First, great sadness accompanies the last of the year’s dying days. December 20 brings the end of a long decline at the end of which mornings and evenings show equally dark. Rays of sun will begin to straighten and grow sharper. The days start earlier and take longer to reach darkness.
Second, the days will not warm, not yet, if we are lucky. We have yet to feel any of winter’s fury and I hope that it descends on us from the North with vengeance. Beyond a couple of 20-degree days, the bone-chilling winds that cut right through a man have not bothered us. Hopefully, we have our coldest, grayest, and snowiest days ahead of us.
Back to sadness: The way things have been going the last couple of years, we will not have a real winter this season. The last real winter we had was six years ago, when the snow covered our city from the middle of January to the beginning of March. Snow and more snow, endless gray days. I miss them more than anything.
I rejoiced in the darkness, the way the snow absorbed the sounds of the city and left me feeling lonesome but not lonely. That state of melancholy—not depression—but thoughtfulness bordering on sadness (but not quite) walked with me when I went on my nightly stroll through the darkened neighborhood. It produced a meditative state in which all was not production and work. I felt like time thinking wasn’t time wasted, but time producing was time not thinking.
In a society where people judge each other on their output, on their horsepower, I often feel I’m wasting time staring into space, daydreaming. I must always work, and without work I feel useless. It’s not that creativity has no place. But production—more words, more money, more created things—climbs beyond thinking and contemplation in the pecking order of personal worth.
No one makes me feel this way. I worry about basic food, clothing, and shelter little these days. Domestic cares and petty displeasures do not riddle me with the need to work them away. This lack of worry makes me feel poorly. If I had things that demanded my attentions, they would underscore my usefulness. My childhood and young adulthood programmed this feeling of producing things as the only true use of time into me. In short, I feel crummy when I’m not working.
But then come the dark days, the long nights, the quiet walks. My attitude changes. Time isn’t money. Thinking and contemplation matter more than working for someone else’s dollar. The company profits, their rises and falls, are not my concerns. Fitting disparate things together, thinking broadly, laboring laterally. These take on new meaning. If a person could get paid for these personally useful and fulfilling activities, I’d have been retired by now.
As the hours ring away toward the shortest day of the year, I sally forth into the darkness. Its soft, salubrious massage coaxes out my better self. I’m more generous and helpful. I’m kinder to people and the little things, like the cat who sleeps in my lap on long nights. I practice patience with myself and those around me. It’s almost as if the shortness of day, the absence of daylight, balms the harder, callused me, the person whose cynical and mean sides emerge in the light.
Those in higher climes, like my friends in Finland and Alaska, may curse the darkness. If I won the lottery, I would take up residence half a year in Helsinki and half a year in Punta Arenas. October through March, I’d skid around with the Finns and April through September, I’d sit rocking on my boat in the Strait of Magellan. Granted, I would be getting longer light in the hemispheres’ springs. But the declining days of fall and the darkness of winter would suit me and make up for the sharpness of sunlight in the long seasons.
If it seems a world turned upside down, I figure Finns and Chileans must find advantages to their environs. If winter were all that bad, they would find ways to leave their countries and never return. But they stay, endure, and thrive. They get out and play in the winter. I would join them cross country skiing, snow machining, and ice fishing. I would warm myself next to their stoves and in their saunas.
The turning of the seasons would skip me, but real seasons, real winter, anyway, slips from our grasp. Spring brings its changes, but I miss most of spring. I pull further into my shell as the season advances. I read more and stay in away from the light as much as I can. I squint and scowl. I can see the beauty of an emerging world all around me. Kids come out to play and people are joyous after being stuck inside for so long. They might as well be in another dimension.
In this particular meditation, I also think of summer. After the fright of spring, my mood changes and I revel in the heat of July. I love the smell of dried grass and dust. Something about the end of fecundity makes me happy. If I could, I would slip a midwestern July into my bi-yearly peregrinations from the Great North to the Happy South. There is a beauty and comfort to the Flint Hills in high summer. The deserts of Utah and New Mexico draw me to them.
So, maybe I sneak in Missouri July, when the grass stiffens and leaves droop, when escape from humidity and heavy air proves nearly impossible, even in the coolest of air conditioned homes.
What would I be if I meditated and contemplated all the time, if I could walk empty streets in nearly constant snow cover? Happier, maybe. Certainly, I long for what I cannot have, and a few turns of the earth around the sun, I may well wind up back in the Midwest. But in this season, when winter seems a long way away on a 50-degree December day, I relish the night. I want to remember the solstice. I want that short, short day etched into my being.
Spring is just around the corner. I feel it.