On Winter Light
It’s only September 8th and I’m only at 47.606N latitude, yet I can feel winter’s cadaverous fingers extending toward me. It’s the light. More particularly, it’s the slant of the sun. Yesterday, I pulled out my light box and read in front of it for twenty minutes. It seemed to help.
Some of my reaction is probably pure conditioning. The sun low on the horizon used to mean approaching winter, approaching depression, and the “seal of despair.” These days, I don’t get depressed during winter. Not even close. But I certainly prefer summer. (Who doesn’t?) Around the summer solstice, my mood, like the sun, is at its zenith.
This poem used to run through my head when I was a kid and I noticed winter coming on:
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.
Clearly, Emily Dickinson needed a light box, some Prozac, and a trip to Jamaica each January. (It works for me.)
While I think she captures the feeling of winter despair beautifully, when these lines would float through my head in, say, the beginning of February, I don’t think they made me feel any better. Possible worse. She merely describes this terrible feeling. Memorably, yes. But I was far more interested in solutions than poetic descriptions of my unpleasant moods.
It’s nice to know you’re not the only one who feels something. But reading an admired poet (or writer or thinker) describe suffering like this makes it seem almost holy. It’s not. Suffering is just suffering. It’s not a good thing. The apotheosis of suffering is a meretricious idol. Smash it.