I began to write this six hours before the season-tipping moment of the winter solstice, here in the Washington, DC, suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. The sun slipped below the barely warm southwestern horizon at 4:49 p.m. Saturday evening, December 21st, and it won’t rouse itself to climb above the night-chilled southeastern horizon until 7:23 a.m. Sunday morning, the 22nd, after leaving us in the dark for 14 long hours. Oh, the ruthlessness of winter’s blackest trickery!
This morning’s Washington Post featured an informative account of the solstice, written by Justin Grieser, with all the important details about how and why the Earth-Sun mechanics work the way they do to bathe us in long stretches of sunlight in the summer, and plunge us into what seems like eternal darkness in winter. As a creature of earth and space sciences…well, as an aficionado at least…I appreciated every detail of Grieser’s article. How can you not appreciate the accuracy of this almost palpable paragraph that expresses so perfectly the solstice’s curious impact:
“Perhaps it’s the stark contrast between daylight and darkness that we experience when the winter sun is shining and not hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds. Or maybe it’s the fact that the sun hangs so low in the sky all day at this time of year that it almost feels as if our nearest star is within tangible reach, despite being 91 million miles away.”
For me, the solstice is the tipping point between madness and sanity, a moment in time when the bleak forecasts of three more months of ice, snow, and gloomy skies give way to the knowledge that even though the weather outside is frightful, the thought of longer days is delightful. Incremental as those increasing minutes of dawn and dusk may be, the solstice assures me that everything will be fine…just be patient.
Articles like the one in the Post usually mention seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as a possible psychological component of winter for the approximately half-a-million people living in the United States. The science behind SAD is still a bit unclear. Theories of imbalances in neurotransmitters (serotonin, for example), or melatonin (related to sleep), or out-of-sync internal clocks, made unstable by the lack of sunlight, or life in northern climes vs. life nearer to the equator, all seem to have varying degrees of validity in diagnosing SAD. It is also suspected that SAD loses its impact on older adults (of which I am one, at 70).
When I read that, I nodded my head in agreement; as someone who was diagnosed with clinical depression in my late 30s, and who fought the effects of it well into my 60s. Winter was always the worst, and it hammered ruthlessly at my psyche. Over the years, I’ve discussed this with my family doctor and my several therapists, and I’ve questioned if some portion of my depression was triggered by seasonal changes, or actual SAD. To a person they said, “maybe so.” Now as I begin my eighth decade under the sun (or lack of it), I have overcome the deepest effects of my depression, and only suffer an echo of it when fall temperatures drop, and the sunlight begins to fade away.
The winter solstice is my beam of light at the end of winter’s tunnel. I know it’s the train of the sun coming my way, and despite the reality of winter snows to come, that illuminated and warm carriage will arrive at my station right on time.
In three minutes, the solstice will occur, and I will stand outside in the cold night and welcome it with open arms and a silent thanks to orbital mechanics.