Look Closely in this Dark Month
January in the North Country
At 4:30pm on most weekdays, I walk up the steps from the basement where my office is, fill the kettle with water and put it on the stove. The dial gets turned to the number 7, and while the water heats up, I open the cupboard to get a ceramic mug with a moose painted on the side and some lemon tea. Placing the tea in the cup, I wait for the whistle. Sometimes I flip through the mail or put the dishes away while I wait, but usually I just stand there and listen, holding the mug, looking out the window as the light of the day slips away.
Author Kent Nerburn wrote, “You must look closely in this dark month. Examine the backs of your hands and the movements of your fingers. Place your thumbprints on the edges of old bowls. Immerse yourself in ceremonies of the ordinary. Do not seek large issues. In January one needs ritual, not philosophy.”
It can be really hard to look closely, especially this time of year. Westernized culture tells us that we should be setting lofty goals and committing ourselves to a new beginning to “make it your best year yet!” or some other similar saying (that often comes with a ten step list and/or a program with a price tag). “Year in reviews” are everywhere as the calendar flips over. The message that swirls around is that you’ve got to plan ahead, take the long view, get your ducks in a row, be ready to conquer the next twelve months. January in mainstream America tends to be about going big or going home. Clean the slate. Overhaul your lifestyle. Live your best life, starting today. Raise your vibration so you can manifest your dream life. These aren’t necessarily bad things to put energy into. However, these are large issues.
What if instead we took Mr. Nerburn’s advice and chose to place our attention on things like the edges of old bowls and the backs of our hands? What if we didn’t try to “crush” or “slay” any goals and instead chose to hold a mug and contemplate its delicate heaviness, the way fingers fit around its curves, how the steam rises in air that is colder than comfortable? What might we see in the lines on our faces as we brush our teeth or the cracks in those old bowls as we wash them by hand? What if we peered deeply into the ordinary actions of our days and discovered what rituals already exist inside them?
There is power in ceremonies of the ordinary. That power isn’t flashy or quick moving or even nice to look at sometimes. It’s certainly hard to sell as a product. [Can you picture it? “How to examine the backs of your hands in ten easy steps-start today!”] But it could just be the antidote to your typical new year.
Look closely in this dark month.
I wrote the above words a few years ago and posted them on my old blog. Then parts of the piece got turned into part of a chapter called "Digging for the Truth” in my next book, Collisions of Earth and Sky (see below). And even though I wrote the words, it always helps me to re-read them at this time of year, the time when personal development takes on a sense of renewed urgency for many folks.
I've never been one to set New Years Resolutions—deep winter (as much as I enjoy winter..) just doesn't seem like the best time to overhaul life.
But I do like reflecting on what sort of energy I'd like the next 12 months to grow from. Finding ceremony, or reclaiming it if it’s slipped from my consciousness, is part of it. And these words from Arundhati Roy sum up some aspirations that I think we might all due well to keep working toward: "To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” ―from The Cost of Living
It’s a new year, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a ‘new you’— there is no new you, there is just who you are, an imperfect human creature that’s whole already.
There are embers glowing in the rubble of even the hardest years. The more beautiful world is rising, and it needs you to be what you already are, not what the marketing executives decide will lead to the most profit. You don’t need a 10 step program to ____, or an app to _____. You do need to be fully yourself, to go outside more than you think you should, and to look for ways to add to the healing of the collective. And no one but you gets to decide what exactly that means.
Here's to pursuing beauty to its lair, and finding the ceremony in the ordinary. What might that look like for you?
P.S. If you’re local to Minnesota or Wisconsin, or have reason to be in the St. Croix River Valley on February 3rd….I’d love to have you join me for the release party at the Natural Heritage Art Centre in Osceola, Wisconsin. Doors open at 6:30pm, with a short program to begin around 7:00. I’ll read a little bit, some other poets/writers will share some work, and we’ll hear from Chrystal Odin and Aiyana Sol Machado who will present some of the initiatives they’re engaged in at Philadelphia Community Farm. All are welcome and there will be snacks, drinks, and books available!
Registration is requested, and you can do so here: A Winter Evening of Community Fellowship .
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A great question came across my desk awhile ago: ‘Did you manifest it, or is it white privilege?’ My perspective on “manifestation” has shifted quite a lot over the years.