Essays > Winter Darkness: A Time to Tango.


Break out the tango music and get up off the couch, neighbors -- the days are getting longer!  I’m writing this on the Winter Solstice, when in Flint, perched as we are at 42 degrees North Latitude, we had just nine hours and four seconds of light.  By the time you read this, on or after Jan. 12, our portion of sunlight already will have expanded by 16 minutes.  I think we should use that extra quarter hour for dancing.

 Actually, my musical elixir is old school Soul, born right out of the viscera of Michigan hollers and rough streets.  Here’s a suggestion:  Aretha Franklin’s "Jewels in the Crown: All Star Duets" – starting with Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Keith Richards, and including, of course, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” with the dream backup of Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan.  I don’t care if you’re 90 years old with creaky bones and the rheumatiz – you can still shake your booty. Even a little upper body dancin’ in your Laz-Y-Boy would help.    Get the heck up and sluff off the dolor of darkness.

 Because we all know how these dark days of December and January bring us down.   It’s 3:30 in the afternoon right now and already the world is dimming.  At this time of year, the sun at our latitude struggles only 24 degrees above the horizon at solar noon (not the same as “clock noon,” I’m sure you know) – creating those meager slants of light over Burroughs Park – assuming, that is, the sun actually breaks out of the cloud cover at all.

 A friend of mine from Texas who found herself in Flint with her academic husband often cited her lowest moment here – in one of the houses of our very neighborhood.  It was a winter day, somewhat like today, overcast and slushy, and she went down her basement stairs to get the laundry.  Looking out the narrow basement windows, she said, all she saw was sleety snow coming down onto leafless shrubs. A huge, engulfing sorrow came over her, she said, and she stood there on the basement stairs and burst into tears. (She should have felt lucky to have an interesting “Michigan basement,” in my view, but that’s another story.) She and her PhD hubby fled back to San Antonio, presumably largely for mood enhancement, shortly thereafter.

 I kind of know what she meant.  In my still-arrogant late twenties, I returned to the Midwest after eight years in sunny places, Southern California and Polynesia, where the colors really were like a Gauguin painting, an audacity of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-and-violet.  I swooped into Ohio in late November into a bowl of gray.  After the hibiscus and orchid, a world of oatmeal.  I hated it.   I’d dissociated myself with overcast weather by then as a matter of pride and self-improvement, and I looked on people stuck in this dismal weather as mildly pitiable, if not morally deformed.  Why, I remember asking, would ANYBODY stay in such a gloomy place? I took off for the winter in Phoenix, Arizona, but by the next fall, I landed despite my better judgment in Ann Arbor, and that was 28 cloudy years ago.

 By now, if I have any middle-aged dignity, I should be able to answer my sanctimonious young self. Okay, yes, I can:  I suspect there is something in Midwesterners, especially once we finally grow up, that makes us love our weather, including the winter dark – fitting context for the duende, as Lorca might have said, this yin and yang, this circadian symphony of contrasts. Dare I say it’s nourishing?  I confess:  as a poet, I secretly cherish the melancholy brought on by winter dark.  Too much sun is frankly hazardous for me -- like too much happiness, a bad career move.  

 Like the main character in my novel, I’m night blind, so sunset marks the hour I begin to be less sure of the evidence of my senses, feeling my way from room to room.  This is not such a bad thing for a writer:   “Dawn breaks where no sun shines,” that brooding Welshman Dylan Thomas pointed out.  The other night, a moonless one, I was groping my way back from the bathroom at what adults understand to be the emotionally dangerous hour of 4 a.m. I felt lonely and all too aware of life’s brief span.  Then at the door to my office, my usually useless nocturnal eyes picked up a half dozen little red lights, a couple of them blinking.  It took me a second to realize what they were:  the computer, two printers, the shredder, the router and on the floor, the surge suppressor.  Six tiny signs of electronic companionship. They salved my angst.  My pathetic rods and cones focused on those points of light with almost absurd relief -- connections to the rest of the world, and evidence of my daytime life, waiting for sunrise.  I clambered back into bed a little bit cheered.  Sometimes it takes the darkness.

 And here's something to dance about, as we twist and shout toward June 21: every day brings more than a minute toward the coming exuberance of our latitude – those 15 hours of summer daylight.