Tonight Denise and I will spend the last night in our home of nearly a quarter century.
We will undoubtedly raise a toast with firelight dancing from our woodstove one last time. A few tears may come. I expect we will sleep soundly with the solace of having put all of ourselves into this expanded Cape, into raising and holding our children through thick and thin.
Preparing to take a new leap, I am reminded of the quandary—and opportunities—many of us face when standing at life’s crossroads.
We may not want to be here. We may long for more certain times, old routines, and loved ones and friends who are gone.
Yet it is precisely at this juncture, in this vulnerability, when so much is open to us.
Infusions of new energy and stepping out of our ruts. Finding new meaning—even when struggling to overcome unspeakable pain.
Rededicating ourselves to people and causes we believe in. And recommitting to our partners or community—and perhaps to our highest ideals, our higher selves.
“It’s better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness” – Confucious; also attributed to Adlai Stevenson paying tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962.
Is it just me, or does anyone else find that when facing such a juncture, you notice more people doing parallel things around you?
Others about to take big steps, even leaps of faith. Daring to reach more people through service. Striving to improve themselves. Or activating for a better world, however they define it.
Part of what intrigues me as a writer is the juxtaposition of what may seem like opposites when we’re at these crossroads. Fire and ice. Whiskey and wine.
Two parents who lost a baby daughter to SIDS commited to funding research and grassroots education for the next 25 years. A recent widower who is a reflexology practitioner dedicates herself to easing others’ pain as she applies pressure to specific points corresponding to certain organs and systems.
David Paine, co-founder of 9/11 Day, a day of national service and remembrance, is among the people I admire in this light.
Paine, whose story is featured in my forthcoming book later this year, embraces silver linings in a toxic haze. He feeds off the apparent paradox that in the grand scheme of things, events that are perceived to be punishing crises become transformational opportunities.
“Great beauty and compassion live side by side with some of the worst things imaginable,” Paine chuckles. “It’s odd that good and evil are so closely intertwined, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the two.”
In a related context, thought leaders like Dr. Brené Brown have helped dispel the myth that our vulnerability is a weakness. Brown, author of Daring Greatly—which a friend recently introduced me to—explains how vulnerability “is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity.”
Vulnerability is a crossroads of sorts. One we should not distance ourselves from—if we’re searching for a higher purpose or fulfillment.
Embracing silver linings in a toxic haze.
I find myself marveling at the bookends I recognize at such intersections.
In our case, the obvious one is how a new start arises from the sale of our house. Another is that as we prepare for a new chapter, we just learned that our son is negotiating to buy his first home, expanding the foundation for his life in a far away city. In addition, other family members who have long deserved their own place just received word that their future, too, looks bright.
Tonight I’ve still got more boxes to pack.
Our daughter, a professional illustrator, has long since gathered up countless drawings in her bedroom. Gear and toys from our two sons’ childhood, cleats, skates, and K’nex and Legos, have been sorted through.
I can cry when coming across some of my older son Michael’s things—a soccer trophy, a dusty team bag that still carries a remnant of his sweat. I will pause before we leave, looking back towards the woods that once enclosed us with the crust of life’s toughest winters.
Open, wounded, and anticipating, I can then go on.
Many of us know the disparity of the holidays too well.
In what should be a time of festivity and joy, this season instead doubles down on our pain. The isolation from loss or other upheavals in our lives, such as the distance from estranged family members or friends feels magnified.
Especially on this day of relative darkness, the winter solstice, it’s worth noting that the light will return. If we find ways to usher it in.
I mainly wish to offer a few uplifting excerpts and chords, if you will, that resonate from other sources.
And wishing you and those you hold close an enduring season of returning light.
With peace, sans rancor, both within yourselves and out in the world.
Pausing to acknowledge that your grief may feel difficult to manage at this time of year can be an important first step toward coping with the season.
First, here are two excerpts from a blog post, “A Light in the Darkness: On Grieving in the Winter,” by our friends at The Children’s Room. TCR is a well-respected family bereavement center in Arlington, Ma.
Acknowledge the darkness
“Though winter can place many extra demands on us, it is important to remember that winter, too, has its place in the course of seasons, and darkness has its place in relationship to light. Similarly, when feeling overwhelmed, pausing to acknowledge that your grief may feel difficult to manage at this time of year can be an important first step toward clarifying how you might cope with the season. Taking time to understand that the season’s changes may be affecting you, and naming the ways that it might be doing so, can help you start to identify the best ways of supporting yourself and your family.”
Make time for self-care
Making time for your own needs and self-care is especially important in winter. It may seem too difficult or unrealistic to put your own needs first, but neglecting to make self-care a regular part of your daily routine can compound stress and negativity.”
The author’s son died three years ago at 22 of a rare seizure disorder. Wong asks, in part:
So unbearable was my occluded heart that I called out to him in desperation one day: “What will I do with my love for you, Daniel?”
The question of reconciliation: can you give yourself the space and permission to let go?
Finally, for myself, at least, this season poses the question of reconciliation.
Can we forgive those who’ve done someone terrible harm? Who have neglected or trounced another’s feelings, or even deny what they have done?
Can I forgive myself?
A guided meditation my wife and I recently did offered some splinters of light here. The guide asked us to envision meeting someone we have negative energy for in a sunny field. Someone I may even need to let go of, whom I picture walking toward me.
I discovered that both of us are connected by a rope of guilt or dysfunction, or by heavy strands of regret and acrimony. It weighs on both sides more than we will admit. The suggestion is that meeting this person halfway, perhaps affirming his weakness or mistake, is one step to relieve that weight. Affirming the place he or she is in.
Another is giving yourself space and permission to let go—of the anger, and of carrying it around.
In some cultures, the winter solstice also signifies a time of reconciliation—even if this is a momentary offering of forgiveness.
For example, the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival, in honor of Saturn, father of the gods, was marked by showing goodwill towards all men. As Beliefnet, an inspirational website notes, slave owners served their slaves and people showered each other with gifts.
Still, I must wonder how this all really works out. Can we actually reconcile with the self-imposed blindness the other side doesn’t see, or won’t admit?
How do we go forward in our lives? Can we sustain this?
Perhaps that is some of the challenge embedded in turning from darkness to light.
Rounding nearly three weeks after surgery to remove a cancer-threatened gland, I appreciate what a long haul this is going to be.
I must relearn patience to recover.
Too often this is merely a fleeting thought. A construct that seems to have been intended for someone else. But it stares me right in the face each day, at every 2 a.m. wake up.
And humility. If I hadn’t know it before I live it now. The repercussions of losing one’s prostate and rebuilding bladder control. While knowing, as many of you likely do, other men, partners and families who have gone through far worse.
Perseverance. It can sound so cliché. Yet it’s another gut check: striving to be whole again. While also trying to support the one lifting me up, who needs self-care herself.
These values will come roaring back.
At the core, I’m learning this involves righting oneself every day when I begin tilting too far to one side.
Perhaps it’s a new application of something I recognized years ago as a teacher in the inner city. When I was spent, having given everything, noticing my students returning to class amidst the dysfunctions and odds that many faced, even just showing up, that was exactly the moment when I needed to dig back for more.
And roar back.
I need that now.
It seems to me that more broadly, America needs some of these same attributes to heal post-11/9. While they may seem nascent, we certainly have them. And while the road ahead appears to be long and tortuous, I believe these values will come roaring back.
Please bear with me; this is not politics as usual. We can do this. By choosing an openhearted path finding common ground instead of one maligned with narrow prejudice.
By acting with intention and without illusions.
“And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?”
I’m going back outside where voices are shaking,
Water cannons blasting hypothermic protesters of fracked oil
Piped under stained sovereign land
threatening life’s blood,
Dialing the Morton County Sheriff to let them know
We’re watching hatred and
Stand with those forgotten in the shadow of Towers
Turnin’ pages and minds so quickly overrun.
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest.
With my pulse wide awake, my mind a reelin’
In a valley of misinformation, false news squealing’
Pigs in a sty of propaganda acting as sources,
Click bait and misogynists who control a generation
Where the playbook is repeated and the strategy empty
Poisoning minds with collapsed veneration,
I struck a conversation with a man on the other side
Three online rounds, maybe done, he offered his points
I listened, responded, casting arrogance aside
I heard the war of a wave that could drown the whole world.
When draining the swamp is a foul paradox
A crescendo of egos in their late Cretaceous dance,
Cryptic deniers now nakedly exposed
their world fast shrinking
Yet few seem to show
Beware of darkness, a blight that cuts
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night.
as you lift others up.
And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.
Note: Credit for the italicized lyrics of course goes to Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna-Fall” (1963) and George Harrison, “Beware of Darkness” (1970).
Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night. — George Harrison