Winter has always been a season of endings and beginnings, a threshold between the old year and the new that beckons us to turn our thoughts inward, contemplating what has been and what might be. Looking behind and looking ahead, we resemble the Roman god, Janus, January’s namesake. With two faces—one for either direction—Janus gazed perpetually on the past and on the future simultaneously.
In recent weeks, as the wheel of the year turns and autumn makes its cold, slow, quiet way toward winter, I’ve felt the irresistible desire to wrap myself in scarf and cardigan and mimic the season. So every day, pondering my place among the colorful collage of houses and the freshly fallen leaves, I walk a slow, serpentine route through the Southeast Heights, adding my steps to the undulating path that traces Ridgecrest’s grassy, tree-lined median, and traversing quiet miles by foot in the cold midmorning sun. Learning to love the names of the streets: Morningside, Graceland, Pershing, Montclaire. Learning to love the glimpses of other people’s lives. Admiring the occasional roadrunner.
Crunching and kicking my way through swells of crisp orange leaves, stirring up their sweet, earthy scent with every step, I can’t help considering my own fallen leaves—the little deaths scattered red and umber and gold over the contours of my life. Phantoms of almosts and might-have-beens, phantoms of the broken and the lost. Such introspection comes naturally this time of year. Winter has always been a season of endings and beginnings, a threshold between the old year and the new that beckons us to turn our thoughts inward, contemplating what has been and what might be. Looking behind and looking ahead, we resemble the Roman god, Janus, January’s namesake. With two faces—one for either direction—Janus gazed both simultaneously and perpetually on the past and on the future.
In-between the end of one year and the beginning of another, there is a kind of precipice. Here we stand, with our toes pressed close to that dizzying edge, when we think about our many little deaths and the changes within that they seem to demand. We sometimes call these changes New Year’s resolutions, resolving ourselves to make fresh starts and begin again. Once upon a time, many feared, as the nights grew longer and the days grew short, that the sun might not return. That the new year might not come without our active participation in the world’s cyclical regeneration through prayer and ritual. Our New Year’s resolutions are modern echoes of that ancient impulse, remnants of that old urge toward actively turning the wheel of the year.
The harsh weather and the waxing darkness, the dying vegetation and the frozen earth—these have shown their psychological significance in the winter myths and traditions of many cultures. John Matthews writes that the Celts named their winter months Dumanios (“The Darkest Depths”), Riuros (“Cold Time”), and Anagantios (“Stay-Home Time”). The darkest depths are what we find at the foot of the precipice when we lean over and peer down. Fear, uncertainty, insecurity, loneliness. We must descend into the depths, the myths suggest, if we would walk the path of the new year and honor our commitments to change. Whether these changes are small (no more than one cup of coffee per day from now on) or large (no more emotional barriers between me and the people I love), some aspect of the old self—like the old year—must die so that a new self can emerge.
Depth psychology calls this an underworld journey. Mythologically, the underworld is darkness, depth, death, dream. In other words, change and transformation require that we enter the darkness and face our inner demons. Our culture places so much value on the highs that it tends to undervalue the lows. We give such preference to the rational that we tend to neglect the non-rational. Yet there is power in the underworld akin to the restorative power of sleep. The Greek goddess Persephone descended to the underworld—which she ruled with her husband, Hades—every winter, and every spring she reemerged. Persephone was life returning in the spring because she was queen of the underworld. The darkest depths were the source of her power. We might say that she ruled her inner demons rather than letting them rule her.
Sometimes we choose to visit the depths, sometimes we lose our footing and slip down unintentionally, and sometimes the underworld claims us. Last November, two weeks after the Celtic New Year, Samhain (from whence the modern celebration of Halloween originates), I came frighteningly close to death. As if to emphasize how very thin, at this time of year, is the veil between the upper and the underworld. While we sat in the emergency room late into the night, my friend, Holly, asked me a pivotal question: “What do you need to change in your life right now?” I knew the answer immediately. I need to tear down the walls around my heart, I thought, and have the courage to be truly vulnerable. Then and there, I committed myself to the change that life demanded of me, and when I was released from the hospital the next morning, I took the first steps on the path of my new year.
It started in darkness, quiet and slow. For a while it was harder for me to get around, more difficult to make the long drive between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, so I often found myself in an isolation that was not of my choosing. The experience was a strange one. Being something of a hermit by nature, I was accustomed to solitude, but I’d never had it forced upon me. The contrast was startling. My life, I gradually realized, had migrated south. Everything and everyone I cared about were centered in Albuquerque, but I was still stuck (out of habit more than anything else) in Santa Fe. So I followed my heart and moved. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—but without a brush with death, without an underworld journey, I might never have known it needed making. After the move, like Persephone in the spring, my life came to life.
Memories of the accident and the hospital and the weeks and months that followed flash through my mind as I walk, inlaying the new sensations of the present—sunlight on the bark of this tree, song from the throat of that bird—with a shadowy filigree from the past. Each new experience resonates with the echoes of those that came before. I am driving when this season’s first snow falls, and also I am walking out Holly’s front door, lifting my palms to catch last year’s snowflakes. I’m walking across a bridge in a little German town, too, and slushing my way down the middle of Mass Ave in a red wool coat on a snowy Boston night. One within the other. Memories are ghosts of a sort, and underworld journeys by definition pass through their territory.
Those fallen leaves, little deaths, ghosts (the almosts and the might-have-beens) cast shadows because they once stood dazzling in the effulgence of life. The Celts believed that the dead drew near during the winter months to warm themselves by the fires of the living, but perhaps we are just as wont to pull our phantoms close during midwinter—an dudlach (“the gloom”)—to warm ourselves with memories of light. Before my accident, I’d never observed the winter solstice, but last year, I sat for hours in utter darkness during the longest night of the year. Reflecting on what had happened. Considering the life, the light, I’d almost lost. When I could keep myself awake no longer, I lit a candle—a memory of the sun’s warm light—and gave myself to sleep. After the long night passed, I woke to find that the sun had returned after all. Now, I welcome the gathering dark like an old friend, looking forward to what the new year will bring.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a guide who knows the way, a psychopomp, when setting out on an underworld journey. The Greek god of travel and communication, Hermes (known to the Romans as Mercury), was also an underworld guide—one of only a handful of gods who moved freely between all realms. For those seeking such a psychopomp, there are several winter retreats in the area that may be of interest.
Ghost Ranch, established in 1955, offers three New Year retreats near Abiquiu. Creating Possibilities: Listening for New Directions in Life; Creating Spaciousness in Mind, Body & Spirit; and In the Stillness & Silence, I Begin Again. All three are held December 30-January 2. For more information visit ghostranch.org/education/featured-retreats/new-year-retreats.
The Upaya Zen Center, founded in 1990, offers a variety of meditation retreats this winter in Santa Fe. Rohatsu: Miracle of Each Moment, December 1-8, by application; Winter Practice Period: Deep Refuge, January 6-27; Zazenkai Weekend, January 8-10; Bodhidharma Weekend, January 15-17; and Sesshin: Shikantaza, January 22-27. For more information visit upaya.org/programs.
The Canossian Spirituality Center, established in 1996, offers a weeklong guided journaling retreat in Albuquerque. Journal Directed Retreat, January 8-15. For more information visit canossianspiritualitycenter.org/programs.php.
Story by Emily Ruch