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.

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