23 Deember 2009: Dark days end slowly with solstice

Dark days slowly end with winter solstice

At a recent gathering, friends had the perfect gift for me: a stuffed Grinch That Stole Christmas. The only problem is it plays holiday music when squeezed. Fortunately, a surgeon was among the guests, so I asked if he could perform an operation to remove its voice box. I am checking to see if my health plan will cover the procedure.

Yes, I know it is two days before Christmas, Mithrasmas and Saturnalia, Dec. 25 having been celebrated as a day of light among ancient cultures for millennia.

But in the six-and-a-half weeks since the pagan holyday Samhain, it has gotten gloomier with the amount of daylight ebbing inexorably, especially this far north and high in altitude.

At our latitude, the winter solstice was a mere 9 hours, 21 minutes, and 22 seconds. Realistically, until Imbolc, the first of February when life begins sticking its tiny crocus nose from underneath the white blanket nature has kept it wrapped, it’s a time of death. The crone is in her grave, and we await the maiden in Mother Earth’s womb to be birthed.

For those suffering from light deprivation and perhaps dealing with SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is a tough time to get through. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for those in the land of both the midnight sun and noontime dark. Think there might be a correlation between that and the rise of Sarah Palin?

The busy-ness that comes with living in an urban or suburban environment causes one to be separate from the ebbs and flows of the natural world. I recall the frustration friends still feel that come with the demands of the holiday season and the toll it takes.

But removing oneself from that arena of distractions — malls, bars, theaters — and commitments, and then connecting and attuning to the seasonal flows of nature is fraught with danger. While sun-filled days of summer can elicit happiness and even euphoria, the darkening days of winter can pull in the other direction.

Nature is not empathetic to any of her creature’s plight. Death, even brutal and sudden, is part of the fare. In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene, which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”

It’s important for those who suffer from light deprivation, especially those diagnosed with SAD, to maximize exposure to daylight, particularly sunlight when available.

A friend, an erstwhile Alaskan, tells of the celebrations — I call them “sol-ebrations” — by locals. She says the winter solstice celebration becomes more rowdy because of the anticipation of lengthening days, while the summer celebration is a bit more subdued because, in the back of everyone’s mind, it’s downhill from there.

I had made it a general rule that running once the temperature dropped into single digits was taboo. So, on a recent day during the bitter cold spell, I waited until it climbed to 10 degrees before donning five top layers, two pairs each of thermal bottoms, socks and head covers, and wool mittens before venturing forth on a 5k run.

Once the calories began to burn, I felt quite warm to the point of sweating. So the next day, when the temperature climbed to 4 degrees, I was willing to violate that rule of thumb, given there was no wind and the sun was blazing, or at least mildly tepid. As it was the previous day, the fifth layer on top seemed extraneous after the first mile.

The third day with the temperature below zero and the wind exacerbating it was daunting. Staying cooped up and developing a case of cabin fever, however, was not an option. So bundled in most of my aforementioned garb and topped with a very padded winter coat, off I trudged. While not running, I felt warmly secure braving the elements.

Smug might be a better descriptor, that is, until a runner blissfully trotted in my direction, bundled with as much as she could wear without belaboring her pace. Her smile and wave acknowledged she was not allowing the circumstances of the day’s weather to interfere with her ability to enjoy the day. I was inspired and humbled.

The next day, similar in conditions to its predecessor, I was off, feeling exhilarated, not due to the run itself but to the idea of doing the run. The cold and gloom were not about to win. There was and is, after all, hope.

Have a merry and/or happy whatever you cele/sol-ebrate.

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