Winter Light

Winter Light January 16, 2012

I find myself almost incredulous at how deep a vein of contentment I can find in a single afternoon at home.

I love my home: my house, my garden, my woods.  I’ve understood for many years that buying stuff, things, doesn’t actually build much contentment once I’m not in need.  I’ll think, when I contemplate buying a new whatzit, that once I have that whatzit I’ll be happy; I envision all the good and satisfying things I will be able to accomplish once I have my whatzit.  And, of course, once I have purchased it, brought it home, and unpacked it, it’s only a matter of days or weeks before I’m no happier in my daily round than before I got hold of it.

This house has not been like that for me.  It’s actually pretty rare that I come home without thinking, as I walk up to my door, open it, and slip inside, “I really love this house.”

I think that is because a house, like land, is not really a thing at all.  Properly considered, we don’t own either one: we enter relationships with them.  In the case of land, of course, there is the web of interdependent living things that is already there, from grass and the microorganisms and worms and grubs that live in soil to the trees, voles, mice, birds, and larger mammals that live in or move across that particular place.

Houses have some of that–more than a fastidious housekeeper would like, perhaps!–but there is something else that gives rise to the numen, the spirit of place that enlivens a house.  It may be the lives that have passed through the house over the years, or that have shaped its parts–trees for wood, glacier-rounded rocks for the foundations, and so forth.  Some houses seem to have more of that particularity of self than others; I’m sure it was one of the things that made us fall in love with the house before we bought it.

Another thing, however, was the light.

We had been living in a very nice, if shabby, Victorian duplex.  Lots of dark woodwork, nooks and crannies and a porch that was up in the treetops on the second floor.  But few of the windows faced south, and no room had more than two medium-sized windows.  Not only was the view of a densely settled urban street, but it was a dark view, from dark rooms.   Nothing we did could ever change that.

This year, I have been more aware than ever of the changes of light that come with winter.  It is hard to describe, but the shortened days of December left me without energy, worn out and weary by four, and exhausted and listless each morning when I rose in the dark to bolt my breakfast and head out to school.  I was leaving for work in the dark, and returning from work in the dark.  It was too dark to walk in the woods after work, and, with no snow to speak of this year, it was hard to avoid noticing how weak as well as brief the light of each day was, even when we were home.  I was not depressed–that is, I knew perfectly well that there was no especially discouraging thing in my life last month–and yet, my body was depressed: lethargic, irritable, sleepy.

We put up lights.  This year, for the first time, we were able to carve out a little time in our solstice preparations to consider decorations particular to this new house of ours, and we got strings of white icicle lights to go into the big, south facing front windows.  I began turning them on in the morning before sitting down for five minutes’ breakfast, and my husband made a point of turning them on again as soon as he got home from work, so I would find them shining softly in the dark when I came home.

Those lights helped.  They really did.  It’s not for nothing we decorate our homes with lights at Solstice.

But now the days are ever so slightly longer, the sun every so slightly higher in the sky at noon than it was three weeks ago.

And it has snowed–snowed, gotten warm, and then given us a hard, sub-zero freeze that has set up an enormous white reflecting mirror on the ground all around us.  Now there is light: light worth basking in, in our big, shabby living room with the wide southern windows.  Light I can steep in, when I’m home for lunch, in our cozy cube of a dining room, with enormous southern windows of its own.

I can look out my windows, from the comfort of my rocking chair or my couch, and see the woods with the tree bark painted orange in the light.  I can look up, and see the sky burnished an almost metallic blue–the blue of the winter sky.

On weekdays, I still have very little light while I am at home.  But moonlight or starlight, whatever light there is is picked up by the whiteness of snow and amplified.  I can walk in my woods at night, in a way I cannot do at any other time of year.  Indeed, the leafless trees open out the woods in such a way that I can see much, much deeper into those woods than at any other time of year.  Come summer, the seemingly infinite succession of tree trunk and tree trunk, receding off into the distances of perspective will vanish for me, cut off by a wall of green.  But in winter, my views are wide and deep.

And full of yellow light.

And so I find myself contented again, bodily depression lifting, opening myself like a flower to the glory of the return of winter light.

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