7:19 am. I have been awake for an hour under the duvet. I woke before 6:30 anticipating the alarm, which I set last night in the hope of watching the first sunrise after the winter solstice from the top of Blythe Hill Fields. What a wave of optimism that was — I cannot be pried from my cosy nest and fight off a pang of guilt, reminding myself that I am allowed to enjoy life, to rest, to be lazy, to mill about if I want. I do that a lot lately and have taken to calling it anticapitalist protest. The right to do nothing.
It is the end of the longest night of the year and still deeply dark. I check the weather app. The Sun won’t crest over London until 8:04, but it must be blue hour, so I pull on the Otago University hoodie my dad sent from New Zealand and tiptoe outside.
The weather is crystalline. There has been a hard freeze overnight and teeny shards of ice glisten on the roof of the garden shed. The Moon was full three nights ago and now hangs, lopsided like a partially deflated football, above the western horizon. Sprays of pastel pink off east are a glimmer of the coming sunrise.
I love waking up early in London. For a moment, each day has that Christmas-morning feeling, like you are the only one alive. The pandemic ground the city to a halt last year, but London picked its pace back up remarkably in 2021. The past few weeks have, at least on on the outside, been the usual flurry of last-minute Christmas shopping, crawls of festively decorated pubs smelling of mulled wine, people carrying diminutive pine trees down streets glistening with rainwater that should have been snow, the annual revisiting of Christmas Number 1s Past blaring in a post office queue that snakes out the door.
But look a little deeper and everything is just slightly off. Slightly different. We all know we can’t go back to how things were, but like a couple not ready to admit divorce, we are trying, just this year, to recapture what we will someday admit was lost forever in 2020. We aren’t ready to grieve yet. To let go of the old way. So let’s try this year one more time, let’s just try and see if we can make it work, we are saying to ourselves. We act shocked when the TV announces more restrictions, more cases, another surge, another variant. Get boosted, get your shopping done, we can have it all! We tell ourselves.
The sky is still a deep azure blue but there are signs of the sun — pink dusting a few wispy clouds, gentle streaks of yellow, a hint of orange. I am starting to shiver and thinking about a cup of tea but afraid I’ll miss the main event. These things always go on longer than you expect, I tell myself. There is time.
I stumble back inside where it is still very dark, and the wisps of colour outside have ruined my night vision. Muscle memory presses the kettle button down and brushes the teeth, and I am worrying about missing the main event. Rinse and check outside. Things are a little more pink now. A little more orange. The Moon is ever watchful over chimney tops. Steam is rising off of a pipe next door — the only sign of human life on this utterly still row of houses. Other life is everywhere though. The birds have started their dawn chorus, welcoming the return of the sun.
Back in the dark, I clumsily pour water into mug and wonder what it is that I love about the night. The winter solstice is my favourite time of the year. For most people, the annual return of the summer is a long-anticipated event. Darkness, it seems, is fundamentally difficult for humans. Indeed, it is not an easy nor a natural place for me, either, yet I crave it physically and spiritually. The vastness, being enveloped, being blanketed, objects dimly outlined in the warm glow of a single candle’s flame, how stars puncture the black vastness, how I cannot know what’s coming and this necessitates a deep release, over and over, of everything my body has held onto in this lifetime.
In the day, we can see where we are going. The world is known. The more light, the less mystery. I don’t think we are afraid of the dark. I think we are afraid to let go and dive deeper into ourselves.
Toes are starting to ache from the cold and the sky is now awash in neon pink. Fingers wrapped tightly around the mug gleaning every inch of its heat. Birds are in full, cheerful song. With a little more light, I can see the grass, twinkling with frost, a pale jade the colour of snow-covered pine trees.
Too cold…rush inside…set quickly cooling tea on radiator…fish fuzzy socks out of drawer and pull on winter coat. Collect mug, check sky. Magenta now roaring up out of a fire of oranges backdropped by a canvas of turquoise, seafoam green, aquamarine.
Winter solstice feels like the new year to me, and indeed many people celebrate it this way, including the Zuni, Acoma and Hopi tribes who lived on the land where I grew up long before my family arrived there. It is the point when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the Sun. From here, day by day, we make our way around the star until — exactly six months from now — we are on the opposite side of our orbit and tilted so close that the sunset comes late or never. Those long, languorous evenings near the summer solstice are, for many, the best time of the year. The time when picnics stretch almost to midnight and time seems ample for pond swims, barbecues and just one more glass of rose in the garden. Not to turn everything into a socialist rant, but I do wonder if modern humans treasure long summer nights so because they offer us time for our own leisure and pleasure, while in winter, work drains the few hours of daylight during which we might’ve instead been outside, living.
The sunrise has now reached its fullest and brightest expression and I know it, so I gather it into memory and retreat indoors to cuddle back into the duvet with a fresh cup of tea. From here, the magenta and aquamarine and burnt orange will soften to pastel and wane until the sky is a plain, bright mix of white and grey and blue. Everything visible and obvious, everything in plain sight.
In his 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”. He was referring to the tumultuous time of his era and preceded this by saying, if he could ask god for one strange request, it would be to see the second half of the 20th century, because “something is happening in the world”. He was assassinated the next day.
The long night paints something only visible from its darkest hours. We wouldn’t have the technicolour sunrise without the deep mystery of the night. I do love the mystery.