Matariki: The darker the night, the brighter the stars

Thomas McGrath | July 6, 2021

Whāia e koe te iti kahurangi. Ki te tuoho koe, me maunga teitei | Reach for the highest stars. If you falter, let it be only because of insurmountable difficulty.

Cold, dark beginnings

Matariki — the re-emerging of the Pleiades stars — signals the time of the Māori new year celebration. This period falls near to the shortest day and the start of the ‘chilly’ season. We are confronted with long cold nights. Summer’s crops have been harvested. The next round of planting has not quite begun. We find ourselves at the foot of the mountain — so to speak — doing our best to stay warm, dry, and in good spirits through the oncoming darkness.

For many, winter is a season they’d rather skip. It’s an easy trade for the summer days ‘when the living is easy’. Summer might be nice, but it’s a whole lot better once we’ve persevered through the cold and dark months. After all, we can only see the beauty of the stars during the darkness of the night. If we look closely, winter provides the most spectacular backdrop for narrative tension — the essence of a good story.

A story is really quite a simple thing

For a good story to exist, all we need are tension and resolution. Think of a rubber band. When I stretch it out, I add physical tension to an otherwise lifeless object. I’m also adding narrative tension. Narrative tension is when we are presented with more than one significant possibility, but we don’t know which will happen.

We are compelled to stick with a story because we want to see how the tension is resolved. Will the hero escape from the villain before time runs out? Will the supplies arrive in time? Will the team win the final game? Or — will the rubber band snap before I let it fly? It’s about to snap! What’s going to happen?!

Tension is important energy in life — and in good stories

Ever finished one compelling book in a series and then had to resist immediately beginning the next? Once we have reached a resolution, we naturally look for more tension. Even though tension can be stressful and difficult to take, the satisfaction of a good resolution keeps us going back for more.

Tension lives in the gaps between work and play, want and need, and good and bad. These classic tensions provide energy to the story of existence. Without tension, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the moments of resolution in our lives. It is almost like a rhythm.

Peaks create troughs — difficulty creates ease

My wedding ring has a zig-zag pattern all the way around it. This symbol reminds me that everything moves in ups and downs. We need to celebrate the peaks. But we also need to acknowledge that the troughs allow us space to begin again.

Image, two people camping under a starry sky

Cold starry nights are the best for fireside storytelling. Image by Jonathan Forage / Unsplash licence

As a cyclist, conquering a hill is a story. The tension of pedalling all the way to the top is worth the sweet payoff of effortlessly rolling all the way down the other side.

Our ancestors had it so much harder

For Māori, the stars — those mysterious lights that watch over us — are the eyes of our ancestors, both ancient and recent. Winter confronted them with the difficult aspects of life: ‘Will I have enough food? Will I get sick? Will I be warm enough?’ While we certainly have our difficulties in the modern world, those before us didn’t have heat pumps, content subscriptions, and takeaway drivers.

We have been propelled to this moment by the work of our ancestors. When we take care to remember them, we keep them alive, and we honour their efforts. We are also reminded of the work they did to get us to the ‘top of the hill’. We have a lot to be grateful for.

Telling stories teaches us about ourselves

When we hear stories, we hear how tension was created and resolved in other people’s situations — past, present, or even future. If we listen carefully, we can avoid falling into the same traps. We can also see that, like us, everyone is experiencing tension.

We like to hear the stories of others most when we need a break from our own tension. At this time, stories are the most powerful — they remind us that we can get through.

Appreciate the stars while the darkness allows

The moral of this story is that winter is the drama of the human story. My challenge to you is to tell stories this winter. Call your cousin, write to your grandfather, gather your children and tell them a story — remind them that we all carry each other through life. Remind them that even though they might be near the top of the hill, the sweet downhill ease of summer will be here before they know it. And then we get to begin again.

He waka eke noa | We’re all in this together

Oh, just so you know, I eased the rubber band back to its resting state and put it back on my desk.

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