relied upon, the light from her 1,000’s of fans now emerged from within her, from the memory of her first song. And that light doesn’t mean a life without fear.

At the end of the dark night it’s not that the sun finally rises, it’s that the light, your strength, is coming from within you and the realization each day that whts terrifying won’t in fact kill you, it’s your own ability to walk into the unknowing, into the dark.

As I continue on this journey I realized my whole understanding of certainty, of light, of when everything would become clear again has now vanished. This is because I realized our certainty in life is an illusion. It’s partly a necessary illusion, to keep us moving forward, but really we have no idea what twists and turns life will take.

In Barbara Brown Taylors book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she speaks about a blind man, who lost his sight in childhood. His parents invited him to share his experience as he learned to walk and live in his new world. What he discovered is that he could still see light though it wasn’t light that penetrated his blindness. It was a light that literally helped guide him through his day. He realized on the days when he was depressed, stressed out, or otherwise disturbed he would knock into many more objects versus when he felt serene and joy emanating from within him.

Recently, staring up into the cold clear night sky, spotting the few stars bright enough to penetrate the city light, I had a thought. What if the stars aren’t looking down on us? What if we are all looking into the darkness wondering what our future holds, where our strength lies. What if we’re all just stars staring into the darkness and its our own, and our friends/families, own brilliant light that obstructs this darkness mapping out our meaning, our love and friendships. As we move out of the city light we find the sky filled with so many stars we have to work to find the darkness. It no longer matters that we don’t know what is in the darkness, we have found the eternal light within us and flowing through us, guiding ourselves and each other.

Constellations of my soul

Sunset at 30,000 Feet (2)

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.