Reflections from the Dark Time

Reflections from the Dark Time

December is the dark time, and it's easy to forget how to really be creative.

In Norway, this time of year is called the M?rketid, the dark time, and the Norwegians, who are used to it, light candles at four pm and have dinner early and snuggle into their warm houses. Or, if it?s snowed, they put on their skis and head to the lighted trails that exist all over the country and ski and ski and ski. They cheerfully get up in the dark at dawn and go to work. Their creativity in dealing with more than 12 hours of darkness is impressive.

When we lived in Oslo, I started a new teaching job at a public high school just after New Year?s. I was three months pregnant with L and terribly morning sick, and two days a week I had class at eight. So I rose at six in the pitch black and attempted not to vomit as I navigated the shower, some clothes, a cup of tea, and the Trikk, the streetcar that took me to Majorstuen, where I would hop on the subway for two stops. By the time I arrived at Berg Vidergaendeskole there was a gray light, but the sun didn?t really rise until the end of first period.

We humans can romanticize all kinds of things.

We?re in our own dark time in California, which is never sure how to be winter, but tries, and I?m still setting the alarm for six as many mornings as I can muster. It is a strange sort of push and pull, for I really do loathe getting up early, but ever since I learned that the poet Lucie Brock-Broido calls the morning being ?wet from the other side? I?ve been unable to shake the notion that this time, this liminal time between night and day, is when the creativity is awakening and the words best flow?or sputter, or crawl. (And, because life is so busy, sometimes it?s the only time of the day, anyway.) Sure enough, I?ve been getting at least a poem a morning, though which are any good, it?s hard to say.

But creativity is a funny thing. Earlier this fall, I took a poetry class and vowed to just write, to generate work, to make, for as long as it took. And I did, all fall. It was glorious. But now, mere weeks later, I feel a familiar antsyness as I start to worry, to push, to want to force that raw, unfinished work into something meaningful?a book, a record, a testimony to the world that I am not lazy, that I am not, uh, bad, that I EXIST. In September, when I read up in Portland with the poet Stephanie Adams-Santos (who taught me about Lucie Brock-Broido), she said that when she writes she tries to scratch some metaphorical itch, to find something inside herself that needs fulfilling and, well, fulfill it. (She actually said this much more clearly and beautifully than that!) In answer to the same question, I said that I turned to my readers to tell me if something was any good. And then I thought about what she said and wondered, what if I did that, too?

What if instead of seeking external validation, I just trusted in my belief that doing the work is the most important thing? Share on X

So, I guess here I?ve answered my own personal logic puzzle: because I have taken a little break from reading from Little Prayers,?because I don?t have something else to publish NOW, because I always feel the glow from a published essay for about a month before it fades, I have been inhabiting this space, on and off here in the December dark, where I don?t feel like I?m any good. Hence the rush to publish something, to finish something, to frantically get out into the world a thing that isn?t even ready yet, just so I can prove something to?to whom? I don?t even know.

How stupid I am, sometimes.

I?m still learning to be a writer: to chase the joy and to find that balance between playful, creative inquiry and brass tacks. And I feel enormously comforted here at the end of this blog post, because somehow writing all of this down, I feel like I have permission to be in the playful inquiry stage a while longer. Brass tacks, be off with you. Glad we had that little chat.

So! In the meantime, while you (and I) are waiting for my second book of poetry (!), if you need a great little gift, you can buy my first, Little Prayers, and I?ll sign it for you. There are more good gift ideas for writers here and here.

And here?s to the beauty and the difficulty of this season. If you want to share what you love or loathe about December, I?d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Warmly and with my best wishes for happy holidays and a fruitful new year,

Susie


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Writing for the Winter Solstice

I looked for a piece of writing about the Solstice to post today, darkest day of the year. When we lived in Norway, the Solstice was a big deal; the pinnacle, or the nadir, depending how you see it, of the m?rketid (the dark time). I remember then both feeling a festive sort of connection and relief that from then on, the days would get slightly less cold and dark. I was pregnant, morning sick, and homesick, and it wasn’t the happiest Solstice, then in 2008.

This year, I’m with family, appreciating my gifts, appreciating the dark.

So here, since I can’t post a Solstice-y bit, I decided to post an excerpt from my memoir. It’s just a little piece about Christmas, and I hope you enjoy. (Context: B and I are traveling in Peru in 2004 with his dad and stepmom, whose names I have abbreviated below to T and S.)

Incidentally–you know that fiction contest? My story is in the top handful. If you still can and want to vote for it using your Twitter account, I hope you will–and share with anyone you think might be interested.

Happy Solstice, everyone.

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We got back to Cusco just before Christmas. I was a little weepy and sad to be so far from home during the holidays, but we kept busy. We dragged T and S on a ten-hour bus ride to the famous Colca Canyon and joined a tourist trip there. A combi drove us into the canyon to visit the spot where you can watch the condors soar. I didn?t see any condors. But we did get to spend the night in an ancient stone posada halfway down the canyon. The air hung heavily, laced with frost. In a stone room with a large fireplace, our hosts fed us omelets, alpaca steaks, and an unusual quinoa soup with milk as its base and chunks of queso fresco and fresh herbs. They brought wizened, tart little apples for dessert. The table was one long slab of wood, a farmer?s table with benches on either side.

The next night was Christmas Eve, and back in the city of Arequipa we shared a holiday meal?roast turkey, red wine, salad, and chocolate mousse, this last the offering of the Belgian woman who was there?with the Peruvian family who ran our hotel and had booked our trip to the canyon. I gave my three companions a gift each: Hiram Bingham?s book about Macchu Picchu for T, a pair of earrings for S, and a handmade journal for B.

Christmas day, on a dare, B ordered guinea pig in the one restaurant that was open in Arequipa. The cuy came fully intact, its little legs pulled up, its eyes wide open. B pulled his lettuce garnish over the cuy?s head so it didn?t stare at him too much as he ate. ?Mascotas?? I could hear Veronica saying, in my head.

?It tastes like chicken,? he announced finally, and I leaned over to try a bite.

Yeah?stringy, greasy, flavorless chicken, with a lettuce-leaf hat, beady eyes, and ratty little teeth. I was eating ceviche, perhaps a gastric risk in an inland city, but it was delicious. I thought the Peruvians had gotten that one right.

We returned to Cusco the next day, said goodbye to T and S several days later, and spent the next week traveling around the Sacred Valley together and hanging out.

The ten days between B?s parents leaving and us getting to Bolivia were some of our nicest times in South America, and I didn?t much feel like leaving Peru. I loved being in Cusco, living in an apartment with hand-me-down furniture from travelers long gone. I loved to wake up in the morning and make coca tea and look out over the backyard of the cattycorner house, where the woman in the apron was collecting eggs and feeding her chickens. One day I saw her groping after one with one hand, machete in the other, but the chicken ran away, and then I did too before I saw her catch and kill it.

The sky was enormous in the Sacred Valley, and most mornings were clear. The romanticism of the place made me feel pregnant with longing and very far from home, but as though I could stay away forever. The evidence of gringos who?d stayed was all over Cusco: in San Blas, the arty, chic part of town, ex-pats ran restaurants that served delights like quiche and salad and chilled chardonnay. There were bars and places to hear music, and a caf? where one day I sat with my coffee and journal all morning and heard nothing but English. That was strange. We planned to spend New Year?s Eve in Cusco. Then, on the second or third of January, we would catch the bus to Puno, the big city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, and pass into Bolivia.