Finding Light in the Darkness

What a search for the Northern Lights taught writer Steven Petrow about new beginnings.

David Noton Photography/Alamy

Last winter I decided to head to the “land of fire and ice”—Iceland—ostensibly for a yoga retreat. Nearly every one of my friends asked me some version of this question: “Why don’t you wait until summer, when the midnight sun burns all day and night?” My answer was twofold: I hoped there’d be lessons to be found in the long and dark days; and (mostly) I wanted a chance to see the magic of the aurora borealis.

Experiencing the northern lights remains at the top of many people’s bucket lists, and I felt that longing deeply. The Romans named the northern lights after Aurora, the Goddess of Dawn, and if ever a soul needed a new day, I did. 

 As I revealed to the 14 strangers in our first night “welcome circle”: “I’ve been living in a dark hole for the past two years. Not in an ice cave or anything like that, but the suicide of a friend just before Christmas added to a series of painful losses, including the death of my parents in a three-month window, punctuated by my husband’s exit from our marriage in between Mom’s and Dad’s passing. I’m looking for a new beginning.”

The best odds of witnessing the northern lights means traveling to Iceland in the dead of winter, during a dark and moonless week. To boost my chances I downloaded a five-star app, My Aurora Forecast, which made great promises that I’d witness this phenomenon. I even chose a retreat that would take me to the same location, during the same week of the year, when the aurora had previously made itself visible. 

Still, I’d done my homework and I knew that the northern lights are not like Old Faithful. They are unpredictable, and don’t run on a schedule. One travel website warned: “The northern lights are Mother Nature’s creation and as such we can’t even use historical data to predict how likely you are to witness a display.” 

Cloudy Skies

On Day One, in Reykjavik, I could tell my odds of witnessing the lights in the capital city were slim. I didn’t need the app to tell me that; I used my eyes—blazing cafe windows brightened dark mornings and evenings, some roofs were illuminated 24/7, bringing “daylight” to the dark sky. In addition to the light pollution, a heavy cloud obscured the skies. 

On Day Four, we flew to Akureyri, a small town north of the Arctic Circle. From there our yogi pilgrims caravanned to a remote ski lodge, Klængshóll, home to Icelandic ponies, and surrounded by pristine waterfalls and miles and miles of virgin snowfields. At night, darkness completely engulfed us. We were now in what’s known as “the oval,” or the “auroral zone.” In the far northern hemisphere,
high in the sky above the geomagnetic North Pole, this is where the aurora is mostly likely to manifest itself. 

Find the Light Within

On our first night at the lodge—partly cloudy and frigid—my Aurora app gave us a whopping 30% chance of experiencing the northern lights. Our entire group believed that night would be the night.

Our actual sighting: zero. Frustration took root: I knew deep down that a five-star app, a spot-on location, and the strongest of desires couldn’t blow clouds into the sky or fire up a solar shower. I didn’t grasp that by relying on reason alone I was ignoring the existential magic of the lights.

The next morning, after a vigorous yoga session and a hearty breakfast, I happened upon this blog entry by a local: “No matter how hard you try, you cannot get rid of darkness… In order to erase darkness, you must do something with light, because the light is the only thing that actually exists.” 

Light, I came to understand, is not only measured by watts and lumens but also smiles and laughter. 

Frankly, I’d been living in personal nighttime for so long that I’d come to seek the light from outside, as a way to banish my inner darkness. But here it was: “No matter how hard you try, you cannot get rid of darkness.” I suddenly understood that I would need to find the light within first.

Looking back over the week, I could see that light had revealed itself in unexpected places, as a new spirit of playfulness permeated our group. On a glacier hike, wet and freezing from blinding snow and sleet, two of our group marched onto the slippery ice and assumed the dancer pose, Natarajasana. Their audacity in challenging Mother Nature made the rest of us laugh (as much as we could with frozen faces). On a snowshoeing trek, my friend Tracy took a tumble; she wasn’t hurt, nor could she get up. She started to laugh, which proved contagious. All I could think of was the famous catchphrase, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” With each passing day I found myself smiling more—even laughing out loud.

Light, I came to understand, is not only measured by watts and lumens but also smiles and laughter. 

By our second-to-last evening I had given up on seeing the Goddess of Dawn. The app and the weather forecast had promised us light; both had let us down. It was late, and the coldest night yet, and I slid under the down comforter in resignation.

Witness the Dance

Forty minutes later I heard a voice shout, “Get up!” Then another, “Get out!” I pulled on my clothes and ran out into the darkness, to behold the neon-green glow rising from behind the mountains. There she was, the aurora borealis. Dawn at midnight. Light in the darkness.

Within moments, the northern lights were in full flight—turned up to maximum wattage—dancing wildly across the dark sky. They dashed left and then right, undulating, speaking a proprietary language of their own. Magical and mystical, just as purported. Soon our entire group—some clad only in boots and cotton bathrobes—was cast in the light of the night. To my utter surprise and delight, I imagined my late mother, her spirit stitched into the dancing lights, “speaking” to me from the heavens. Mom, ever a free spirit, unconstrained and sassy, was in her element. And I felt as though I were with her.

Alas, the retreat came to an end. I’d made new friends, learned new poses, and witnessed the northern lights. I knew that my planning, my rational and scientific approach, had laid the groundwork for this viewing. But I also saw that my laser focus on finding light on the outside, on seeing Aurora, had nearly blinded me to the other lights in my midst. There was so much of it in my friends, my fellow travelers—even in myself. I also couldn’t escape the fact that it was only after I’d let go of my expectations that Aurora revealed herself. I understood how serendipity and nonattachment—and maybe the power of my mother’s spirit—had allowed me to witness the dance of green light in the sky.

I retraced the steps of my long journey and flew home. By the time I got to my front door it was close to 2:00 a.m. Stepping out of the car I looked up into the night sky, instinctively seeking Aurora (or Mom—I wasn’t sure). I snapped a photo with my iPhone, and I was astounded to see an eerie greenish glow in the picture. I laughed at myself, because I realized I’d traveled all those miles, made all those calculations, in search of that magical light, and it had been here with me all along. I just had to learn to open my eyes and let it in.