The darkness takes Coral, my six-year-old, by surprise. Coming out of the Roller Derby (one of our attempts to teach her that girls who can throw elbows and knock people down are as cool as princesses), just past her usual bedtime, she looks up, taken aback by the night into which we’ve stepped, and whispers, “I’ve never been in night like this. It is so black.”
I remind her she has been in nighttime before. “Remember winter? Or remember that summer visiting cousins Outside (the term Alaskans use to refer to everywhere but Alaska)?” I say. “It was warm and dark there.”
“That was weird,” she replies, “and there were lightning bugs.” That trip was the only time she had ever seen lightning bugs and one of the few times she had experienced a dark, warm night. To her, night is seasonal. Night happens in the winter and is always accompanied by cold and snow.
Fairbanks is in the subarctic, the band just below the Arctic Circle, the northernmost latitude on the planet at which the sun makes it over the horizon on the winter solstice, 66 32’ N. Anyone who lives north of the Arctic Circle experiences 24 hours of darkness at some point in the winter.
We live at 64.84, 198 miles south. In winter we see the sun, even if it’s only for a little while each day. At the darkest time, we get three hours and forty-two minutes of light. In the summer we get twenty-one hours and forty-nine minutes. Most of us sleep through the dim midnight twilight, so it feels like a twenty-four hour day.
As fall approaches, nightfall slides in a little earlier, by a few seconds each day after the summer solstice. By September we’ve lost seven minutes each day. By the autumnal equinox, night arrives before the girls’ bedtime for the first time in months.
While she’s awed by the increasing dark, I’m saddened. Spinning toward winter is harder for me than it is for her. A few weeks ago I drove to work just as the sun was rising. On Monday, I drove in the dim twilight. By Friday, I drove to work in night dark enough to see an aurora should one make itself visible. Unlike her, I didn’t forget the coming darkness.
As the equinox approached, we were invited to several equinox-themed parties. One invitation asked all the guests to wear black to honor the coming long night; another was titled “Welcome to the Dark Side.” Adults grump around, asking each other, “Are you ready?” locking eyes and answering “No” and affirming with, “Me neither.” Ready means an assortment of things—enough firewood, gardens cleared, moose caught, berries frozen or canned. Ready also means “able to cope.”
I’m not ready.
Right now I’m more in the mood for the spring equinox and its sunnier brand of havoc. Turning toward the light for all its buzz and frenzy may be frustrating, but it’s also full of hope. It offers the illusion of all the time in the world.
Sunlight also makes children very reluctant to go to sleep. I remember the first time I explained daylight bedtime to my confused then two-year-old; I tried to approach it scientifically. I described the tilt of the earth and our latitude, but Cedar, my older daughter, wearily insisted, “It’s daytime! No one goes to bed in the daytime!” I showed her the clock, but numbers meant nothing to her. When she came out for another glass of water and asked me when we would have dinner (which we had hours before), I shook my fist at the fools who thought of forcing the 24-hour clock on a crooked planet spinning through space.
That evening I wrote an angry letter to a legislator insisting that Alaska opt-out of daylight savings time because it was messing up the nap schedule. Weeks later, unsympathetic, he replied, explaining how important it is for businesses to operate as closely to possible to the time zones in the lower forty eight. The following fall equinox in the waning daylight, I hammered a sign for his opponent at the top of my driveway. That’s what the equinoxes do to me.
Solstices are easier. By then, the girls have acclimated to imbalance. When the darkest night, winter solstice, rolls around, they have forgotten it was ever light all the time. They sit in in front of the woodstove at 30-below playing “bikini beach” in their underpants. I’m happier too. I have a book and tea and the firelight that plays against the cast iron and glass. I do sometimes wish I was on a real beach, full of real light, but when there’s a red aurora, I forget even that.
On the lightest day, summer solstice, they still fall asleep in their bedroom with the expensive light-blocking shades while I take the yellow dog for a late night walk in the yellow light—light so clear it seems that I’m watching the white paper birch and their whispering leaves through a lens. Later, I may shove pillows in the window frame in my odd-shaped bedroom window and mutter about there being too much light and regret not spending enough on the curtains in my room, but when I can sit on the deck in the midnight sun, I don’t worry about sleep much.
Now that they’re not toddlers, the girls transition between the light and dark better than I do. Their short memories allow them be present in the light’s absence or presence without thinking about what it might be otherwise. They adjust to blackout shades and blue skies, to reading bedtime stories in a sun-drenched living room. They accept the clock and its stern green numbers telling them to go to bed despite the light. On winter mornings, they walk to school in the dark and walk home from school in the twilight. They’ll happily ski on lit trails. To them, light isn’t good and dark isn’t evil. Light and dark are just present or absent, part of the flux of the seasons.
Thinking of those seven minutes, I try to embrace the flux. I force myself to think of the good things about the dark and cold. The aurora returns. The stars return. Once the snow comes things will brighten a little. Despite the darkness, the moon reflects off the snow, illuminating the whole yard.
Sometimes a moose and a calf will bed down at the edge of the yard near the birch trees. If it’s a full moon, I will watch them from the living room window, their curled shapes dark against the sparkling yard. In the morning when they’re gone, I will stand in their pressed beds and feel grateful for the house, for my blankets. Without the dark, I might forget to be grateful.
And without the Coral to be surprised by the dark, I might forget to marvel, to stare open-mouthed up into the night and appreciate that that darkness can be breathtaking too.