Living by the Light

The calendar said December. My brain understood it was coming; I’d just wrapped up Thanksgiving holidays here in the US. Logically, December follows. But my body didn’t believe it – and still hasn’t fully embraced December. My rational, planning, organized brain lives by my paper organizer, but my body follows the weather and, more importantly, the intensity of the light.

We are midway through December. I’ve sent out invitations to a small Solstice gathering for two weeks from now. How can the shortest day of the year be nearly here? There’s far too much light!

I grew up in a rain forest in the south eastern panhandle of Alaska. It’s not as dark and cold there as other parts of Alaska, but it is one of the wettest places in North America. In fact, I feel like Seattle is a tropical paradise in comparison! Many people in Alaska (and other places, too) struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), relying on high dosages of vitamin D, full spectrum lighting, and deliberate excursions outside during dry periods to cope. I never struggled with SAD, but the stark contrast in light between December and June affected me profoundly. I didn’t realize it until I moved away.

Summer light (about 9pm), looking out at the Chilkat Mountains.

I spent six years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I struggled for the first few years with several things: the intensity of the urban environment, the copious amount of light pollution obscuring the stars, and the seeming lack of difference between the light at the winter solstice and the light at the summer solstice. Just as I would start to uncurl and feel as thoughfinallythere was enough light, it would be summer solstice and the days would start to get shorter. I had the same experience in December: just as I felt I could sink into the longer nights, winter solstice would come and go and the light started getting longer again.

My time in California revealed just how intimately the play of light and dark worked upon my understanding of the seasons and the turn of the year. I need the strong winter dark and the long summer days. The contrast helps me feel balanced. I like the hibernating quality that comes with the dark, the introspection it fosters, the cozy candle-lit evenings and star-filled nights. The long light-filled spring and summer days fill me up with sunlight and brightness, activity and energy, that fuel me through winter months.

After living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I moved to Wales. It wasn’t as far north as my hometown in Alaska, but closer than I’d lived in nearly a decade. The light and dark there felt good in my bones, deeply satisfying and nourishing. I reveled in the four distinct seasons (Alaska had two and the Bay Area had about three, very subtle different seasons).

Now I’m in Washington state. There are four distinct seasons here too, but the difference in light isn’t as strong as I’d like. There’s a difference to be sure, especially now that the rainy season is in full swing. The sky here can be a low, grey ceiling that hovers just above our heads for several days. That grey can feel oppressive, especially when driving on the freeway through the fine mist the clouds rain down. But the dark is only just starting to feel wintry to me. In my bones, it’s early to mid-November; I’m a month behind. I’m not prepared to celebrate the return of the light in a mere two weeks.

With kind permission from Everyday Life Magic.

Through this blog I’ll be exploring more about this place, this land, and my evolving and developing connection to it. I’ll be reflecting on places I’ve lived in the past and how I was changed by them. I’ve been here, in Olympia, Washington, just less than a year.  My hope is that I will adjust in the years to come, to feel in sync with the patterns and rhythms of this place, and internalize this land’s play of light and dark. I find myself at home here and I hope I’ll start to feel that in my bones.

About Niki Whiting
  • Kalle Ingesson

    Hello, nwhiting, good to see someone who lives near me. I’m a transplant to the PNW from the Deep South and while I feel much more at home here culturally, I’m having a really hard time adapting to the seasonal variations of light here. I do suffer from SAD in the winter and it seems like the shifting light during the year prevents me from keeping an even emotional keel. I’m used to an environment where’s there’s not much difference between summer and winter solstice. I’d really like to be able to adapt to my new home but I’m wondering if somehow certain biological needs were fixed in my youth and whether I’m going to have to move back southwards.
    I look forward to reading more of your writing about our relationship to our environment. Cheers!

    • Niki Whiting

      Hello Kalle! Welcome to the PNW! Even natives here get antsy in the winter. I think a lot of people struggle with the light fluctuations. There are ways to cope, but I think a lot of modern living goes against the things that might help us – for example, doing less in the winter, getting outside a lot when it’s bright and dry in the darker months (as opposed to working indoors), etc. I hope you can find your equilibrium here.

  • Elinor Predota

    I do live with SAD, and I really struggle with my winter downs and summer crazy-ups. But at the same time, I really don’t know how I’d cope living somewhere that didn’t have at least four seasons, and the rhythm of light throughout the year.

    • Traci

      I experience SAD here in Ireland. It took me awhile to cop on to what was happening because, you know, back in Texas we have so much sun we could bottle it! This year I dreaded the approach of Autumn and the retreat of the light, but now that we are in it–the long dark–I relish it. Of course, St John is also my patron saint of winter now! :)

      • Niki Whiting

        I once managed severe depression with only St John’s wort. That stuff is mighty powerful!

    • Niki Whiting

      I’m guessing you’ve found ways to cope that make the benefits to you outweigh the hardships. The North can be a harsh land, but I find the North sings to my soul.