Interim Rector Amy Richards talks about seizing control of one's winter existence
Good morning and welcome back! It’s wonderful to see you all again. I hope your holiday break was warmer than mine!
The cold weather reminded me of an experience I once had, back when I was still teaching. Some years ago, I told my precalculus students that I had seen a very brief article in The New York Times indicating that the sun had risen in Barrow, Alaska. I then asked my students to tell me why this was so newsworthy. I gave them this hint: Barrow, whose new name is Utqiagvic, has a latitude of 71.2 degrees north. It is 720 miles north of Anchorage. In fact, it is the northernmost town in the United States. In contrast, Concord’s latitude is 43.2 degrees north.
Why, then, did The New York Times write about the sun rising in this Alaskan town? Because the day that article was written was the first time the sun had risen in Barrow in many weeks. Indeed, this year, the sun set in Barrow, Utqiagvik, on November 18, which was the first Sunday of our Thanksgiving break. It will not rise again until January 23, and on that day, it will stay up for only an hour. By February 1, the date of our Mid-winter Recess, the good folks of Barrow will have achieved only four hours of sunlight.
Our days here in Concord will continue to get shorter until December 22, when the days begin again to lengthen. Thus, we are currently in the midst of a shrinkage of our daylight hours. (The eventual lengthening of the days might seem agonizing, as well. December 23, for example, has only six seconds more sunlight than the 22nd.)
Winter – and the shortening days – can take its toll on us. The combination of lessening light and coldness can cause us to hunker down, to vegetate and/or hibernate, and, perhaps, curse the darkness.
There is a school of thought, however, that we need darkness and cold to appreciate the long days of June fully. Indeed, when I was first contemplating a move to California, a colleague in New York (where I was then living) shook her head at me in consternation, tsk-tsking. She told me her Calvinist origins dictated to her that one had to suffer in order to enjoy life’s gifts truly. Her motto? You have to experience darkness to appreciate the light. As Barbara Brown Taylor said in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are out there all the time, even when I am too blinded by the sun to see them.”
Anticipating my move to California, I, likewise, was too blinded by the sun and too excited about moving to the west coast to worry about my failure to see the stars.
But now I’m back in New England. We’re here in New England where, today, we will experience about one minute, 39 seconds less sun than yesterday. And so it will go until the 22nd.
It seems to me that we have three choices when confronting the looming darkness of winter: we can be defeated by it, we can push back on it, or we can embrace it.
How does one push back upon the darkness? How do you shake your fist at the shortened days?
One way is to get outside and get what vitamin D you can. When I last lived here in New Hampshire, I recall feeling as if I was being held hostage by the New Hampshire winters. That is until I discovered cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
By taking up those activities, I felt as if I was seizing control of my winter existence. This winter, I hope someone will teach me the sport of curling. Curling, in case you don’t know, is that odd winter sport in which teams compete by sliding a heavy stone across ice, attempting to get the stone as close to a “bull’s eye” as possible, and maybe knocking the other team’s stone out of the way in the process, using a broom to direct the path of the stone. I figure curling is my only shot at an Olympic team (and if you have seen it, you understand why). A new activity will provide me with the motivation to break winter’s bonds.
Therefore, and with apologies to the Latin scholars among us, this winter, seize the daylight, get some vitamin D, and dress warmly.
We can also fight off winter with laughter. This winter, spend time with those who make you laugh. Download your favorite stand-up comic from Netflix. The New York Times has a column called “The Best of Late Night” in their television section, a column with clips from your favorite late-night hosts’ monologues that you can absorb in little soundbites and which will undoubtedly elicit laughs. I also find that The New Yorker magazine is a great source of levity, especially the cartoon caption contest.
I never cease to be amazed at the creativity of The New Yorker readers in their caption submissions. One of my favorite cartoons depicted a subway car in which there was a man wearing an apron and chef’s hat, barbecuing in the middle of the subway car and speaking to a couple of passengers. The winning caption? “It sends the other rats a message.” So, spend time with friends and find laughter.
Finally, you can push back against the darkness by expressing gratitude. Gratitude is a form of celebration, a celebration of others. Gratitude comes back to you exponentially. Recall Brett Stoddard’s Chapel talk, right before Thanksgiving. Recall the feeling of writing thank-you notes on the Friday before the break. No other gift to others comes back so significantly to the giver as expressions of gratitude. According to an article in Psychology Today, expressions of gratitude open the door to new relationships, improve one’s physical and psychological health, enhance empathy, provide better sleep, improve self-esteem, and increase mental strength, all things we need as we navigate winter cold and darkness.
So even though Thanksgiving is over, be thankful and, since today is “Giving Tuesday,” you might be motivated to make your gratitude manifest in a donation to a worthy cause.
There are also, of course, good reasons to embrace the darkness. Remember that new things begin in darkness. The cosmos emerged out of darkness. New births emerge from the darkness of the womb. So, too, do the seeds of new plants. The Northern Lights, a phenomenon I hope to someday to see in person, occur in the northern hemisphere during the long nights of winter. The best stargazing also happens in the cold of winter, when atmospheric conditions tend to be perfect.
I recall being on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii two Februarys ago. We were there to watch the sunset over the Pacific and then engage in star gazing. Mauna Kea’s summit is at 13,000 feet and, at that elevation, the Milky Way exploded out of the night sky for us. It was also 28 degrees Fahrenheit up there! I was staggered by the realization that this cosmological display was there every night, but it took winter and darkness to reveal the expanse of the stars in all their glory.
Metaphorically speaking, there are realizations we can achieve only by spending some time in the dark. We can be at our most creative in quiet solitude, accompanied by a subdued mind. The psychologist Carl Jung once said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
So, there is no reason to be defeated by the winter months. That said, you may still be wondering, “When again do the days start to get longer?” You do not have to wait long. On December 23 we will start to experience a lengthening of the days, albeit only by seconds. By February 1, the date of our Mid-winter Recess, we will have almost 10 hours of sunlight. (Remember that Barrow – Utqiagvik – will have only four hours of sunlight by then! This, it seems to me, is another point of gratitude.)
Therefore, in this season of dwindling days, of hunkering down, let us all remember to find light in the darkness, and let us also remember to cast light to those around us. In doing so, we will ease the weight of winter.