Night Fires: Thoughtful darkness, thoughtful light

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere. To know that, in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.

James Baldwin

After the madness of Christmas has receded, this restful quiet time is often thought to herald the new year. Various clusters of folks and traditions celebrate and mark their New Year at different times. Myself, through the deep interiority and reflection of the dark time of the year, I don’t feel the earliest beginnings of new life until somewhere between Imbolc and the spring equinox.

For now, we have the dark. I’ve been comfortable with the dark. I keep its company often, one foot in the world of the sane; one foot in the world of the insane.  One in the world of the dead and dying, one in the living.  A dependable reciprocity, a flow, a movement transports me in and out, to and from.  Then the whole Trump phenomenon and its  tendrils wrapped themselves around so many of our values, our identities, our hope, our courage. Fear grew and grew some more.   Many elders feel hopeless; many of our younger brothers and sisters feel apathy.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that many of us are feeling pretty fucked up. What to do to feel better?

Well, of course there are many things. Some good, some not so much. In this post, though, I want to speak to the reliable inspiration that I turn to every year and am never, ever disappointed: “Night Fires, the annual winter solstice play celebrating its thirty-fifth year. . . [is] a big shout of hope inside a passionate prayer for this beautiful, aching country of ours.”  (from this site)

The content–songs, poems, soliloquies, readings–changes each year but the theme remains contant:  leaving for a journey at the darkest time of the year and making your way through that darkness in order to find the light. I feel I can never do justice when I try to explain it. I just know that it is a profound generosity the spirit for the people who attend, year after year. I just know that it fills me with hope and courage and energy to apply the content I find–John Steinbeck, Naomi Shihab Nye, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carlos Nakai, Langston Hughes, and more–many traditional Inuit, Aztec, PEI, Russion, Italian songs and poems and writings.

And the music? It all touched me deeply. But maybe the most surprising and energizing, one  a 1987 folk song from a band called Oysterband. I’m a folkie from way back & hadn’t heard of it. For me its strength lies in the shift of perspective it pulls off.

 So a big shout-out to Theatre Group LTD of Middlebury  VT and all of the holy that they conjure and gather and offer to the community. Gratitudes to  Marianne and Deborah, Abigail and Shaun, Annie, Lynn, and the entire community that blesses us every year with their wisdom and creativity.


Book Review: Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Rule of the Bone by Russel Banks Image from Amazon

Chappie failed in school in Au Sable NY and journeyed to Plattsburg to become a mall rat. He had lived with his ineffectual mom and alcoholic, sexually abusive stepfather. His biological father split when he was 5. Chappie starts down the twisty trail of drugs and larceny and general low-level crime; hangs with a biker gang; meets a child pornographer and his victim Rose along the way. He gets a tattoo (see the bookcover) and becomes Bone. When he meets a wise Rastafarian in the US as a migrant worker, I-Man takes Bone with him to Jamaica. Although drugs are still a dominant theme, Bones meets his father (too coincidentally), has some vivid trips with the Rastas where he begins to grasp racial appropriation and starts to have some solid insights of his own. Who is to say if it’s literary fiction–but 5 points for an engrossing read written with integrity and authenticity, hard to put down.



Where I Write

Finally I learned to carry a notebook and a writing implement with me always, so I could write anywhere, anytime: in the woods underneath a deer stand; at the seed store; accidentally locked in a stall in a New Zealand loo; at my job, between patients or sitting on the stone steps of the only part of the building complex that hasn’t been modernized. Trains, planes, automobiles. At odd hours, at my old oaken desk in the study. Also, on the deck, tucked among tree tops with with steep hillsides of grand forest.  Here is one piece that I wrote there:

A Good Morning

Sometimes just something to write on
and an implement to write with

fountain pen
pot of tea
rose petal cup
stack of books at my elbow
thin volumes of poetry
magical realism
measured rhythm
book of translations
planetary alignment
Tarot cards
good back support
better lighting
a magnifying glass for the fine print
bottle of ink
my well of experience
reflective surface
book of runes

and still other times

A Saturday Blessing from WholeHeart

Every morning, the call I rise to is one of “fierce love” –  to stand and act with rigor and conviction for the world we envision – one of respect, love and honor for all beings. It is with this fierceness that I welcome you to this month’s newsletter.

May you stand on earth, with roots and wings, and firmly voice what you know matters in your heart.

Sometimes, this is exactly what you need in your in-box.

Holly Wilkinson, Executive Director
WholeHeart: Living on the Learning Edge


Going to Seed

“. . .but let the wings take root and the roots fly.” Juan Ramon Jimenez

Summers, I deadhead madly, staving off going to seed.
As if that were the enemy, to be avoided at all cost.
Autumns, I crouch, a paragon of patience,
gathering tiny seeds that store magic,
guarding secrets of their species.
Despite dry and dying,
stately, ornate seed pods mature with singular beauty,
protecting their bundled contents from the elements
until snow blankets the road
and carries them forward, farther.
Howling winds carry milkweed’s silky wings,
blowing them through deep hollows to bloom on different hills.
Jewelweed daughters shimmer and explode,
propelling themselves far from the mother plant,
demanding more room to grow.
Burdock seed sons, impetuous,
latch on to shaggy, unkempt coats,
lumbering toward next year.
Planted firm and sturdy, my own years accumulate
softening seed casings of resistance.
Control, worry, sorry.
I kneel in the familiar gardener’s pose.
I bow my head to seed.

Collective Blessings to the Ancestors


You loved ones in quiet graveyards of centuries and before,
on twisty back roads nearly disappeared from today,
where deer gather at dusk and ghosty white flowers climb with mysterious vines.
You loved ones in graves still fresh,
where the good scent of rich dirt mingles with funeral flowers.
The salty scent of slow tears
trace the lines of loss in your mourners’ faces.

You loved ones, your powdered bones lying lost and quiet, somewhere
for centuries. Grave dust, star dust.
You loved ones with your ashes settled into rough urns of stone,
resting on mantles, or lost in forgotten cupboards of no consequence.

You loved ones: listen.
Your remains gave the spark of you back to the universe.
But the glow of you still glimmers.
At last your daughters are seeking you.
We can almost feel where you are.

Contemplating tattered prayer flags whipped by the north wind,
pondering the dance of trees in the storms,
breathing deep the moss on dark forest floors.
We carry each of your stories yet still know so few.

The language of the dead is difficult for the living.
Loved ones, we pledge this to you: we are learning.

Hymn of Gratitude to a Season

I chose autumn to be born, to move from realms in spiral galaxies that swirled with uncertain and joyful dust,  from starry excitement and pulsing night skies, toward a time created from my mother’s dreaming of my heavenly, absent father.

In a night-time sleeping bag on remote national forest land, there is little distinction between the deeply wooded landscape and the vast open, indigo sky. My eyes ached with the cadence of autumn. I chose my sun sign October time to conceive my son, who carries his bruising bravely. Once, while he played near a gnarled old maple, a brilliant monarch rested on his smiling, open face. Such a hopeful face. So, was he special, to be touched thusly? Or was the monarch injured? Special, injured, intact, broken—what are any of us, then? Who interprets those signs? Who made those words?

When September brought lengthening days, my daughter was born. She perched on bed edges, bouncing to her own musical laughter from beginnings in a distant border town, where campfires and communes held her snug and safe, then she leapt into fabricated city-scapes, where lights shined bright on false freedoms. She ricocheted back to a blue-collar holding cell, and are we all prisoners, then, inside lives that we construct and inside walls that we put up then decorate prettily, to cover some inner chaos?

My own persistent feelings wash up again and again on the edges of these pages.

This is what I know of the difference between wise waiting and dangerous inertia: absolutely nothing.

On stalks supporting dark, drooping heads of the Russian sunflowers after first frost, a busy, up-and-down chipmunk reminds me:  Sun sign in Scorpio, a gift.  It enables me to live into the mystery of things, releasing the need to own answers.

A Poem Inspired by Beltane


In scattered huts and houses on the hillside
yellow lights appear in dark windows
like bonfires.

Every morning this fire festival
built from yesterday’s brushwood
fueled by good work and breakfast
and the blaze of sun
as the new day surfaces.

Whether we’ve spent the night on our knees
or at the crossroads,
whether we receive first light with celebration
or with dread,
whether we’ve drifted in dreams born by rose petals
or in nightmares.
Dawn calls to each of us, alike.

What path will you walk today?
How will you worship
in this age of dreams and visions?
Will you whisper, or call out
to all that is holy?

I will kneel in the soft dirt,
murmuring spells to the seeds.

Happy Valentine’s Day

The next time I’m asked what’s so great about aging, I hope I can remember this. It is excerpted from David Whyte’s Living Together.

“ . . .we hunger for maturity, see it not as stasis

but a form of love. We want the stillness and confidence

of age, the space between self and all the objects of the world

honoured and defined, the possibility that everything

left alone can ripen of its own accord . . .”


Outlaws and Insights: On Reflective Nursing Practice

The faces of illness and death can make us small. As nurses, we become large again at the intersection with others as they experience their own watershed moments. The simple mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through windows that open, wide and brief, into others’ lives, providing us great insight into our own. I learn much about interiority in this way.

My own seasonings as a nurse and as a person are inseparable. A defining point occurred in a dilapidated New England farmhouse with a screen door that flapped in the wind. Inside, torn floral linoleum covered a crooked floor. Greasy dishes were piled in a rust-stained sink. The house smelled of chain-saw oil and stale urine. An antique hospital bed, crank missing, was in the center of the room. Clint was young, only forty years old. He existed under the radar of authority. To live outside the law, his wife informed me while I did his Hospice intake interview, required that one must be honest. This family considered themselves outlaws; this family was unflinchingly honest.

Three months later, I pronounced his death. Friends and neighbors gathered in the dooryard, keeping a crude but comforting vigil. It was one part festival, one part wake, and one part street theatre. Singular customs like these distinguished every landmark in the lives of this unconventional, eccentric community.

Clint’s three weary brothers were at his bedside before he died. These were big, tough men, not afraid of much,  yet morose with this dying happening so close to them. They strode through life, hard-drinking, hard-living desperados. Now they stood before death. Quiet. Stunned.

Their armor had failed.


But these men knew survival. The success, or failure, of hunting season determined the difference between a fat year for the family and a lean one. They told stories of the long, cramped surveillance from narrow deer stands in the numbing November cold. They could follow a buck’s trail in the woods for miles. They interpreted scrapes and smells. Their heavy bodies were graceful, feet planted carefully to avoid the snap of a twig. They predicted an animal’s behavior and its route. They tracked trails of blood, patches of hair caught on woody shrubs, and hoof prints on damp brown leaves.  The brothers waited for good shots:  a clean kill demonstrated mastery of the craft and respect for the animal, avoiding a slow and painful death. They knew all this deeply. Close to the bone. They read signs and followed inner guidance.

They knew that in his own way Clint had lived and died well.


The brothers left, after Clint’s heart stopped, charging the women with the care of the body. A feeling of tribe is associated with doing this work with others, at home.  The air in a room changes when death arrives. A hush is discernible. When death is institutionalized, there is usually a lack, a void.  Respecting the stillness, we women worked quietly together.

Into this pause, this threshold place, sudden gun shots exploded just outside the screen door. I jerked around and saw the three brothers in braced postures, the butts of their rifles gripped hard against their shoulders. Calloused hands, steady, prepared to shoot again. They aimed over the impenetrable far woods, and for a second then a third time the deafening shots pierced the stillness. They slowly lowered their guns. Quiet conversation resumed. The other women and I turned back to our work.

This ragged 3-volley salute from hunting rifles was a raw and eloquent prayer of grief and honoring, a spontaneous eulogy born of one family’s particular way of being in the world. Rich meaning and tradition are elements of every culture.


Nursing often requires doing constant impossibles. Contemplative nursing practice exists as  the underpinning to all dimensions of all care that we provide, wherever we provide it. Reflection and compassionate service hold the potential for us to change lives and to be changed ourselves. Pilgrims, all of us. Together in this land of living and of the dead.