The Necessity of Darkness

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I popped out of bed this morning and thought to myself, boy, it’s really dark outside. Usually I pull the curtains back and there’s at least a tiny bit of light. I’m an early riser, and naturally wake up around 6AM, give or take when I get to sleep.

This morning at 5:56AM, it was so dark that nothing changed when I opened the curtains.

Are you sure we have to get up now?

Why the days feel darker than last month.

If you think it’s still getting darker and darker every day, and you’re an early riser like me, you’re partially right. The sunrise is still getting later and later, even though we’ve passed the winter solstice.

My Grandpa, a weatherman, taught me something cool about this. He always talks about rainfall and cold fronts and ice storms and seems to know what’s happening all across the country—notably because he’s got his television on the weather channel all day long.

He talked about the solstice for a bit, that darkest day of the year, it falls on around December 21st.

“Here’s a little trivia you might not know,” he said. “Do you know when the latest sunrise and the latest sunrise is?”

Do you? I thought they were on the same day: the solstice.

The solstice is the short day — the shortest period of daylight between a sunrise and a sunset.

It turns out the the earliest sunset, time-wise, is the period between December 1 and December 15 for 2015. The sunset occurred these days at 4:29PM (for New York City). Then it begins creeping back outwards: 4:30 for a few days, 4:31, 4:32pm.

The latest sunrise (and likely the hardest time to get out of bed, not counting daylight savings), occurs a few weeks later, between December 30 and January 10, at 7:20AM (also for New York City).

The shortest day happens as these two occurrences shift among each other, with the shortest length of day on December 21st. (If you’re as confused as I was, it’s because the earth is tilted on an axis and it’s “eccentric” according to the charts.) The sun rises later and later as the set gets longer… like a bit of a tango between the start and the end. It’s not perfect.

Why don’t the latest sunrise and earliest sunset happen on the same day?

It turns out that the concept of solar noon is important. This is the time midway between sunrise and sunset, when the sun is at the highest point in the day. The clock we use (24 hours) is not actually perfect with the period of the day (which is sometimes a minute longer than 24 hours), so the time when the sun is highest in the sky changes.

So, two weeks before the solstice, there are earlier sunsets. And two weeks after the solstice, there are later sunrises.

And now, in January, right as we all head back to work, thick off the heaviness of holiday food, tired from sleeping in for a few days — we’re right in the middle of the darkest mornings.

The sun will begin its tilt back up the clock on January 11th, and the sunrises will be back before 7am by February 8th (6:59AM to be precise).

In the western hemisphere, we’re right in the middle of the darkest time, the latest sunrises, the earliest sunsets. Winter is here, the days are getting colder, and we’re about to get colder before we emerge for Spring.

Why we need the darker days:

For me, I find this time a great time to slow down, dwell, think, and re-boot. I love the contemplation, reflection, and introspection that comes from this time of the year. I also know that I have to take better care of myself: it’s harder to exercise when it’s this cold and dark, but if I don’t do it, I’ll feel worse. In the summer it’s easy to want to play. In the winter, I work a bit harder just to show up to my yoga class or go for a walk. I do less, I think more, and I listen.

As Clark Strand writes in Bring On The Dark, the darkness is an opportunity:

“In centuries past, the hours of darkness were a time when no productive work could be done. Which is to say, at night the human impulse to remake the world in our own image — so that it served us, so that we could almost believe the world and its resources existed for us alone — was suspended. The night was the natural corrective to that most persistent of all illusions: that human progress is the reason for the world.”

What are you feeling like this winter? How’s the dance of darkness and depth of winter treating you?


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