Despite the whitewashed glitz of tinsel, Bing Crosby, and the ever elusive ‘getting what you want’, the winter solstice holidays are really all about the discomfort of a precipice, the disorientation of decomposition, and the exploration of the liminal boondocks between darkness and light. Liminal means “relating to a transitional stage” or “occupying a position at both sides of a boundary,” and the shadowy magic of liminal states lie in their ability to be brazenly nebulous, threatening the sense of equilibrium and unambiguousness that our binary-bound, homeostatic fleshsuits crave. Our ancestors turned the distress and unease of lying in wait under the shadow of a darkened sun into ribald celebrations of death and rebirth, where social hierarchies were reversed or temporarily dissolved (here’s looking at you, Saturnalia!), and bloodied sacrifices were made to hasten the return of the sun.
’Tis the season of nigredo, the alchemical Darkness On The Edge of Town, the first stage of the Great Work where the fixed gets dissolved by the volatile. Nigredo - sometimes translated as ‘blacker than the blackest black’ - is a liminal phase shift that putrefies the shadowy morass of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ and through discomfort and decomposition, condenses it into light. It’s the alchemical version of Christmas- the return of the Sun King that only the tenebrous coupling of chaos and the unknown can provide. Perhaps I’m no more than an aging goth with a penchant for Jung and fifty shades of black, but this to me is the true spirit of Christmas.
A few ideas for exploring the divine discomfort of transition & liminality this holiday season: Prostrate yourself in front of the dying sun on the edge of a precipice, a border between the here and there… where the sand meets the sea, an ominous crossroads worthy of a Robert Johnson yarn, a lawless bordertown at the terminus of a highway, the 8th stair in a 16-stair stairwell. When you are positioned on a hinge between the density of the past and an amorphous future, where do you lean? When there is ambiguity and disorientation, what sort of things come up? Find a waiting room in which you have no set appointment and sit in it until you become wildly uncomfortable with anticipation. Incant Yeats’ ‘Rosa Alchemica’ at the mouth of the La Brea tar pits whilst a rogue street pigeon is disentangling itself from the tarry mire. Have someone tie you to a tree in the middle of the woods and trust that the knots will find their way loose. Let a stranger blindfold you and walk you home. Go ahead, tell them your address. Ride an elevator for an entire day. Light one white candle under the cloak of darkness in a coyote den on the outskirts of Elysian Park, and sing Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ at the top of your lungs like it is holy writ. When you come to the part that goes - “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face. Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it, they carry it with them every step that they take” - blow out the candle. Make like the Hanged Man of the major arcana and suspend yourself upside down for a distressing duration of time, unwinding into the discomfort of the upended, yielding to surrender. What condenses in the darkness and discomfort? Can you attune to sensation without assigning it roles? Can you keep it opaque? Is the waiting the hardest part?
Whatever emerges from this explorations of enigma, let’s lean into the darkness together.