Growing up, I had a weird fascination with the dark. I would wake up at some ungodly hour when I knew no one was awake just to sit in the backyard and listen to the noises of the night. I imagined what other people were doing at that time, both near and far. I wondered if anyone was doing what I was doing and found comfort in sharing this time with a stranger on the other side of the world. I also wondered if I was being watched, which didn’t creep me out as much as it made me very aware of my surroundings. My mom told me when I was young that humans see by movement. If something is camouflaged, our eyes aren’t necessarily attuned to the out of place patterns; our eyes notice out of place movement. So I would stare into the dark and see what I could see.
My maternal grandmother is blind. As a kid, I watched her gracefully move through the house, using a mental map to navigate her way up the staircase, through doorways, around tables. She knew every nook and cranny of their old house. She knew the exact location and placement of, in order of importance, the wine glasses, the sweets she hid from my grandfather, her sets of silver. I “practiced” being blind sometimes. I would close my eyes and learn to remember my surroundings just like she did, count my steps between my bed and the door, the door and the bathroom, just like she did. I would turn off the lights and focus intently on my own navigation through a room with random piles of clothes and toys. My sisters and I played a game called creepy crawlers in our bedroom hallway. It was essentially hide and go seek in the dark. We turned off all the lights, sealed the bottom crack of the door with a towel, unplugged the nightlights. One person was “it” and the others would hide. The places to hide were very limited. It was a hallway for God’s sake. But we learned how to climb the walls and hang on for dear life. We would shove ourselves—and others—into closet spaces so small a pillow could barely fit. Despite how few hiding space there were, I felt like because I practiced seeing in the dark, that my skills were far superior to my lowly younger sisters. Only plebeians don’t practice their night vision.
I’ve learned through my “study” of the dark that our minds are usually what make the dark so foreboding. While I tooted my own horn about not being scared, I absolutely had moments where I freaked myself out. But those moments happened, not because there was anything “out there” but because I TOLD myself that there was something out there, and I believed it. The more I exposed myself to the dark and learned to sit with the eerie tingles running up my spine, the more I was able to discern my thoughts from my reality. I could ask myself if these tingles are because my mind is running wild with images of coyotes taking me down? Or is it because I actually see a coyote and my body is telling me to fucking move already? Little spoiler alert: it was the images in my mind that made those tingly sensations break out.
Nowadays, I don’t have as diligent of a practice of sitting with the sounds of night as I did when I was a weird kid sitting by herself outside at 2am. But I do make a practice of exploring the darkness of my inner landscape. Is that darkness creeping in because of a story I’ve mentally created? Or is it because I actually have some grief and trauma that I need to acknowledge and process? The answer isn’t as clear as coyote or no coyote but I’m slowly getting better at identifying the exaggerated, and sometimes completely false, stories of my mind and discerning them from the true sensations of grief and trauma and all the other dark feelings. Sometimes I get those eerie, tingly sensations coursing through my body when I’m walking by myself outside, the kind that make my hands sweat and hairs stand up. When those do happen, I do a solid scan of my surroundings. Assuming no danger is present outside, I’ll take a moment to sit on the ground and face so that my shadow is in front of me. I look at my physical shadow, imagine it as a reflection of my internal shadow, and do a scan similar to check for danger. I notice my breath, each body part independently and wholly, and lastly the quality of my thoughts. I’ve found that it’s the quality of my thoughts that can make me more on edge than almost anything else. And so I welcome these thoughts. They’re a symptom of something deeper and I want to get to the root of it. I’m not one for bandaids. Give me the deep, hard, dirty work that gets me to the core of it all. So I ask my shadow to be with me, always. May I never fear the dark. May my shadow teach me to trust the dark so that I may be reminded of my light. May my shadow continue to give me chances to practice grace and love and compassion. May my shadow keep me in communication with God.