Earliest Sunset

Welcome to the day of the earliest sunset of the year.  “But how can that be?”you may ask, “since the winter solstice is many days away?” I’m no wizard when it comes to numbers or math, but I do know tomorrow’s sunset will be a minute later than today’s.  It’s the other end of the day, however, that continues to increase darkness.  Sunrise will continue to creep later and later until on January 16 it will be at its latest.  Mornings will then become longer, very, very slowly.  Combined, the shortest day will be on the 21st, almost two weeks from now.  Then sunlight will begin its slow crawl back to majority.  And so the seasons eternally negotiate on a planet that sometimes seems to spin too fast.

Those awake early, sensitive to sunrise, need to wait a bit longer than those wanting longer evenings.  There’s no taking without reciprocity here.  For those in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, winter has begun its settling in process.  Morning frost on the rooftops augurs the coming of snow.  The almost preternatural stillness of a cloudy late afternoon anticipates what’s to come.  Those of all religions, or of none at all, alike await a glimmer of lengthening days in this season of long nights.  It pays to become comfortable with the darkness in the meantime.  Dark need not equate to evil.  It invites rest and renewal.  Perhaps our culture that valorizes action and movements blurred with speed might learn from the hours of diminished light.

Walking into an early morning room with a light switch on a far wall is an act of faith.  If done before any artificial lights are engaged, it’s always surprising how much light crowds in on the dark.  The luminescent clock.  The power strip on button.  The ever-watchful router.  Darkness is seldom absolute, as much as the tenebrous circumstances might suggest such extremes.  Light and darkness need each other to find any kind of definition at all.  Starting tomorrow, there will be incrementally longer moments of day stretching out into night.  Mornings will grow more reluctant to release their light for another month or so.  In the midst of this we snuggle down into the darkness and learn from it.  Learn to slow down.  Learn to listen instead of always looking.  Learn to breathe slowly and accept that the darkness can comfort.  The solstice is coming, in good time.  Until it arrives, be in the twilight of the moment and trust it.


Dark v Light

The summer solstice was days away and the earliest sunrise had already passed.  The earliest sunrise and the latest sunset are not on the same day.  To those of us who rise before the sun, it does make a difference.  I’m a morning jogger (when my back allows it).  I prefer to go out before work because otherwise you have to interrupt your day to put on your scuzzies and then come back all sweaty, hoping you didn’t forget about a meeting just after.  The thing is, I start work early and my preferred jogging time is around 5 a.m.  Back in May it’s easy to believe that this timetable is workable.  Then in August, almost like it’s pinned to the first of the month, you realize that it will be much closer to six than five before it’s light enough to see.  So the seasons go.

Even in the midst of a heat wave, you can smell autumn coming.  Yes, I know there will be hot days and uncomfortable nights yet.  But just as surely as Back to School merchandise begins to appear in July (school had been out maybe two weeks by then), fall inexorably follows summer.  Around here it’s been drier than normal.  Stressed trees began shedding leaves in July as if to say, “Alright, we’ll give this a try again next year.”  They are much more obvious about seasonal changes than the rest of us, but we’re all impacted by the always shifting patterns of light and warming, or cooling, mercury.  Seasons remind us of what it means to be mortal beings.  Melancholy isn’t always a bad thing.

Being a morning person, at least in my case, means spending quite a bit of my creative time in the dark.  In fact, back in June it’s like it gets light too soon for me to go jogging right away—I still have things to do first.  I also know it will still be some time before it’s dark when I go to bed.  I have no trouble sleeping in the light.  Our schedules are part of our perceptions of time and light.  We all agree, more of less, that from nine to five we’ll be at our desks, whiling away the most productive hours of sunlight.  I remember commuting to work in the dark only to commute home also in the dark.  Using that time for creativity is important, but so is trying to keep healthy.  Like the great dramatic acts of the solstices and equinoxes, it’s all a matter of balance.


At Last, Yule

It all depends on how you look at it.  Today is either the longest night or the beginning of the return of the light.  It’s the winter solstice, that time that has been considered haunted for centuries, when the spirit world is once again close to the “material world.”  Slowly, incrementally the light will increase from this point on.  It will take a couple months for the effect to be really noticeable, and the weather here in the northern hemisphere will trail a bit behind and grow colder as the sky starts to lighten up a little.  This juxtaposition likely led to the germanic festival of Yule, which has become conflated with Christmas.  Carols tell us of Yule logs at Christmas and some cultures call Christmas itself Yule.

If you consider this day there are again two ways to ponder—appreciating the dark for its own benefits or looking for the return of light.  No doubt, lights are everywhere.  My town has the central part lit with holiday lights and just this weekend Bethlehem had hundreds of luminaria lining the sidewalks, encouraging the return of light.  Yule, it seems to me, catches people at their best.  Christmas isn’t quite here yet and people are still kindly disposed to others, coming out to see the lights and feeling carefree, assured that light will return but making the most of life before it becomes humdrum again.  We put out our lights, perhaps a little afraid of all this darkness, but at the same time trying to appreciate the restfulness of long nights.  Darkness isn’t evil, even if it works that way as a metaphor.

Learning from the dark is under appreciated.  As a species we rely heavily on the benefits of sight.  It’s natural to be a little afraid when we can’t see.  Still, the dark has its own regenerative value.  Our bodies actually benefit from being in the dark a few hours each day.  Our minds can benefit from the rest.  I always think back to the days before electricity allowed us to chase away the night.  How much more intensely the night would’ve been felt.  Even with our artificial lights nothing can compare with the light scatter of our own skies as the sun’s powerful lumens flood our hemisphere.  Yule seems the appropriate time to think about the contrast, but not conflict between light and dark.  The idea that opposites must fight doesn’t really help us in this world of many contrasts.  Isn’t it better to ponder how we might learn from the dark?