The winter solstice is a month and a day behind us now. “Solstice” derives from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” The shortest day of the year is naturally also the darkest. With every day thereafter the sunlight lingers a little longer, and a little more sunlight fills each day. But night still comes early on January 22. You still need a headlamp, say, to ski into a yurt in the Sierra at 6 pm. The hour before your arrival, all you hear is the fwush of each ski as you step-glide through the snow along your trail. White blankets the ground, erasing features that might distract on a summer day — boulders, shrubs, wildflowers, squirrels. Yet the white picks up the last light, too. You hesitate to ignite your headlamp, because you know that once you do, your field of vision will narrow and darkness will envelop you. And when darkness covers your shoulders, it does not do so in a woolen blanket-like fashion. There’s no warm comfort in its drape.
In her essay “Total Eclipse” from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. “What I saw,” she writes, “what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world.” Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness–whether by your own choosing or not–and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.