Light & shadow


November graffiti

Now that it’s late November, it gets dark before 5:00 pm. When I took the trash out just after 4:00 this afternoon, our mail carrier was hurrying through the end of her route. “I’m in a race to finish before the moon comes out,” she explained, “and I’m losing.”

Every November feels like a race against darkness. Today was bright and brisk after days of drizzle, and it was easy to feel energized as I worked my way through my daytime to-do list. But as soon as darkness falls, so do my energy levels. It seems unnatural to work late when the sun insists on retiring early. After sunset, my body wants to nest and settle like a bird returned to its roost.

And so I sit here typing with the pitch-black world pressed against my window. Roxy is curled into a snoring ball on the bed, and J is upstairs in his attic office, working. I have 15 minutes to post these thoughts before tackling my evening to-do list, and after those tasks are done, I’ll curl up on the couch with a book and blanket, ready to hibernate until the sun shows up again tomorrow.

Autumn oak

I’ve already mentioned that November is my favorite month, and here’s another reason why: November light glows like no other. This year, the end of October was gray and rainy, and my mood was as dismal as the days. But so far, November has been brisk and bright, the waning days gleaming golden.

Golden glow

I’ve lived in New England for more than 25 years now–just over half my life–and that is long enough for me to know this: November light is precious because it is both short and short-lived. The nights are noticeably longer now: the afternoon class that used to be bathed with setting sunlight now adjourns in darkness, and the days will continue to shrink. The beaten-bronze glow of stubborn oak trees–the last to leaf in spring, and the last to drop in autumn–will soon fade and fall. Come December, the landscape will be drab and the days dim.

But for now, every moment of November light is precious. When you know a thing is dying, you cherish every moment you share.

Dog walk shadows

After more than a quarter century living in New England, I’ve realized some inexorable truths. The day after a snowstorm is almost always sunny, and the most bitterly cold days often have the clearest, bluest skies.

Dog walk shadows

This morning when I walked Toivo, it was seventeen degrees: a temperature that felt brutally cold at the time, but I’ve lived in New England long enough to know there will be days when temperatures in the double-digits will feel warm. But today felt colder than usual, so I wore my longest, fluffiest down coat, and the dog and I kept moving.

It was bright and brisk, and I didn’t wear a ballcap or sunglasses: I just squinted into the glare, knowing that light more than warmth is the thing I crave in midwinter. Even the most bitterly cold days are bearable if the sun is beaming from a turquoise-blue sky; the winter days that crush your soul aren’t the cold ones but the gray ones.

Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

Enchanted ice

December in New England is a somber time, with long nights and dark days. Yesterday we had our first (sludgy) snow, and today the sidewalks were treacherous underfoot: a small reminder of last winter’s travails.

Christmas tree at Angell

For years I spent so much energy focused on my then-husband’s seasonal affective disorder, I didn’t notice how my own moods track with the season’s sun. Fall semester begins in a riot of light and color and ends in gloom, and Spring semester operates in reverse: what begins in snow eventually blossoms into spring.

Late December offers a welcome chance to rest, reflect, and recharge: during these waning days of a late year we curl inward, marshaling our energy and holding out hope for brighter times. It’s ironic that the New Year and its new resolve comes right when the days are darkest and our hopes are (perhaps) at their nadir. Only when a seed has been crushed and buried can it send forth a feeble stalk of light-seeking green.

After dark

The past few days, apropos of nothing, I’ve had Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” playing in my head. It’s an unlikely earworm: I don’t often listen to jazz, and I can’t remember the last time I heard Monk or anyone else play this particular tune. But its somber strains seem especially apt on these late November days when darkness falls early. By six o’clock, it’s dark as midnight, and the melancholy mood of late night descends early and lingers long.

After dark

On these late November days when it’s long-dark by dinnertime, I find myself peering into strangers’ windows as I drive past, attracted to their isolated but brightly-lit domestic scenes: a woman setting a table, a man playing table-tennis with an unseen opponent, a couple curled up on a couch, watching television. What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t concern me for most of the year, but in late November, even a glimpse of domestic warmth seen through strangers’ windows is cheering: a spot of encouragement in a dark time. And true to the logic of dreams, my inner DJ has chosen “Round Midnight” as the appropriate soundtrack for these dark days

Outside the ICA

In New England in late November, you don’t have to stay out late to stay out after dark. When we arrived at the Institute of Contemporary Art a little after 3 pm, the sun was already setting, and by the time we left at closing time two hours later, it was completely dark.

Underpass on A Street

In New England in late November, you silently give thanks for any light that brightens your path, whether it comes from candles lit in windows, colorful displays lit in shop windows, or delicate strings of tiny blue Christmas lights strung beneath an otherwise ordinary underpass.

Christmas tree and Custom House clock-tower

These days it gets dark in New England by 5 pm, and I find myself cherishing every bit of brightness. When I lived in Keene, I’d leave my porch light on when I left for campus so I wouldn’t have to come home to a dark house, and when I moved to Newton but continued teaching in Keene, I’d spend much of my evening commute looking for houses with Christmas lights, candles in the windows, or lit porch lights: spots of cheering brightness on a long, dark drive home.

Christmas tree with Black Friday shoppers

December is a festive time for some but a gloomy time for others. For years I lived with someone who suffered severe seasonal affective disorder, so the period between November and March was volatile, with spells of despair interrupted by anger and upheaval. When I see lit Christmas lights, my inner eight-year-old relishes the brightness and sparkle…but my adult self remembers the loneliness and despair the season brings for far too many. When I see a lit Christmas tree, part of me hopes that at least one lost soul might see it as a beacon of hope in a dark time: a light left on to guide each one of us home to a place both festive and warm.

This is my final, Day Thirty contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Charles River

Last weekend, J and I took a long, woodsy walk around our neighborhood, walking first to Hemlock Gorge to leaf-peep around Echo Bridge and then wending through the woodsy fringe along Quinobequin Road, which skirts the Charles River. The air was brisk and the sun was bright—a quintessential New England fall day—so walking just about anywhere was glorious. On sunny October days in New England, you look for any excuse to be outside in the golden gleam of autumn.

Overhead

Folks who have seen New England autumns only in photographs focus on fall foliage, but those of us who live here know that tree leaves are just a small part of the beauty. What’s magical about autumn in New England is the light. Autumn light angles low, refracting through the prisms of countless turning trees. In February, I’ll bemoan the white, oversaturated glare of our monochromatic winters, but in October, the light in New England is itself golden, like sunbeams filtered through stained glass.

Under the bridge

Because I’ve weathered enough New England winters to know how starved for light and color I’ll be come January, I find myself wanting to soak up every second of October’s golden light. Even sitting on a bench in October is a sensuous experience as your body relishes the contradictory sensations of brisk air and warm sunlight.

Sunlit

Emily Dickinson once said a true poem makes you feel like the top of your head has been removed, and I’d say something similar about autumns in New England. October is the one time of year when I want to steep myself directly in sunlight, even if that means ripping off the roof and removing the top of my skull: anything to better bask my brain in this fleeting gold gleam.

Sunlit

This week, our Jewish neighbors have erected sukkahs like Rachel’s in their yards, and I find myself quietly envying them: I have to admire a religion that requires its adherents to spend as much time as possible outside in October, simply sitting. And yet, living in New England, I’d make a terrible Jew, as any sukkah I’d erect would be topless, or at best convertible, the better to let God’s own golden gaze in.

Forget Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: the title of today’s post comes from a line from Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly peppy ode to joy, “Happy,” which invites listeners to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

Rah, rah!

You might say I’m a collector of shadows, considering I have a Flickr tag and blog category devoted to them. So when I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows, I knew I’d have to go no further than my own photo archives to find an assortment of images to share.

Shade tree

Scissorhands with shadows

I stand as nigh

Fire escape shadows

Towering, with shadow

Shadow selves

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows.

Next Page »