Here in Maine, the sun is setting around 4 pm. At different times in my life, this would have been cause for grumpiness and lament. When the kids were all at home, it felt bizarre and somewhat sad to pick the children up from the bus at twilight, or drive home from a 4 pm meeting in the dark. Walking the dogs before or after work required reflective vests and clip-on lights. I would ruefully think to myself, “the whole day has passed and I missed it” if I had not been able to get outside while the sun was out. Somehow, I had come to equate “the day” with “daylight hours.”
I know some of my sadness comes from seasonal affective depression, a subtle and very real change in my brain chemistry. A decade ago, I started sitting in front of a “happy box” each morning, and experienced less of a winter dip in mood.1 Now, my seasonal “dips” are intentional and even joyful as I continue to benefit from cold swims and the exposure of my skin to sunlight. So much of my grumpiness about the shorter days – actually shorter daylight hours – was a result of what I chose to focus on.
When looking for things to make me cranky, I could become as crotchety as Ebenezer Scrooge. Certainly the release of autumn leaves signs of decay and death all around. And my skin is as scratchy as a cat’s tongue. And … I could go on and on but won’t bore you with my past complaints. Because this year I am relishing the lengthening “daydark hours” in each day.
There’s so much to celebrate and contemplate in the daydark hours, so here are ten of my current favorites and the mental and physical health benefits that each brings.
- 1. Very few things calm me as much as a flickering flame – whether a candle or fire in the fireplace. In daylight hours, the light of the flame is not needed or even much visible. But in the early mornings and evenings, I can’t wait to get a cup of coffee, light my beeswax candles, and watch them burn. Burning beeswax also creates a sweet scent and purifies the air by producing negative ions, which adds to my relaxation.
- 2. When daylight hours are long, I spend a great deal of time outside. Growing daydark hours and colder temperatures allow me to cultivate indoor interests, like learning to play an instrument. Even though music is not one of my primary – or secondary or tertiary or quaternary – gifts, recently I started playing the ukulele almost 5 years after I first picked up and then put down this sweet instrument. For 15-20 minutes a day, I watch youtube lessons with the amazing Cythina Lin. It’s been a month, and I’m getting such joy from strumming along to Bob Marley, the Beatles, Jason Mraz, and will play “Happy Birthday” for a friend next week. I’m also learning about all the cognitive health benefits from learning to play an instrument as an adult, which is especially important to me given a strong family history of Alzheimer’s disease.
- 3. I love fresh air and keep the windows and doors open the majority of the year. The breeze in the house feels wonderful during the warmer months, but quickly diffuses any indoor scents (often a benefit, especially with dogs and boys around). Using scent to create coziness is another joy of extended daydark hours. I add a little cinnamon to my pot of coffee or bake cookies with cinnamon, ginger, and clove and the smells fill the house with an aromatic hug. The warming spices are so beneficial to our health that 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen “prescribed” these cookies to her nuns to increase positivity and joy.
- 4. One of our dogs – Ezzie – loves to hug. He will happily crawl on your lap, or on top of you, the second you sit or lie down. Or he’ll try to hug your knees while you’re standing. He’s such a love, but in the warmer months, he’s an over-lover. During daydark hours in these colder months, I make time to snuggle on the couch with a squishy blanket and nap with Ezzie. I get all sorts of benefits from these cat naps but do wonder why they’re not called dog naps!
- 5. As much as I love browsing through cooking blogs or actual cookbooks, I tend to cook roughly the same 10 recipes. Occasionally a recipe will appear in my email that looks delicious and I’ll try it, but mostly we eat a familiar rotation of meals. The daydark hours give me more time in the kitchen and actually want heat to pour out of the oven, so I’m more inclined to try new recipes. A guest at Limina sent us an amazing new cookbook, and every week I try a new dish. Thanks to these darker days, our meal rotation is rapidly expanding!
- 6. I love tending our vegetable and cutting flower gardens in the spring and summer, but spending so much time with the outdoors plants means that my houseplants can be neglected. In the longer daydark hours, my houseplants are getting more love. This year, I brought one of my favorite annuals – a pink and white Martha Washington Geranium – indoors to try to overwinter her. Tending to this special plant has gotten me back in the habit of tending all of the other plants throughout the house and getting so many health benefits from houseplants.
- 7. As a little girl, I loved to puzzle and brought that love to motherhood. As our schedules got increasingly busy, I’d forgotten about the meditative calm that puzzling brings. I don’t get to see a lot of “progress” in my work, so really appreciate the sense of accomplishment when pieces are sorted into various colors and the edges have been found. I can get lost in looking for the hummingbird’s beak, and love when my family and friends plop down to help. This puzzle stayed out for a number of stays while we picked away at it until we finished. Other times, we just do a bit before putting it away and experience all the health benefits of puzzling. The perfectionist in me cringes that we didn’t do the puzzle “right” and finish it. Yet during these daydark hours, I can both enjoy the process and feel relief when we slide it back into the box because we need the table.
- 8. Almost 10 years ago, I was preparing for my first pilgrimage to the Isle of Iona and came across this Norwegian proverb “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes!” More daydark hours means it is easier for me to find excuses to stay on the couch with a plate of cookies than go for a walk. Given that I own rainboots, snowboots, and various coats, I don’t really have much excuse to skip some daily outdoors exercise. Even if I get out for a mere 10-15 minute walk, I get so many benefits – including feeling refreshed and getting valuable vitamin-D producing sun on my face or hands. I also get to see gorgeous seasonal changes that I’d otherwise miss.
- 9. This time of year, observing the stars in the night sky is easier for amateurs like me because the earlier nightfall makes the stars so brilliant that even I can identify constellations and planets. On the summer solstice in Maine, the sun rises around 4:45 am and sets at 8:45 pm, with dawn and twilight extending almost an hour before / after the sun. In summer, I’m rarely up late enough for the sky to be dark enough to stargaze, so this time of year I have new nighttime companions who arrive during the early daydark hours. Recently Jupiter has been especially visible in the southern sky, which I had never noticed before. In addition to feelings of awe and wonder, other benefits of stargazing leave me feeling more peaceful throughout the evening.
- 10. Finally, I am learning to embrace rest in these darker days. Katherine May’s book Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times taught me so much about honoring my body’s natural rhythms. When there is less light, we naturally want to sleep more but often fight against this urge. I’m eager to attend a winter retreat at Limina called “Daring to Rest: Becoming a well-rested woman.” In anticipation of that retreat, after savoring the daydark hours, I’ve been going to sleep earlier. My friend Dinah once told me (sharing wisdom from her mother-in-law) that “An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after.” I’m sure I’ll return to my later bedtime in the spring and summer, but for now I can really feel the benefits of going to sleep earlier.
Every day I’m appreciating the ways that how I frame an experience creates my reality. I am no longer lamenting the “loss of light” or grumbling about the “growing darkness.” I’m savoring the gifts of daydark and would love to learn how you embrace these sweet days of deepening fall and winter. May we all be blessed by the slower rhythms and invitations of these growing daydark hours.
- I also benefited from small doses of Wellbutrin, especially during stressful times. Addressing the stress with lifestyle changes and supplements, and cold swimming have allowed me to safely stop the Wellbutrin. ↩︎