By Liz Summer, I Start Wondering Columnist
Dull gray drizzle shrouds the dark cedar boughs, barely visible in the dim fog of a cold and damp winter afternoon. The day’s sun is fading fast. It wasn’t too many years ago when such an afternoon would have sent me on a downward spiral.
An avid sun-worshiper, I viewed the shortening days of winter as a period of time to get through as quickly as possible. My eyes were always on the prize of future dates with late evening sunshine. Short days and the passing of hours lit only by the soulless glare of florescent work lights combined with the routine of waking up in the dark, heading to work in the dark and not getting out of work until after night fell again would merge into a blurred sensation of isolation and separation.
Instead of seeing what there was to see in winter, my mantra was to keep my head down and avoid the dark by focusing on what needed to be done or, more often, just going to bed at ridiculously early times. “Keep busy, think about other things, or just sleep, and the season will pass” was my mantra.
Being Present in Winter’s Darkness
Avoidance, though, is the antithesis of present moment awareness. To be truly present and in the moment, negative judgments and self-images such as “I am someone who doesn’t like when it gets dark so early” are part of what drops. As I accepted more and more that the way out of seasonal depression was actually the way in, a new view of the winter world came into focus. I learned more and more to escape the mental fog created and perpetuated by what I thought were my surroundings. Instead, it was really created by my negative thinking about my surroundings. And, miraculously, an appreciation for the miracle of winter lights appeared.
Winter is not really devoid of light! The special beauty of winter light is just subtler and less obvious than on a clear, sunshiny summer day. I started a practice of periodically taking a deep breath and rising up from whatever intellectual or emotional mind-occupying task was at hand to look clearly at the light that’s around now.
This practice was easiest at first when in nature. In the woods, the gray sky forms a perfect backdrop to bring to the forefront the many hues and textures of tree barks in winter. Often tiny mosses are encased in frozen droplets, like natural snow globes. At the beach, winter storms heave and moan the spindrift-capped waves. A bonus of short days is that sunrise walks can occur at a comfortable time.
It took much longer to start to see the miracle of winter lights in town or city. I don’t live where it snows so that avenue of imagery is not part of my daily experience. But in a cold wet city, even more mundane creations — such as asphalt and buildings — gain an edgy sheen in winter. It is a miracle how winter light really comes in so many nuanced flavors.
The Many Lights of Winter
Whether in the country or the city, however, the real gem of winter lights actually appear in the dark of night. Away from city lights, the crisp bright sparkles of milk-sprayed stars on a frozen cloudless night are revealed. The silver wash of the full moon in deep winter, casting long midnight shadows, forms a mood of infinite stillness. In town, trails of car headlights and taillights snake for miles, each car a tiny cell in the metropolitan organism. A bit of rain turns the reflective blur of red, yellow, white and green city lights in the most mundane strip malls into light-splattered scenes that would delight the French impressionistic painters.
I might never be someone who prefers winter to summer, but the transformation from loathing to enjoyment is enough for me. Whatever season or condition is here now — be it short days or long days — is always the perfect season to see the light.