January delivers. The dark. The cold.
The streetlights throw beams through the snow and all is quiet, hushed. The houses look warm, their windows yellow and dim against the darkness. Beyond the blinds and curtains, the people watch television, read books, play games. For most people, it’s a night for the indoors.
The shortest day of the year is already a month past. I lay awake that night wanting to savor all of it, all the darkness I could possibly absorb. It’s a precious thing, something I appreciate. I didn’t mind the sleeplessness or what it would do for me the next day. The important thing was that I was awake for the night and felt every minute of it.
When I was in Wyoming in the early 1990s, I was a scared, insecure grad student. I used to walk the town streets at night to vent the pressure I put myself under. I remember one winter solstice, I put on my cross country skis at about 9 p.m. and took off behind the fence of the house I was living in at the time. I skied out across the sagebrush plains and up to the foothills of the Laramies. After about an hour and a half, I turned around to look down on Laramie. It glowed underneath a prefect sky. I was far enough out of town to see the Milky Way wend its way across the sky.
I never felt so fine. My face hurt and my fingers, despite the work of skiing, were like icicles. I after a long time, I headed back into the wind coming out of the west and arrived home after everyone else had gone to bed. I didn’t turn on the lights but navigated by the clocks on the oven and microwave, by the little vampire eyes on various electronic things plugged in around the house. Sitting in the living room listened to the wind-up wall clock and thought that every night needed to be one in which I felt calm and steady. When I went up to bed, I stopped on the stair and heard my roommates snoring, each in their turn. I had the feeling that things would never be like this again.
They have and they haven’t. I mark every winter solstice with some regret. The nights grow longer for six months. At first, it’s not noticeable. Then in August, suddenly, we become aware that the days are shorter. When we change the clocks in October or November, night become synonymous with evening. School’s hardly out when the darkness descends. When we get off work at 5, night comes upon us almost before we get home.
When I canoed down the Missouri River in the summer of 1995, I set my boat on the water on the 15th of July. By the beginning of September, my day paddling ended too soon. There wasn’t enough day to soak up all that water. But the nights were pure. A fire and a cheap smoke made the darkness comfortable. I sat up as late as I could to hear the night sounds of the river, the way the water runs against the rocks, the beaver slaps its tail on the water to make me go away, a carp runs up close to shore.
It was over all too quickly. My days on the river made the nights short. The physical work and the necessities of travel put me in bed early, about two hours or so after dark. I didn’t lay awake much. Once in that sleeping bag, I was off to dreamland. But the time I had, just me and my fire in the night, I can never forget.
Nor can I forget nights in the mountains. There’s something luminous about night in the mountains. The light of stars, perhaps, or just the way my eyes adjust to the dark let me take walks along roads through the national forest. Then, alone and without a flashlight, I could hear the mountain lions roar and the porcupines snuffle in the pine duff and the low willows along the rivers.
Night in the mountains yawns. The quiet isn’t so much the lack of sound as the presence of it. I feel the wind in the pines and the rushing of the creek. There is life in the night. It’s not just the porcupines or mountain lions. Perhaps at night I could also hear the trees grow.
I’ve spent my whole year getting to the shortest day of the year and then, that’s it, it’s gone. My friends and family don’t notice the dark. When they do, they complain of the dimness of the days or how short the day is. They don’t revel in the twilight that is a winter day, a day like today.
When I was younger, I lived for the snow. I woke in the morning early, praying that the school would call the day off so I could lose myself in the snow. I loved everything about it: the cold, the hot burn of my face when I came in from playing, the hot chocolate, and tingling fingertips and toes. Year after year until I was well into my teens, I wished everyday could be a snow day and that the endless hill behind our house would keep from melting until I was too tired to carry my sled up it.
Even in my teens, I loved the cold and dark. My boyhood home was not in what we now call a walkable neighborhood. There were no sidewalks, and when I walked, I had to walk right up against the street. We lived along a busy main road. Cars coming at me were menacing. But when I’d get around the corner, onto the side streets, things quieted and I could listen to my breathing in time with my footsteps. Streetlights lighted the way but I could feel the night, a winter night, when I was alone and happy.
When I walk my dogs, I walk at night almost all the time. In winter, I get to walk earlier in the evening than I do in the spring and summer. At that time, people act differently than later in the day. They walk their dogs when I do. They are still at the restaurants around the corner. The city has yet to close down, even if the darkness has descended upon it.
Already, I feel the light advancing. I try to stay present and not to think of the lengthening of the day. My nerves are not sensitive and I don’t have a problem receiving information. I feel at ease. The bustle of traffic does not bother me. I can still tolerate the television that keeps my family entertained.
These days are passing. Soon enough, the day will overcome the night. I dread that time of year. In the past, I’ve felt my nerves get raw. I become restless and feel stress at the slightest pressure. My mood turns sour. Getting out of bed in the morning take pure strength of will.
But we are not there yet. Tonight is a brilliant night, covered with snow and sharp with the cold. It’s a night for walking, taking in the city, and absorbing the darkness.