Clear street, snowy trees

I often think of Emily Dickinson and her poem “There’s certain slant of light” on late February afternoons when my to-do list is long and the daylight is short.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Well trampled

It’s easy to be upbeat and energized on sunny mornings when a fresh coat of snow brightens the ground, covering the scourge of of February gray. But after dinner time–after lunch feels like an eternity ago, the afternoon chores are done, and it’s just me and my bottomless paper-piles–my spirit lags and falters.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

Snowy steps

People speak of seasonal affective disorder as if it were a monolithic thing, with one’s moods being perpetually in the dumps from December through March. But instead, winter is an oceanic surge with troughs and swells. In the morning, when the sun is low in the sky but glaring bright, all seems possible, but when darkness descends in early afternoon, so do one’s energy and enthusiasm wane and ebb.

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –


Emily Dickinson knew all this; I imagine her as a raw nerve cloaked in drab, her emotional barometer ever attuned to the psychic energy of the cosmos. Faith came easily on sunny summer days when all Dickinson needed was a clover, bee, and reverie. But on winter afternoons, her mood dipped toward doom.

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I’ve lived long enough in New England to know that winter always ends–the days eventually lengthen, and both warmth and greenery return. But it’s easy to forget that truth on a late February afternoon when the world outside is cold and dark and one’s to-do list is long.

Dried hydrangea

Emily Dickinson knew that in the winter, afternoon light has a particular quality–a certain slant–that sets it apart. On winter afternoons, the light angles low on shadow-strewn snow, and the landscape is shot with hues of blue and gray. Dickinson felt the heft of those certain slants; she deemed them an “imperial affliction” whose imprint is indelible. On winter afternoons, those certain slants are enough to slay you, the warmth of spring seeming as unattainable as the glaring white sun.

Dried hydrangea

And then there is the afternoon light of autumn. I can quote no poet who captures it, this light that burns warm like gold or copper, filtered through a veil of lingering oak and maple leaves. Whereas Dickinson’s certain slant of winter is the light of loss and longing, the burnished brightness of autumn is intrinsically nostalgic, the whole world tinted like a forgotten sepia-print.

On winter afternoons, you mourn a sun that’s already gone; on autumn afternoons, you rejoice in a sun that’s in the process of going: a Now that’s hastening toward Then. Autumn light lingers long enough to break your heart, looking back as it leaves, tossing golden beams over one shoulder as a radiant reminder of its passing. Autumn light loves the look (as I do) of dried hydrangea blossoms, each petal outlining in vein and line the arc of afternoon’s exit.

Dried hydrangea