Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December Darkness

Note: This program first aired on December 20, 2014.

It’s December in Maine, and I know people who hate this time of year, people who struggle with the darkness. People who utter a quiet little curse at the summer solstice when the days start to get imperceptibly shorter, and wail and gnash their teeth out loud at the fall equinox when the balance tips in favor of the night. For them the winter solstice means hitting rock bottom, with only the faintest brightness that from here on out for the next 6 months, the days start getting longer.

I have to admit publically, and I may lose some friends for this, that I love this time of year. I love waking up in the dark, and burrowing in to home and hearth in the late afternoon. I love the long nights and late mornings. The pace of modern life is so mismatched to the natural seasonal rhythms here at the 44th parallel, we rush off to work in the morning, stay until late afternoon, come home after sun down. Of course the long nights and short days feel untenable. But if you can give your self the mental space to touch base with your inner self, call it your ancestral self, I think you will find, as I have, that these long nights serve a purpose. Your body knows what it is.

As the days grow shorter in the late fall, I have a harder time going out to run. I start thinking about yoga instead, and I restart my meditation practice. I stop eating salad, and instead roast root vegetables by the pan full. I do this because it is what feels right, because I trust the ancestral knowledge in my cells, because my body evolved with seasonal patterns, and the past 150 years of human evolution (or lack thereof) hasn’t erased them.

If you look around the natural world for cues this time of year, every one of them will tell you to settle down, to rest up, to wait. Deciduous trees draw their sap down underground and wait out dry and the cold of winter. Many mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects spend this time in a state of suspended animation, living off the bounty of summer, waiting for the next productive season to come. In learning to embrace winter I do not suggest truly hibernating, or hardening yourself against the cold; instead use this time as a resource. Nature bids us inside, and provides us with quiet. Take these moments to rest your self and let your mind settle, these moments are fleeting and rare in our modern lives. One of the reasons we find the holidays so stressful is that we’ve let them become a time of arousal and glitter, parties and over indulgence instead of reflection. Everyone I know who celebrates Christmas tells me the same story; their favorite thing is to sit quietly in their living room looking at the lit up Christmas tree, the rest of the lights off, families asleep. Silent night indeed.  We are seeds, waiting in the frozen soil, we are chipmunks resting in our burrows, we are chickadees flying at day break, we are wood frogs frozen in the leaf litter, we are white tailed deer yarding up in a cedar swamp, we are humans negotiating an increasingly complex world here half way between the equator and the pole.

We’re coming up fast on the Winter Solstice, the moment when the Earth’s axis of rotation points us in the northern hemisphere as directly away from the sun as possible. It will be another 6 weeks or so before we notice that the days are getting longer, at about that time the plants will start to notice too. In the mean time, stoke up the fire, turn off the lights and plug in your Christmas tree, or light a candle or look out at the stars and the moon. Take this dark time for what it is, a gift not a curse. Happy solstice everyone.