The Dark, by Barbara Wright George

Learning to love winter’s night

How to face the cold dark days of winter in Toronto? I noticed that I am not the only one who feels the strain of winter—the faces of people in the elevator, people in shops, or on the subway say more than words—no one seems to like the winter weather here, with its short dark days. Almost everyone has something negative to say about it, yet almost everyone, native and newcomer alike, simply shrugs and copes with it, making jokes, and pretending it’s not so important.

But I wanted something different. I have put on good attitudes before and found ways of accepting situations—thankfully, I found ways out of some—while creating the semblance of normalcy. But for me, a change of attitude wasn’t enough. It didn’t go deep enough. It wasn’t always reliable. In order to live happily in Toronto, I needed to be able to love deeply, loving the people who live here and the place where I live. And especially, I needed to be able to know the dark, maybe even to love it.

How to do that? This wasn’t the first time I began something from a place of not knowing. That’s what beginning is about for me, almost always. And, not knowing anything means everything needs to be learned. But how to begin? It came to me to learn more about the dark by experiencing it closely, so as to know what it is.

Darkness comes early in the day in Toronto, moving into an already dimly lit north-facing apartment, filling it right up to the corners. On the first evening as I began my experiment, it was after seven o’clock and the living room was dark except for the light coming from the kitchen and Jim’s desk lamp in his office. Outlines of chairs and plants on the deck were dimly seen by the ambient light from the office buildings in the distance. Turning out the lights in the kitchen, I sat quietly on the living room couch and noticed the lights outside this room—the desk light and the ever-present glow of the city lights. Right away, I observed something interesting: I don’t see the dark. My eyes always go first to the light.

After that first evening, whenever it was possible, I tried to sit a little longer in the living room without turning on the lights and to keep my vision enclosed within the dark in the living room as much as possible. This began to evoke a subtle feeling, a beginning feeling of the dark—not so much about the dark or how it makes me feel, but of the dark itself. I began to feel or sense the quality of darkness. I began to be aware of this quality. Music has a similar quality, which is unique and almost indescribable in words. Music can be heard by more than the ears; it can be heard by the whole body, especially what is behind the notes. As I began to feel the dark, I realized that because it has no form, no notes, harmonies, or melodies, it can be listened to more directly than music. It soon became very clear that like listening to music, this kind of listening requires practice.

Soon, when out in the world, I began to notice that the edges of things are dark—the risers of the escalator steps, the trim around the wall panels down the hall. Dark, and also a shadow that outlines and emphasizes objects, a shadow that has color, such as Payne’s grey, reds, and blues. I remembered discovering the color of those shadows in my watercolor days. Yet, dark itself—does it have a color? I began to question this. Perhaps it can only be known by its action as it has no taste, scent, sound, or color. Is its action only to obscure, just as light’s action illuminates? Is dark merely the absence of light? I was left with the question of what in fact dark is.

And my own reactions? Why does the dark make me sad? Is that an action that comes from the dark itself or from the absence of light? Does something in me associate darkness with sadness? Why does sunlight, even a bright lamp, make me feel brighter? Not being able to sort out what is action and what is reaction, I returned to how the experiment began.

I wanted to be able to love the dark, especially the dark that cuts the length of the day so quickly now in late afternoon. I understood more deeply that I needed to know it better, and as I sat more often and longer without a light, and with only dim light from outside, the dark felt thick, but not heavy. It enveloped me but was not unfriendly. My body began to relax, to feel a tentative happiness in living within the dark’s silence, if only for a moment or two.

A new discovery: there’s silence in darkness. The silence I have experienced when I work quietly at sitting is charged and vibrant with life. Is it the same for darkness, I wondered. My wish to understand and through understanding to love, became deeper. I wrote several paragraphs while in a dark room, sitting within a small area of light. Then I turned off the last lamp that allowed me to see the paper and my fingers holding the pen, and for a moment everything was allowed. Everything was still.

In the silence, my body relaxed even more, and a clear memory from another time came back to me. It was from one of my first years in college. It happened a long time ago, yet it returned again, full of life. I remembered myself there, the young intellectual, smoking cigarettes and reading late at night, downstairs in the newly finished room in my parents’ basement. At last I finished a chapter, closed my book, lighted a final cigarette, and turned out the lights. Immediately, the room was completely, totally dark. In this solid, thick darkness the only light was at the end of the lighted cigarette. So many years later, it’s still difficult to put into words the feeling of that moment—the feeling of a question. Do I exist? Only the red spark of the cigarette was visible, clearly alive, and yet at the same moment, I knew I was there holding it. How do I know I’m here, I wondered. Stubbing out the cigarette, I sat there in a room with no light at all, a room completely filled with darkness, aware. A thought came to me: I cannot see my body or anything else yet I know I am here.

A few minutes went by—or maybe an hour. I sat there in the dark experiencing a feeling of myself that was new, yet in no way unfamiliar. It was as if all the trimmings of who I was—who I thought I was—fell away in the silent depth of darkness.

Writing these words, which are difficult to find, there is a beginning understanding of darkness. Perhaps, the action of the dark is to reveal what is inner and hidden—it allowed me once to know a hidden, secret presence that resides inside all the trimmings and trappings of who I think I am. And now, when I remember to feel its quality, the dark gives me a new kind of relaxation that is not simply the absence of tension; it is the feeling of a new energy, which is steady, more available, more reliable. This energy acts as a reminder of my presence. It tells me I am here. And it gives me the ability to listen more quietly and to hear more truly what is “behind the notes” when I am with other people, facing difficulties, or my own weaknesses. It helps me in beginning to love the dark.

Reprinted with permission from Barbara Wright George’s Learning to Love: On the Way to Experience (Epigraph Books, 2019).

This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Parabola, SECRETS. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.