December 21st, 2013 really was the longest night of the year for many in the Toronto region, and not just because it was the Winter Solstice. A winter storm that had originated in the southern states of the US finally made its way north into southern Ontario, bringing with it up to 3 cm of ice. Heavy encrustations weighed down the branches of so many trees in our area, causing them to snap and fall and sever power lines. The power went out in the early hours of December 22nd, and didn’t come back on again for almost three days. During those three days, daytime temperatures descended to -10C, or 14F.
There were some families in our neighbourhood who booked hotel stays during those three days. We were more stoic about the matter, preferring to wait it out, sure that power would come back on soon enough, and not wanting to spend the extra money. If we’d known how long it would take and how cold it would get, we might have made a different decision and abandoned our home as well. But we didn’t. By the time the temperature inside our house neared 10C, (which I have to tell you, feels VERY cold when you are living in it 24 hours a day) we were ready to escape to a hotel room too, but by that time, other desperate Torontonians had booked them all.
It was a difficult time, for sure. Initially, we cooked what we could out-of-doors on the barbecue. As time dragged on, we began going out to eat, if only to be somewhere warm for an hour or two. Our Christmas tree remained dark and undecorated in the front room. It seemed so forlorn, sitting there unadorned and unlit in the cold, when normally it would be the focus of the room at this time of year. By Christmas Eve, there were still no gifts beneath the tree because I refused to wrap them clumsily with my gloves on. As the minutes and hours of Christmas Eve ticked onward, we realized we may have to change our Christmas plans, as there was no way for us to cook Christmas dinner.
It was easy to feel empty and deprived that year as we sat in our cold, dark house, particularly when other houses in nearby neighbourhoods regained power faster. We would drive home from the mall and see colourful lights everywhere, hoping as our own neighbourhood drew closer that our lights would be on too. But as we turned that last corner, darkness would envelop us. Coming home was like descending into a black hole. You don’t realize how dark a winter night can be until you have lost your ability to make light.
I now completely understand why ancient people felt the need to pray for the return of the sun on this night, why there was an emotional need for a child of light, for a ray of hope. In Eastern thought, this time of year can be equated to the point on the yin-yang symbol when blackness takes up the most space. But the part about the yin-yang symbol that I’ve always particularly loved, is that even during this time of peak darkness, there is still that small circle of light in the centre. No thing, no person, no time of year is ever completely dark, just as nothing is ever completely light.
There is an old Buddhist story about a farmer and his son. The farmer loses his horse in the mountains and all the other people in his village sympathize with him about his poor luck. But then his horse returns and brings ten horses back with it! The villagers rejoice. His son tries to train the horses, but falls and breaks his leg. The villagers sympathize with his misfortune. But soon afterwards, the Emperor’s men arrive in the village and demand that all young men be conscripted into the army. The farmer’s son is exempt because of his bad leg, and the villagers come by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. It is not easy being a farmer with a bad leg, and the villagers sympathize with the farmer’s young son who will now always walk with a limp. Yet, when none of the other young men return from the war, the farmer and his son are the only able-bodied men capable of working the village lands and so they make a fortune. The villagers stop by to congratulate them once again.
Throughout all of these advances and set-backs, the Buddhist farmer is at ease. His reply to his fellow villagers through each of these situations, is neither to celebrate, nor to become depressed. At each juncture, he merely says “Who knows? We shall see….” The farmer understands the concept of yin and yang. He understands that reality is not static, that the future cannot be controlled. He sees that good and bad are relative conditions, and can easily morph from one into the other.
During these days of darkness, as we await the birth of new light, of a new year, we would be wise to remember the yin-yang symbol and what it means. We would be wise if we can remember that any gains we have made this year may be lost in the next, and that this is OK. We would be wise to remember that any problems we have today may be the seeds for great success in the new year, and that this is OK too. The story never ends. Misfortunes and fortunes blend together in a beautiful way to create the lives we have. Lives that are not always easy, but have their moments of joy as well.
As for that ice storm three years ago, that situation wasn’t all bad either. It turns out that spending three days in the dark, in a cold house, with no power, can bring a family together like nothing else. We played endless games of Monopoly and Scrabble in the candlelight. We spent a lot of time talking since there were no electronic devices available to distract us. We laughed together, often uproariously. In some ways, it was the best Christmas ever, even without any light or heat. It’s something to ponder as the darkness gathers once again and the first snowfall of the year begins its soft descent.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.