December 17, 2011 § 22 Comments

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

Gopi read us this quote before a yoga class this October during an unseasonable cold snap. I didn’t really want to be a yoga that night as I was fighting a cold and I was feeling tired and maybe a little depressed that already it was beginning to feel like winter. On that October night, Gopi explained that she was in the midst of celebrating the feast Duwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, which involves lighting oil lamps to signify the triumph of good over evil.

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but in the last few months, my writing has been stuck. Although I started this blog as a way to write freely, my tendency towards perfectionism is even creeping into these hallowed grounds. This morning, I had the humongous pleasure of getting to meet Jena Strong of Bullseye Baby. We went for a run from Old Town (Alexandria) and finished with omelettes at Pain Quotidian. “Just give yourself permission to write and don’t even reread it,” she told me. “Liberate yourself from wanting it to be good.”

Last winter, I decided I wanted to explore my own darkness, which, let me tell you, is not something I advise. It’s like asking for patience. Or tolerance. Ask for those things and you are guaranteed to have a difficult day. And last winter was difficult. The most vivid memory from last winter is of the grey view from my kitchen window as I stood there, waiting for the water to boil, watching the clock crawl from 2:23 to 2:24, hoping that the boys could play together without shrieking before I finished measuring the tea. Last winter was interminable. Picking my way through my own darkness was like turning the knob of a closet that hadn’t been opened in 38 years. It wasn’t pretty.

But then again, the monsters that I expected never appeared. I was afraid I would find a nest of beady-eyed rats or a never ending abyss of blackness, but all that was  there was dust. There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.

This October, when Gopi read Mary Oliver’s words, I realized that what I had given myself last winter was a gift. When you sweep out the closets, you discover what you packed away in boxes so many years ago. I had to get my hands dirty but it is clear to me now that an excavation took place. What I discovered last winter was that the darkness in my life was of my own making, and if it was of my own making, it could be of my own dismantling as well.

I wish I could say that what rushed in to fill the void darkness left was golden light thick as honey, but that was not the case. Instead, what stood in the closet of my heart was emptiness. Space. A clean sense of nothing, which turned out to be as scary as the blackness.

This October, I suffered from a rather acute case of anxiety, strong enough that Scott gently suggested I go to the doctor. Instead, I called up Laura Plumb, my former yoga teacher in San Diego and an Ayurvedic practitioner. I told Laura that I constantly felt the need to outrun whatever was chasing me, that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a racing heart, that I was afraid of something that had no name.

Laura explained that this was a very autumnal feeling, that October was a season of falling away and of letting go of what not longer serves us.

“It’s clear,” I told her, “That my anxiety is no longer serving me, but I don’t know how to be without it.”

“Well,” Laura said, in her voice, which always reminds me of bells ringing, “We can let go and know there doesn’t need to be the next thing yet. We can stand in our own emptiness.”

I get through each day by trying hard: to be a good mother, to keep the house clean, to keep up my spiritual practice, to nurture those around me. It’s as though I believe that things happen because I exert enough force. It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.

I don’t know how to stand in my own emptiness. My existential fear of emptiness is perhaps what underlies all of my fears: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind.

Laura reminded me of the trees. “They lose all their leaves,” she told me, “They stand bare all winter and trust that spring will come.”

This winter, I have no need to explore the darkness. This winter, I am standing in what Hemingway called, “the clean well-lighted place” (there are shadows of the leaves). I am going to practice trusting that the next thing will come: that the next word will appear, that the next idea will organically arise, that the earth will keep spinning even though I have stopped swatting at it with my hand. This winter I am lighting a clay lamp and admiring how clean the emptiness is, how ready it is for something beautiful. This winter, I will see what it means to belong to myself completely and have faith in my own human heart. In the words of Jena, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be good, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be anything other than what it is: this barren landscape, these empty trees, this waiting space.

As an aside I just want to mention what a fabulous time it was to meet Jena, whom I have only previously known here, in this alternative online universe. She emailed me yesterday to ask if I could bring an extra fleece for her to run in as she packed light. When she rummaged through the bag of clothes I brought for her this morning, she said, “Ooohh, I LOVE your wardrobe.” Ahhh, I thought, someone who appreciates my workout clothes: the jewels of my closet. We had such a fun run on this cold grey day, where the sun barely made it over the hills, except for one slim ray that pierced the Potomac. We had such a luxuriously long breakfast and I learned so much from this beautiful, wise woman. At Pain Quotidian, we ran into someone I know from the yoga studio and he assumed we were old college buds. This warmed my heart. Because while my tenure in DC has been lonely, this space here has been rich. To know that the people I meet here translate into friends in real life is the best Christmas gift I could receive. I am so grateful to this space and to my new, real-life friend Jena. Check out her blog at Bullseye Baby.



§ 22 Responses to Darkness

  • Christa says:

    I’m pretty grateful to this space, too – to the incredibly moving words you string together, for the image of life with your adorable and wise boys, for meeting you here and sitting across from you from time to time. What a gift you are, Pamela.

    Thank you.


  • Lindsey says:

    Oh, wow … first of all, I desperately wish I could have been at breakfast with you guys. What a treat that would be.
    But also, yes, yes, yes. I think I’m still staring into my own jam-packed, ghost-filled closet, afraid of the darkness in the box, certain that both will swallow me up. Your testimony that you made it through and that on the other side found a clean, well-lighted place (one of my favorite stories) is immensely reassuring. xox

  • Colleen Fleming says:

    Right now I am saying to myself, Pamela totally gets it-she gets me, and I am so grateful. But really, it has nothing to do with me, you just get it, experience it and share it straight up. How many if us walk around feeling that way, waiting for the next minute, the tea water to boil, the strength to make it through, even just an ordinary day, not a crisis moment. I love this post, your writing and the Mary Oliver quote. I love the darkness, and sometimes burrow way to deep into it, but always come back through to the light. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Alana says:

    Pamela, this is beyond gorgeous and life-affirming. My brain doesn’t want to string words together right now – all I can think is “this needs to be shared”. I too would have loved to join you and Jena – at least for breakfast as I don’t think I’ll be a runner in this lifetime. 🙂 Two wise and beautiful souls.
    P.S. I have no doubt that waiting space will fill with the most incredible gifts for you and for us all.

  • Jena says:

    I’m all wrapped up in your beautiful words, your eyes, your stories, and your fleece. Our morning together restored my soul to my body. Thank you.

  • Laura Plumb says:

    What a gift is Jena! What a gift are you, too, Pamela – writing with such bald honesty, and by writing giving the soul a way to unwind, unfurl, seek the corners of its living spaces, even test the edges.

    Why do we all love your posts so much? We find our soul’s expression reflected here.

    Thank you!

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    You didn’t ask me, but next time you’re stuck on a post trying to write freely, just force yourself to relax. That’s a joke. I say go with your fears and, as an exercise, write the worst possible piece of junk you can imagine. The baddest writing and grammar, the dumbest, most superficial thoughts, the poorest, pitifulist, most outrageous sentences, the paragraph you’d die of embarrassment if anyone ever saw. There are a million ways to write badly. There’s your freedom.

  • Just lovely—resonant of truth, love and fellowship. And when it comes to boxes, sometimes it’s not the darkness or the light but the box itself that proves useful in being able to hold both our love and our angst, especially in the bittersweet togetherness of life.

  • Kate says:

    I too spent last winter delving into darkness, both inside and outside. And I’m still not brave enough to write about it! Thankyou.

  • Darkness, emptiness, anxiety — we so don’t want to go there, and yet from those difficult places emerge your most beautiful words. I love that Mary Oliver quote. And I love you for living and writing so bravely. You shine a light into the darkness.

  • Ari says:

    I remember your words from last winter very well. Those words were my friends. It was really dark time for me as my mom was going through hard time due to her illness. Sadly she passed away this summer.
    Darkness of last winter made me stronger person for sure. And your words helped me to get through that pain. Thank you very much, Pam.

  • Yay, trust! Your words here sparkle with it! Seeing your life unfold like this, even though only in glimpses here, is such a hope-inducing thing. What a privilege to know you, Pamela.

    Much love to you!

  • mb says:

    beautiful, pamela. thank you for shining your beautiful light.

  • You are a kindred spirit. As I read this post (decadent and glorious, as always), I felt like you were writing the inner-most workings of my mind. Only here, they were much more articulate and gorgeous. Just beautiful. Thank you for your honesty and for shining your wisdom on both sides of life. xoxoxo

  • Jane says:

    Add me to this wonderful list of “kindred spirits.” Your words touched me, and so many others here. I’m struggling with a new diagnosis of anxiety – an affliction that I have been denying/hiding/ignoring. Your wise words and those of your yoga teacher have brought me some calm and dare I say, acceptance. Thank you. So nice to find you.

  • This is very beautiful. Anxiety as talisman. And this: If I stand still, I will be left behind.

    We absorb these lessons when we are young and they are often reinforced by life as we perceive it and experience it. If we don’t take care, we will perpetuate the intensity of this variation on reality and pass it along. And yet, even as we shed these words, we recognize their coexistence alongside the trust that offers to the light the way.

  • Ana says:

    “It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.”
    Oh my god oh my god. THIS is me. I’ve tried to explain this so many times to so many people and no one, not even my husband, truly understands. How amazing to see my deepest core issue echoed by someone I’ve never even met! This is why I love this internet space.

  • Cathy says:

    It took me awhile to read this post. I knew it would resonate with me. I am living in darkness and anxiety. But, as your dear yoga teacher told you, I am standing like those bare trees trusting that spring will come. I must trust that it will because otherwise the alternative is unbearable to imagine and would swallow me whole. It is time I confront those fears, empty the closet and, over time, begin to see the light again. I love your words.

  • Don’t worry, I’m still swatting at the world to keep it spinning. I can’t imagine it working any other way.

    Seriously, though, thank you for reminding me that stepping into darkness or imperfection or acceptance is worth the effort and the fear.

  • dgurrie says:

    Just discovered your writing and wow – I totally get it. Especially about the writing and “letting go”.

    I am looking forward to relating in the months to come!

    Happy New Year!

  • Christine says:

    This line: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind, is the prefect descriptor of my life. And when I read it, it kind of hit me in the gut. How I wish we could sit and chat, talk about these things together instead of just through words, but since we can’t I’m grateful that you took the time to share this with us here.

  • The thing about reading blogs….. you can’t highlight. I always have so many comments about what you write and can’t decide what to hold on to. I am going to go with this as being my favorite for now:

    There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.

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