New light for the old dark

The book’s title caught my eye in the library a few weeks ago. It was a debut book of poetry and I hadn’t heard of the poet – an English writer named Sam Willetts – but the title felt true and somehow calling. New Light for the Old Dark. Haunting. So of course I signed it out, and ever since then, the slim volume has been migrating around my house. I find it in the kitchen, propped up against the breadbox or perched on a living room chair with the newspaper. The title hooked me. And I wondered why.

Maybe it is just the right time of year. By now, the newness of the new year feels a little stale. The house feels ordinary again with all the Christmas things tidied away and our family routines resumed. That’s midwinter, isn’t it? These short days and long nights aren’t a novelty now, and the dark is feeling old.

After the light

We had our fair share of sparkle over Christmas. One of the highlights was the afternoon we spent at the theatre (thanks to grandparental gifting). This was our Plum’s first theatre experience. His siblings prepared him as well as they could – they told him all about the stage, the dimming lights and the spotlights, too, the intermission. When we got to the theatre, he was a little nervous about his flipdown seat, but once the play started, he was entranced. Watching him was absolutely magic. Afterwards, as we stepped out into the evening, he was quiet. He reached for my hand and held on tight. A little way down the street, he told me he felt sad. His voice was confused, and under the streetlights, he looked very small. I crouched down and wrapped him in a mighty hug.

“I know,” I said. “Leaving isn’t easy.”

Sometimes kids understand more than we think they do. Sometimes that’s true for parents as well.

Theatrical sparkle and Christmas glitter don’t conquer the familiar cold, and on the street, the dark felt close again around us.

Old dark indeed.

New words

I should say that the book of poems has not gone unread. Reading an unfamiliar poet is like tracing an unfamiliar shoreline without a map. Sudden inlets can surprise you, and so can wide, open beaches. Early in his book, Willett has a poem called “St Columba’s Footprints,” in which he describes being on a mail boat of Scotland’s west coast, remembering the monks who went before.

The missionary sailors
threading these shouldered islands
in blind weather had only their own silence
to save them, listened as one man
for the breakers of a wrecking shore.

The phrase wrecking shore feels very much like old dark to me. It holds both our fear of the unseen and a certain and anchored knowledge of danger ahead. But the shore also offers the men safety and they seek it together in concentrated – almost contemplative – silence. Their silence itself becomes a light in the darkness and a new kind of navigating prayer for salvation.

We want light to be startling. Dazzling. Instantly transforming. Especially when we’ve glimpsed it before, we long for spectacle and even sparkle. But sometimes, new light comes among us as something small. Just a little flicker against a large landscape. A listening, a hope. It can begin with one, but catches and around it, a community collects. Then, in togetherness, hope strengthens and grows into faith. The old dark still surrounds it, but now there is light. None of this is sudden, just as our midwinter New Year doesn’t bring sudden change. Instead, it marks the start of longer days, and change follows slowly. Perhaps that’s for the best. We still have a long journey to Easter morning. But the dawning begins. And we listen together for something new. 


  • Katie Munnik

    Katie is an Ottawa writer living in Cardiff with her spouse and three growing children. You can also find Katie on Twitter @messy_table.

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