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Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

by Dakshina Gammanpila

The phrase ‘in the beginning there was light,’ is somewhat misleading when in fact science shows that in the beginning all was darkness. It appears that we hold light in high esteem and that the opposite is true of the dark, which garners a host of less seemly connotations. Yet one cannot exist without the other. Without a shadow of doubt, 2020 has been termed a dark year, an ‘annus horribilis’ for everyone, everywhere. However, perhaps it has also sought to remind us that we were shrouded in our tunnel vision, losing sight of our place in a bigger something – a connected world where collective triumphs and sorrows are integral to our shared humanity and survival.

I don’t know about you but there was a period of time in my childhood that I slept with a bedside light on. I was having nightmares and the lamp, with or without Florence Nightingale, offered a reprieve from the foreboding darkness. Like a diver needs oxygen to prevent from drowning, my little hand groped for the light switch.  I endured two specific and recurring nightmares both stemming from my first experience of loss, and a grappling with the idea of mortality, the images of which I can recall to this day.

We look for our guiding, comforting light be they literal or symbolic, especially in these past 12 months. The Christmas Star in the night sky is a guiding symbol for many and was visible for the first time in 800 years a few weeks ago. Known as the Great Conjunction, the planets Jupiter and Saturn looked to ‘collide’, when in fact they were still travelling millions of miles apart.  The ‘Star’ had not appeared since the 13th century, and the night of December 21st 2020 heralded its re-arrival. Poetically this date is the Winter Solstice, the point on the calendar in Europe where we have the darkest, longest night. It was also the anniversary of my Father’s funeral, so I was alive to the possibilities of communion, both spiritual and astronomical.

Embracing the symbolism, we went to follow the star. In the gathering dusk the sky was altogether different, like the sense you get with an eclipse. We were acutely aware of witnessing a completely otherworldly phenomenon. It was awe-inspiring just to know that there are other planets and we are part of a galaxy, a system so much bigger than us. Humbling and comforting in equal measure.

It reminded me that this time last year we were gazing up at the night sky in New Zealand with a wonderfully enthusiastic young German astronomer, acting as our wise man on a planetary odyssey. We all know that you need real darkness, total pitch black, free from pollutants to appreciate the sparkling night sky. That much seems obvious, but it is wonderful reminder when a blanket of stars stands out in all its shimmering glory. And yet we still balk at the dark, forgetting time and again that life requires it and if it were not for the clarity of the dark we would miss the glow of the light. For darkness is not something that obscures light, it enhances it.

In the UK on Christmas Day as is traditional, the Queen gave her annual end of year message and I was struck with how inclusive and sincere it was, mentioning other faiths and creeds and the losses that had been suffered individually and communally.  After the year the world has had, how could it be forgotten that embracing multiculturalism is the cornerstone of what makes a nation great and the future bright. She also spoke about light and its significance in all religious festivals, not just Christianity. My family joked that she must have been reading my columns as in Brazil, when I started my weekly scribblings over a decade ago, I often wrote about light and dark and my volume of Southside Stories is divided into two parts – like life – Light and Shade.

The Queen spoke of ‘the quiet, indomitable spirit’ of people the world over coming together to help one another in their hour of need. For truly this is our hour of need. To weather the storm with ‘hope and unity’ illuminating our path, we must keep that shining for one another for a while to come.

With age I have come to appreciate the dark and what it holds, that it is unfathomable, but also necessary and nurturing. On a macro level the Big Bang took place in the vastness of a dark, unknowable space; and on a micro level (yet on a vast scale) a seed germinates in the darkness of the earth, and a foetus grows and is stimulated in the comforting dark of the womb. Our cells reproduce and replenish whilst we sleep at night – in the dark. We need to recognize that one does not combat and overcome the other (I don’t hold with the notion that Ram is the light and must overcome Ravana’s supposed dark), light and dark are interlinked and interdependent and crucially, are of equal importance.

These past winter months of guidelines and lockdowns have been made easier by walking in nature. Observing the necessary distance from humans in order to keep each other safe and drawing closer to the comfort offered by the natural world and its rhythms. Walking is a balm of which I have written about over the years.

Out in the woods last week on New Year’s Day, something caught my eye amongst the winter landscape. A bright flash of green at the root of one of a thousand trees. Someone had planted a bulb in a simple clay pot and placed it at the base of a chosen trunk. The bulb was already sending forth its fresh shoots from the nutrients gathered in the dark. What a treasure to stumble upon. It brought a smile to my face and no doubt to many, many others as the secret gardener had intended. The bulb, circular and cyclical, perfectly encapsulated our planet and the harmony of darkness and light working together to produce that which is both fragile and powerful – life. A reminder that we have to cultivate positively so that our harvests however great or small, bear flower and fruit that can be enjoyed by all, not just ourselves. This was a most magical broadcast emanating from the dark for the start of 2021.

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