We come to a time of fatigue, pain and fear.
This week brings the shortest days and longest nights of the year. These are the days when existence feels coldest; when the untamed threat of darkness feels strongest (in the dark, our primal inner voice reminds us, you can’t see the wolves); and when the force that gives all of us life feels palest and most remote.
It’s also a time when the calendar year grinds down to its nub end, which only reinforces the feeling that life is ebbing. Another year is past us, and here we are again, hurrying home in search of respite from the darkness.
This time of year gets harder to bear when there’s a tragedy to shoulder … as there was in my grandparents’ America of 1963, and as there is in our own America today.
Americans in 1963, at least, had some degree of distance from their national tragedy when the longest night of the year came.
It had been almost a full month since the assassination of John F. Kennedy — long enough for people to come to terms with the event, pass through the mourning phase and return to some degree of everyday life.
Still, when I saw “SUN SETS 4:29” and made the mental link to the recent assassination, I imagined a certain deepened amount of seasonal joylessness — literal dark days to follow figuratively dark days.
Maybe not at 1107 Hope Street, whose inhabitants tended to keep a stiff upper lip. But I could easily imagine the standard solstitial depression broadening for other Americans to include the recent loss of a beloved leader.
Early bedtime, an unsettled sleep, a harsh alarm giving way to pre-dawn blackness, and the slap of cold feet on the bedroom floor.
The start of another day’s hurry, leading to … what?
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The people of Newtown, Connecticut, will not have the same emotional distance when the longest nights of the year arrive.
Newtown is in the same county as my grandparents’ home of Stamford, albeit on the other side. Google Maps suggests it’s just shy of an hour’s drive from one town to the other. I do not know whether my grandparents ever had call to go to Newtown, but it wouldn’t surprise me if something brought them through town over the years.
The winter solstice this year will arrive exactly one week after the school shootings that, in their own way, will become as indelible a national memory as the Kennedy assassination. If there is such a thing as solstitial depression — a sort of instinctive psychological recoil from all the darkness — it could not come at a worse time.
There are no words to either describe or soothe the pain that the people of Newtown are feeling, and will feel for years to come.
I can only hope that as time passes, and the days go back to being long and warm and welcoming, that everyone affected can find a path to at least some small place of peace and grace.
In the present dark, with our teeth rattling and our ears cocked for wolfsong, that is the best we can aspire to.