(about darkness, surprise, patterns, memory, perception and hope)
I need to take a flashlight in the early morning now as my dog and I walk in Goodale Park. It should come as no surprise to me that the sun rises later as we pass through the fall equinox on our way to the winter solstice. But for some reason this continues to surprise me in a ridiculously big way. For much longer than we humans have been aware of our surroundings, the northern hemisphere of our tilting planet has annually leaned away from the sun as it has traveled its elliptical orbit through our solar system, making our days shorter. Although this doesn’t intellectually surprise me, my experience of it somehow comes as a shock to me every single year.
I am surprised that I’m surprised. Since I have witnessed these shortening days for my entire life, this gradual dimming should not be big news to me. It flabbergasts me that I stand outside during November’s early evenings as the sun has just set, and think, “I can’t believe that it’s so dark so soon.” Did I somehow miss this same gradual event for the past few decades of my life? Is my memory fading? Why does it seem so sudden, when it is (with the exception of our self-imposed “falling back” one hour) actually so gradual?
Other similarly incremental changes don’t seem to have this effect on me. I’m never surprised that the summer is warm as the temperatures gradually increase, or that I need to visit Azzaro periodically as my limited hair gradually grows. On the other hand, women do (apparently) forget the discomfort of pregnancy even though this is, for the most part, a gradual process, too. And likewise, I seem to forget the pain of increasing darkness. I’ve been here before; I just can’t remember it very clearly.
It’s not surprising that I might try to forget; darkness has a profoundly painful effect on us. We’re leery of the dark, and this fear has a legitimately useful origin. I have heard that deep down in our DNA we still regard darkness as dangerous because our natural skills have never functioned well without light. Back in the day, when darkness fell, we found a safe spot to sleep because to do otherwise was to increase the risk of being eaten. The diminishing light of autumn meant (among other things) that each successive day provided more opportunities to become a predator’s meal.
Darkness has led to other painful problems, notably in Norway and other northern climates, where the sun disappears completely for weeks or months. I remember my mother’s stories of our Norwegian ancestors who, depressed and dour, lived together in longhouses through their dark winters. Many died, their rigid bodies stacked nearby like cordwood until the late spring thaw softened the frozen ground enough so that they could be properly interred. Maybe this melancholy memory is why many Scandinavians don’t make eye contact during this time of year. A friend told me that when he visited Helsinki for a conference in January, the Finns directed their comments to his shoes. When pressed on this odd behavior, they explained, “This is the time of year when we are alone with ourselves.” Darkness can lead to isolation.
The encroaching darkness feels like a candle burning at both ends; annoyingly, we progressively lose light both in the morning and at night. The sun rises later and later, and it sets earlier and earlier. And although we can’t change the tilt of our planet to moderate the darkness, we could provide something nearly as good: a shift in perception. Since most of us have more valued free time in the evening (when we would like for it to be light outside) than we do in the morning, I believe that we could improve our lives by adopting a new time shift in the fall. I think that instead of “falling back” one hour from daylight savings time to “normal” time, we should implement “double daylight savings time” by “springing forward” again, one additional hour. Then the sun won’t set at its latest until a more acceptable 6:00 pm. On the other hand, it won’t rise until 8:30 in the morning, but who cares how dark it is when we’re just on our way to work and school? Eventually, this pre-solstice hope-enhancement would be known as “falling forward”, and the adjustment “back” to regular daylight savings time in March would be referred to as “winding the spring back down.”
Beyond this, we can revel in the knowledge that the winter solstice always brings hope. It’s a celebration of an annual change in fortune. The days after December 21 are reminiscent of the beginning of an easy walk back down a mountain after a tiring hike to the summit, or an effortless return sailing trip after tacking against the wind. Our days always start to get longer again.