Ways of Seeing: Defying the darkness

Once again, the days are getting shorter, the hours of darkness are growing longer and the quest for any and all forms of light becomes correspondingly more acute. Yesterday evening my spouse walked in the door with a string of LED lights in her hands, bound for installation — but as yet uninstalled — on the top railing of our deck. Today, a similar strand has found its way onto our mantle, flanked by two faux-19th century lanterns that the anti-consumption grinch within me quickly deemed “unnecessary.”

I love them.

When there is neither the time nor the dry kindling to start a fire, these lanterns add a remarkably realistic glow to our living room. With 35 papers to grade and sunset scheduled for 4:13 this evening, I’ll take whatever light I can manage to get. Nevertheless, artifice can only take me so far, so tomorrow I’m sure I’ll be bringing in some more kindling. Cynthia, I suspect, will come home with new candles. Call it hygge — or desperation — we are Taking Collective Action.

I trust that I’m not alone in this deliberate (and ancient) defiance of the dark. What surprises me, however, is the very fact that I am surprised when this season annually comes upon us. After all, it happens every year. Somehow or other, however, I always feel rather caught off guard by this seasonal turn of events — as if someone switched out my espresso for a decaf when I wasn’t looking.

And why the “fight” mentality, I ask myself? Shouldn’t someone as “eco-attuned” as I claim to be (please disregard those faux lanterns) have No Problem with something as altogether natural as the tilt of the earth on its axis? No doubt, the everyday spinning and tilting of our political climate is adding considerably to my sense of disequilibrium. But be it nature or be it culture, I do know how to enter into battle when the situation demands.

The shortening days, however, are rich with gifts — and not only the battery-powered ones that I ambivalently embrace. And focusing on the gifts of light and dark is more naturally appealing than donning a suit of emotional armor. Here, as with so many things, I have my sheep to thank. My fuzzy flock does not like to eat dinner in the pitch dark. Nor do I exactly relish knocking the ice out of their buckets, refilling them and trudging down a hill that I can’t really see to give them some nice, fresh water. (“Drink up!” I always tell them, “It’s easy to get dehydrated in winter.”)

Whenever possible, I change my patterns of work to fit ovine preferences. If it’s 4 p.m. and I don’t have a meeting, I’ll often pack up my books and papers and relocate to home for the afternoon-into-the evening shift. I never fail to be grateful that I have some control over these patterns, when so many others are not so lucky. I do my chores, snuggle my sheep and re-establish my office-by-the-fire. Not bad. Following, rather than resisting, the natural dictates of the setting sun and the grateful flock feels fundamentally right.

What are the darkness battles and darkness gifts for you? I asked my friends, of course, and got an enchanting set of replies: the special zing of grapefruit, twinkly lights, pausing to look at the stars before going into the house, walking the dog at lunch time, Bach, Vivaldi, full spectrum lights, baking and cooking (and eating!), Vitamin D, margaritas. My favorite response came from a dear friend in her fifties who sent a video of herself speeding down Mount Philo on her sled (and wisely wearing a helmet).

Perhaps my most reliable way of resisting the dark — and maybe getting through life in general — is to say YES when unexpected offerings of light come my way: having coffee with a friend whom I didn’t expect to see for months, taking the time to write an encouraging note to a student because I think she could use it, admiring a new (to me) bird at the feeder. Like most good things, these opportunities for light-in-the-darkness are less about doing and more often about being. They may involve action, but the emphasis is on a shifting of the heart and mind.

Today’s warm glow of unexpected light came in the form of a wonderful display of local talent: the “mission concert” at the Vergennes Congregational Church. Now, as a scholar of religion I have far more ambivalent feelings about the history of missionizing than I do about battery-powered faux-lanterns, which — oh dear — appear to be “mission style.” Upon hearing the term “mission concert” my scholarly suspicions are naturally aroused: “Missionizing to whom? To what end? With what kind of white, Euro-American, colonial agenda?” Not a fair response, perhaps — but understandable given my training.

Nevertheless, the Green Mountain Horn Club was playing at the concert and being married to a French horn player has made me a devotee. I could have said no, but I said yes.

 From Bach to Klezmer, the concert was an absolute treat. And the “mission?” It was as local as my acorn squash: helping our Addison County neighbors to pay the rent and heat their homes. What a relief that I didn’t have to analyze its potential colonial agenda! All I had to do was hand over my cash.

My advice for the darker days? Carpe noctem (and those scant hours of diem)! Ignore your ambivalence and say yes to the next good thing. Make a hot chocolate date with a friend. Smile at a stranger who looks like she could use it. Wrap yourself up in a cozy blanket. Go to a Protestant church mission concert and sing along to the accordion player’s rousing rendition of Hava Nagila (where an enthusiastic minority of us even knew all the words).

After all, there’s really no point in striving to adjust the tilt of the earth when adjusting ourselves will do.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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