Making the Most Out of the Dark Time of the Year
by C. Cheek
In the days before deep freezers and electric heating, winter was a time of deprivation, a time of hungry children and wolves baying in the dark. Now, winter means a thousand media images asking you to spend money you don’t have, to buy presents people don’t need, in celebration of a god you don’t worship. The difficulty of turning down yet another plate of free cookies is nothing like wondering if you’ll have enough food to last until the spring. We live in better times now, times in which our main problem is one of excess. But aren’t we missing something? The silence and hunger of winter have something to teach us.
How then, can we draw back our lives? How can we cast off the gluttony and excess that surrounds us and listen for what darkness has to teach? Here are some practical suggestions for bringing this paring-down into your own life.
Clear your debts: Shinto-Buddhists, on December 31, pay off old debts to start the New Year with a clean slate. Even if you can’t “consolidate all your high credit card bills into one easy payment” as the spam advises, how about giving back that ten bucks you borrowed from your sister? And what about other debts? Sometimes we owe debts to our friends that aren’t monetary. We all borrow things — books, clothes, movies, CDs — and sometimes those things never find their way back to their owners. Those shoes will sit in your closet, with you always meaning to give them back to Sarah next time you see her, and then years later you clean it out and realize that Sarah has moved out of state. The shoes have now entered that uncomfortable stage where you don’t feel right keeping them, but you can’t get rid of them either. Go through your home and find anything that doesn’t belong to you, and make a point of returning it. Don’t wait until the next time you accidentally see that person. Bring that book back now, or send that DVD in the mail if your cousin lives too far away.
Sometimes we have emotional debts. In many relationships, we ask more than we offer. Are you the asker? Do you have a friend who listens to all your problems without complaint? Or maybe your coworker has covered your shift? Think about your life and try to balance out, get down to a place where you owe no debts, and have no obligations tugging you out of your center.
Clear your home:While you’re getting rid of some of your money, how about going through your household goods? Do you really need four spatulas? Are you ever going to wear that size six bridesmaid’s dress again? Many worthwhile charities could use donations, but more to the point, we can use the feeling of relief we get when things we don’t need leave our homes. Maternity clothes are a perfect example. I kept bags of maternity clothes in the closet for almost a year after my daughter was born. Clothes are symbolic of periods in our lives. Giving my maternity clothes to the Goodwill meant that I was acknowledging the end of the childbearing chapter in my life. Hard? Yes, it’s always hard to close a door.
Let this be the month to slay white elephants. When my grandmother died, she left boxes and boxes of antiques, which a packrat like me couldn’t resist — a silver-plated teapot, a porcelain figurine, a souvenir from someone’s trip to Mexico — a lifetime of clutter from my grandmother’s life. She hadn’t showed these things to me while she was alive, so the objects had no sentimental value. I kept them because they were too `good’ to throw away. But there’s a perfect place for white elephants: re-gifting. How about that lava lamp, or your singing bass? Look at it, think about all the people you know, and try to decide who would like to get this as a “just because” gift. Can’t think of anyone? There are always eBay and yard sales.
Clean your home. Once you’ve gotten rid of the knickknacks you never really liked, it’s time to get rid of the dirt. Some Zen practitioners believe that manual labor is the perfect meditation. Launder those curtains. Wipe down the walls. Push the mop back and forth against that floor, and let your mind empty itself. And when you’re in that restful center place without thought, wash away the negative energy that’s accumulated in your home. Pour it down the drain with the dirty water.
Clean your body on the outside: When your home is clean and uncluttered, you can work on the home of your soul. My morning shower feels so rushed. Some days there isn’t even enough time to wash my hair. Make a day for cleaning. Sit down, look at yourself. Toenails grow, calluses build up on feet and elbows. Get a pumice stone and rub away that built-up skin. That skin is weeks old. Let it go. You don’t need it anymore. A toenail can take 12– 18 months to grow out. What were you doing when that toenail first came out the quick? Maybe there was something in your life a year ago that you wish hadn’t happened. Snip, snip. Throw that crescent into the garbage.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our outside face, we forget to show people who we really are. When you’re a child, soap and water seem enough. Then, you add moisturizer, conditioner, make-up, colognes — product after product until the scents and chemicals swirl around you. Don’t forget, you’re a human under there. If you dare, let your hair go un-dyed, leave off the conditioner and hairspray and gel, stop your make-up routine for a week. Or only a day? Do what you can. Look in the mirror. That skin, that hair, that’s you. Haven’t seen her for a while, have you?
Clean your body on the inside: You know those egg sandwiches for breakfast aren’t really good for you, and neither is that two-latte-a-day habit. Yes, we all gain weight over the holidays. Unless they’re living in Siberia, no one can escape the Christmas blitz. Free food, parties, candy on sale; sluggish overeating can make us feel terrible. Go through your pantry and get rid of the food you don’t need. Give it to food banks. No, not just the can of beans; the food you really don’t need, the Oreos, the cake mix, the six-pack of soda, the giant tub of frosting. In this day of plenty, we don’t need high-calorie foodstuffs hoarded away. Be a lean hungry wolf, not a fat hoarding chipmunk.
Make New Year’s resolutions and diet, not just to lose weight, but also to feel hunger. That’s right, hunger. Hunger can teach us things about ourselves that we can’t learn in any other way. That empty belly, the grumble, the hint of pain. Our ancestors lived with that for months on end. Could you live on dwindling supplies of grain and dried meat? No? Could you live without cigarettes, or caffeine, or chocolate, or beer? Try. See if you can. See how strong you are. See what’s in your core. Maybe you’re tougher than you gave yourself credit for.
Clear your heart: Take a vacation from people who harm you, from those who sap your energy, from those who make you angry. The holidays can be hard to bear, and there’s no reason to keep carrying emotional angst around with us until spring. Sometimes people hurt us, knowingly or unknowingly. Get a notepad and write down the hurt: My sister criticized me. Someone dinged my car in the parking lot. My co-worker got a raise and I didn’t. Take those notes and burn them. Watch the smoke fly away. You don’t need the hurt anymore. In the spring, you’ll make a new life for yourself. Feel neutral yet? No? Maybe you’re the one who harmed someone. Find the strength within you to apologize to your brother for yelling at him. Admit to your roommate that you didn’t clean your mess, and make it right. Even if it hurts, you’ll feel better afterwards.
Some friends and I used to play roller hockey on Sunday mornings. We’d get up early, and play for hours until our arms and feet ached and our shirts were soaked. No shower feels as good as the one that sluices off sweat. No meal feels as good as the one that truly slakes hunger. By truly embracing the cold and darkness of winter, we’ll make the most of spring. Now is the time to tear away all the old weeds in our flower bed and clear the soil to make room for new growth. Let go of that which you don’t need, and that which you can live without. Prune away the inessentials, until only you remain. Then we’ll see what blooms when the earth warms again.