On These Long and Softly Lit Nights

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Winter Solstice passed last week. I think of how far the Northern Hemisphere has pitched us into space this time of year, tipping us away from the sun’s light. This is when middle latitudes in the north get 9 hours and 30 minutes of daylight out of a 24 hour day. The North Pole sees no sun at all.

My house is solar, the batteries are old. It’s been cloudy and the generator back-up broke down last week. This means no power. Nights in the house went dark around the 21st. To get around, I turned the place into a constellation of oil lamps and candles. The wood stove flickers, sending shadows across the globe and behind the rocking chair. This feels like the best way to witness the heart of winter rise up and blot out the sky.

This is the time of year you watch the stars glide past from your sleeping bag, motionless on the ground, the frozen high desert radiant around you, snow glowing in the moonlight. I used to have a game, watching airplanes cruise the lower stratosphere, seeing if they’d hit any stars. I got a point for every star, a ding on a slow, quiet pinball machine, maybe one or two a night. It was something you’d do when in a bag for 13 hours, temperatures nearing single digits. The lonely hours were my favorite. Planes stopped coming around two in the morning and the sky was still but for satellites. You’d swear you could see all the stars moving, the sky drifting.

We’ve been doing this for a long time, holing up in the winter however we can. The earliest human architecture appears in the north. These were late Pleistocene pole-and-hide structures. Some frames in the Ukraine were made entirely out of mammoth bones. Humans were pressing the northern edges of the Homo sapiens expansion. For a species hailing from Africa, winter nights would would have been notably long and dark. They watched their fires flicker on hide walls. Stories were told. Families gathered together with robes and skins. It would have been like hibernation, a time the body needs.

Nights in my house tend to be well lit, and I often have music going. If it weren’t for being colder near the windows, you might forget how dark it is out there. You go out for wood and find yourself staring at the stars, the sky so cold it feels like it could crack, and you remember what time of year it is. A far arm of the galaxy is laced from horizon to horizon. Orion chases the beautiful Pleiades nonstop. You are in winter’s cave. This is where you paint the walls with your dreams, counting airplanes as they pass.

I was glad when the house’s system conked. I got my season back. The generator was hauled away by my friend Kelvin who said maybe John could figure the thing out. With that, I was free. No email, no undying glow of a laptop till one in the morning. I made dinner in skeletal light and I wrote by hand, lapsing back into the form like I was twenty years younger. When I slept, it was near the fire, curled under blankets, stars dazzling through every window.

The generator is back now.

I have email, walls of it.

My face is in this laptop at this very moment, glowing as I type this post. The wood stove hums with a steady inhale. The clock ticks. The rest of the house is in amber light and shadow, lit by oil lamps, because I can’t bear to turn on the lights.

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7 thoughts on “On These Long and Softly Lit Nights

  1. I’ve lit with kerosene lamps, and had a wood stove to keep the cold at bay. There is a certain peace in the sound of the spring driven clock ticking while one reads or writes by lamp light. It gives one time to think. As for electric light in a house, what need for light beyond where one is? Unlike being outside, there is nothing crouching beyond the lamp lights edge, wondering if we might be good to eat.

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