In the cold part of the year people sit in the house most of the day, saving energy to stay warm. Grownups and children huddle near heaters, and seek out places with extra sources of artificial light. The darkness at this time is an overwhelming element. While most people don’t talk about it, everyone is affected by it. The sun can be gone for 2-3 weeks at a time. Which considering its importance, it’s strange this isn’t a bigger deal. Conversations about going home in the dark, and leaving for work in the dark are common. A break in the clouds during mid-day before the sunsets can feel like a spiritual moment.
While some experience the least harmful side effects in passive methods, like needing to sleep longer. Others struggle with depression. Suicide is not uncommon. Verbal contact becomes a remedy for illness, people seldom speak to each other. All become extra sensitive to stimulation.
It is a time when things are dead or dying, or becoming frail. Some creatures use it wisely, going into complete hibernation, sleeping through the coldest darkest parts as staying awake and using energy to move around is a life-threatening risk if you don’t have shelter and a source of food. With everything so brittle, there is an ever-lingering sense of fear, of being on the edge. Sometimes it’s almost like being about to cry. In other times it’s like a short circuiting electronic device, sparking and failing.
I moved to Boston when I started my first year of college. Until then I’d lived in Palo Alto my entire life. It was literally a move to the opposite side of the country and there were a lot of adjustments to make. Of all the things I’d read about Boston such as the heavy Massachusetts accent, the use of “pop” when ordering a soda (never actually experienced this), and of course the weather, the one I wasn’t prepared for was the shorter days in the winter. I recall stepping out of class at 5pm in early December, having been in a windowless room, and being surprised to see it was already practically nighttime.
Since then I’ve lived in other places with shorter daylight than in central California as well as Boston. Berlin, Germany however is by far the greatest stretch of this phenomenon of the late autumn and winter months. With less than 8 hours from the sunrise at 8am and the sunset before 4pm, it can get pretty dreary. Fortunately I’ve learned a number of coping mechanisms for this. Lack of daylight has some well known consequences like not getting enough vitamin D through sunlight exposure on the skin. But it also changes our circadian rhythms, the biological clock that controls our production of adenosine and melatonin, which tells the body when it’s time to wake up and time to go to sleep. Of course, with the invention electricity, and more recently of cell phones, tablets, laptops, and LED lights, humans have done their fair share of man handling the delicate system that regulates when to feel sleepy or alert.
Suffice to say I make an effort to stay on the good side of these natural influences. By trying to get as much light as possible from the sun and artificial sources in the morning and mid-day. As well as avoiding screens and bright lights in the evening when it’s time to wind down and get ready for some shut eye.