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  • on darkness and light

    I'm going to get a little philosophical today, but I hope you'll bear with me.

    As the days have grown shorter in Tromsø I've realized I'm taking fewer photos. I like shooting in natural light best, so as the availability of natural light becomes smaller and smaller, it's not surprising I reach for my camera less often. But that is only one reason. October moving into November always seems to be one of my busiest times - and the time of year that I am most susceptible to seasonal depression, due to the rapidly changing light and a number of other factors (I wrote about this a few weeks ago on my Instagram, and thank you so much to everyone who responded - I can't say how much I appreciate both your kind words and your open conversation). My seasonal depression is fall-specific, and doesn't usually last throughout the winter. So believe it or not, I feel myself coming out of that depressive low now, just as we're nearing the beginning of mørketida (literally, the dark time, the season in the north when the sun stays below the horizon). In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, there are many people turning to the thought that "the sun will still rise tomorrow" - and here I am, in a place where in a week's time, the sun literally will not rise on Tromsø. Does that sound dark to you? For me, it's not as dark as it sounds. I've been thinking about the best way to try to explain this.

    One of the most common questions I get at this time of year is people wondering what it's like to live somewhere where the sun sets so early in the fall, and then eventually, it doesn't rise or set at all. It's difficult to imagine if you've never experienced it, so here are a few key facts:

    • In Tromsø, where I live, the sun doesn't rise above the mountains in the south between November 21 and January 21.
    • This doesn't mean it's only night and total darkness, however, for the sun spends a few hours in the middle of the day just below the horizon. To imagine what clear days are like, picture several hours of the most beautiful sunset/twilight combination you can imagine. That's your daylight.
    • Once the snow comes, the effect of the darkness is lessened a great deal. The period leading up to Christmas can be the toughest, as the snow tends to come and go (and this year we have yet to have a proper snow), but after Christmas it usually sticks around and accumulates, and January and February are absolutely beautiful. A proper winter wonderland.

    So what is it like to live with? I know Norwegians and foreigners who embrace it and I know Norwegians and foreigners who struggle with it, too. I fall into the former camp - and people are always surprised when I tell them I prefer the polar night to the midnight sun. Everyone is different and there are many factors that influence how we cope with and feel about the dark season. I have always been a night person, often feeling my most creative and productive in the wee hours. That's probably part of it. But I think mindset is another part.

    As I mentioned in my last post on the yarn I brought home from the Oslo Strikkefestival, I wanted to make a Lupine shawl with the lovely greyscale gradient from Squirrel's Yarns. I cast on last week after the election news, and the repetitive bands of lace and garter stitch have been my constant companions in an incredibly emotionally trying time. And this gradient yarn, with its slow, smooth transitions, is exactly as beautiful as I hoped it would be. But that's not what I want to talk about, though - I want to go in a more metaphorical direction. 

    I could've started at either end of the ball when I cast on for this shawl, but I like a center pull ball, and I decided to start from the center - the lightest end of the gradient. The fact that this means I've spent the last week literally knitting in the direction of the darkness is not lost on me. It has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. I could continue that line of thought - the further I knit, the longer the rows get, and the slower my progress feels, etc. I could see it as a slog. (Fortunately, I don't.) And here's the thing - this is where perspective comes in. There's a Fast Company article that made the rounds last year called "The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter," and spoiler alert: it's all about your mindset.

    From where I sit as I knit the shawl, this is my vantage point. I am situated at the dark end, watching the gradient fade back into the light. While I may literally be looking at where I came from, this vantage point allows me to remember that the darkness can - and does - give way to the light again. Our whole world functions in cycles. The planet rotates and orbits the sun, the winter we are heading into will give way to spring and summer, and the daylight will come back. The darkness is an important part of that cycle - and in the case of my shawl, the darker the yarn color gets, the easier it is to see the sparkle of the silver stellina spun into the yarn. Much like we cannot see the stars or the northern lights when the sky is overwhelmed by the light of the sun.

    I read a book a few years ago - while in Norway for the new year, aptly enough - that really changed my relationship with nighttime and darkness. It's by Paul Bogard and it's called The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light. It was a game changer for me, and a book I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I'd never thought about the importance of darkness in the balance of life this way before, since as humans we tend to fear the darkness, which can represent danger and the unknown. But this book helped me start to embrace the dark and it changed the way I think about certain types of light. I don't think I would enjoy mørketida as much without having read it. 

    I also want to say that while there are many situations where I think the cycle of light and dark is important, I would not extend that so far as to say that the darkness of the current political situation is a necessary part of any such cycle - I think there is a cycle of dark and light there, but the degree of darkness we have reached goes far beyond any natural cycle. Racism, misogyny, bigotry, and hate should have no place in our society, let alone in the White House (or any of the governments in which xenophobic nationalist movements are gaining ground). But in the midst of this darkness there are bright points of light emerging, and I would encourage you to seek those out. And as I sit and knit my shawl, I will remember that the darkness can - and does - give way to the light again. And in the coming days I'll be thinking very hard about concrete ways that I can step up and be a part of that movement.