Dark Remedies

As the dark time draws nigh  

Could it be that the seasonal affective disorder, and all the snotty noses are reminders that part of what is needed in the fall is to turn inward and rest? How might it look if we were to support an inward journey, instead of quickly banishing the oncoming darkness with lights, proclaiming “safety” and “celebration?” These days, there is little example of skill in navigating those dark peripheries. The shadowy sides brought forth in therapy are left in therapy- no one in the community is privy to the gift of those shadows. We quickly banish anything resembling hurt or sorrow, all too often labeling them as dark, though the dark, as we know is much much more. 

It is rare to hear someone say, “I must go inward now, do not worry about me, but wait for me to come out of the dark place. Please have ready some hearty meat stew, a thermos of tea, a wool shawl for my shoulders, and a warm place by the fire to sit. Take care of my family and home. I will return when the moon is bright again. Ready our good people, and upon my return, gather them in, for I will have need to share with you what came from the dark.” Just as unlikely is it to find the one who will do this task for you- who will greet you on the other side, afraid of the darkness just as much as you, but like you, in utter accordance with darkness’s will and want. For darkness needs to be nourished, just as much as we need to be nourished by it.

Intact cultures around the world had rituals, and specific folks who held the ability to travel inward to dark places, to other realms, and to commune with those they found there- often these were ghosts, spirits who could not rest, and thus were causing havoc on the other side. The astral travelers were the shamans and medicine people, but others were sent on vision quests as well, at certain times of year, or before an important battle, in order to glean wisdom from the other realms, from the multitude of the ancestors of that place and those people.  Nowadays we have new age folk forever heralding the light, and very few willing to extinguish it with you, looking over your shoulders as you do, dark quieting raucous light, pleading with her to be sensible.    Here in the Pacific Northwest, the dark has been falling steadily without me even realizing it, carrying on with my never ending to-do/gotta get it done list, racing against the sun even when the cool air and the rosey hips dotting the hedgerows whisper, “slow down… don’t work so much, don’t worry so much, take a walk, here, harvest this medicine, you will need it when the nights go cold.” Until….earlier this fall a gnarly cold found its way into my body- sickness’s gift forcing me to take heed, stay  home from work, linger in bed, and to succumb to much needed rest, and much needed introspection time, namely in the form of writing.  All the while I battle with the voices that say, “buck it up,” and “suck it up,”- dominant culture’s mechanized mode of life nipping at my heels, economic anxiety a never ending current in my days. Despite my best early efforts to fight it off with my favorite herbal allies, this one hung tight, and almost a week later did I come out of the dark, back into the light. 

There will be no mention of what herbal remedies you can take to get through the dark time (though a little rose elixir or love potion to get you through wouldn't hurt;)) There is a poverty that underpins every showy Instagram product herbal pic, and I do wonder about this. This is not going to be yet another post about how much Vitamin C our wild rose hips have, or how you just need to take more Vitamin D (lard is a great fat soluble source) to get through the winter, nor will I offer my recipe for elderberry gummies (maybe later); though all these  remedies have their place, and indeed could support your health, but let us not forget that pain, illness, suffering, and frailty are just as much part of the human condition, and worthy of our regard.  When we are constantly offering up a remedy for a time of year that is meant to be grieved and mourned, we have functionally turned our beloved plant medicines into one more coping mechanism. Herbal medicine in our collective cultural history has indeed arisen aside capitalism, but a way of being with plants in the place where you pass your days has nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with relationship. Yes we can support our immune system all we want, but the deep sickness in our bones, that soul longing for something to make it right has to do with what has been missing for a long long time- knowing our place, knowing our people, caring for our living, and tending to our dead. This sickness has no herbal remedy for it.  

I believe the proper remedy this time of year is darkness itself. 

Here the evergreens remain stalwart in our cool but temperate landscape, the few deciduous trees we do have show gold, and then turn to brown. Wool is a perennial favorite fiber around here, for its warmth and its ability to withstand the drizzly rains we have so often in the fall and winter. We dress in layers year round, many work three jobs (or more) in our summer economy; in fall we grieve our temporarily lost income as we celebrate more time to focus on creative projects; we don our muck boots, add another log to the fire, and await the dark and the rains that we pray will fall, to nourish us should another long dry summer make its way to our island fields. 

When I succumbed to my sickness but obligated to a work deadline, I went for a half day at the office and found myself, after an hour at my desk, almost cowering under the pressing light of the overhead fluorescence. Now, if you are a psychologically minded person you may asses this reaction as “mental health issues,” and make it be about my personal mental faculties and my ability to “deal,” instead, I implore you dear reader to ask a bigger question, as I have been taught to do: what befell a people such that now, when the darkness falls all around them, they must, instead of gathering together to welcome the dark, be succumbed to endless sources of artificial light?  To me that is insanity indeed!

Because I grew up in a psychologically oriented culture, and have walked with that model’s understanding of depression for many of my days, when I took to my bed to nurture my cold infected body, an upwelling of grief and anxiety surfaced with the thought, “maybe I’ll just stay in bed, disappear; no one can find me.” This voice spoke directly to my soul’s deep longing for retreat, introspection, and rest, but with language hearkening back to my orientation of depression as bad or wrong. The upwelling of the grief and anxiety stem from the fear I carry that by taking time out of “my life,” (the busy capitalistic doing model) to focus on nourishing myself through rest and introspection, that I will be ridiculed, scorned, or risk losing my job- thus my entire security hinges upon this. After a life time of walking with depression and understanding it from the impoverished view point of the individual, I can say with confidence that what shows up for me as “depression” or my inability to “deal” or “be” in the world is not a personal failing, or something I need to fix- be it by more therapy or St. John’s wort tincture. They are more often signs of a soul’s cry from the dark ethers of something the darkness is needing from me. You can call this egotistical all you like, but I’ve earned enough white hairs at this point to claim my gifts, and writing is one. I am sure any introvert, visionary, or creative can relate to this. For it is only by approaching the darkness, courting the darkness if you will, by allowing time for rest, retreat, ritual, isolation, and introspection, that those who dwell in darkness make their way through us and out into the world. For me this week, rest and introspection ride in on the sickness, giving me “excuse” to retreat, to stop doing, to take heed of fall’s dark arrival. 


Can you imagine then, if as a people we had some skill with which we employed to grieve summer’s end and court fall’s darkness? No human evolved to be staring at screen all day, to be bathed in hours of bright lights, or to be carted back and forth in a mechanical vehicle hurtling through space at high speeds. Instead of fleeing to Southern climes as soon as the chill comes, we face the darkness with wonder and awe. Instead of rousing children before sun has kissed the gray sky, making them rush bleary eyed to catch the school bus, where their days will be spent showered by artificial light, we let them sleep, letting their natural bio-rhythms be nourished by the dark. Why this mad insistence to keep going at the same pace as summer’s long hours permit us too? No wonder so many folks plunge into a seasonal depression- I suspect if more folks cried at summer’s end, economic sources adjusted work hours accordingly, municipalities ensured that those who needed it most had what they needed for winter- money for heat, a proper tea set, heat tape around pipes, good food in the larder, loads of firewood, hearty sweater for winter walks, numbers of friends to call for nights of knitting, talk, book groups, etc., depression rates would drop. 

The dark time asks us to remember from whence we came. We give thanks for the sun’s heat, mourn summer’s death, all the while knowing that we, like the earth need a fallow period. With the dark time and now, Winter Solstice, we welcome the returning light, let us linger with what the longest night of the year offers. With a little humility, a little heavy heart, a slower walk, we can begin to wonder out loud with each other, what might it look to approach this darkness? How might I bring some reverence and love to this dark time, before the powers that be extinguish it with their fake revelry, their 24 hour shopping, and the lighting of the town square? Let darkness have its way with you. Do not rush too quickly to singing back the light. Be not afraid to linger long into the dark night, for when else do stories of forgotten ones come alive, when else do whispers of your future dreams dance in your sleep, when else do fires burn their brightest?

Only in the dark.

May this winter solstice bring memories and visions from worlds unseen, may you find the wisdom to act on said visions, for the darkness does not bring what you want, but what is needed.