Chapter 4: Winter Solstice and How to Be in the Dark

Contentment Within Darkness

The days are being swallowed by night. In this dark everything is quiet and I can feel a shifting, squirming anticipation like a theater full of people before the curtain goes up, before the projector is turned on. William Shakespeare quipped that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun(1) and just as an audience knows the show will start, I know the sun will return. But for now, I must be content in the darkness.

My fondness for Shakespeare began at age three: I was enamored with the sultry fairies in the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream(2). As I grew a bit, the reverence I felt for the fairies mirrored that of my little self kneeling down in the snow, in the dark, lighting a candle, and sitting with it until the cold air of the longest night would swallow the flame. Winter Solstice (3) was a time when my fear of darkness turned into a sort of comfort, for I knew that this tiny light could make the darkness known to me.

Everything and Nothing

Later, I learned that darkness comes in many forms. With sleeves rolled up over my plump arms, paint brush in hand, I mixed all the colors together and created a rich and thick and complex black. Then, with sleeves too short for my thin arms, with sharpened pencil in hand, I learned that, according to physics, in the visible spectrum, black is the absence of color. Light travels in electromagnetic waves, each form of light has its own energy traveling into our eyes in different wavelengths. Light’s energy is translated through these wavelengths by our eyes as colors, but if a wavelength is too long or short, our eye’s can’t process it (4).

And so, the darkness, all at once, is everything and nothing. This darkness is a key ingredient to our human storytelling, coupled with light, it articulates the world around us. The art world has a term for this, Chiaroscuro, according to the Tate Art Terms (5), “is an Italian term which translates as light-dark, and refers to the balance and pattern of light and shade in a painting or drawing”. (6)

Look Darkness in the Eye

Darkness can pull our perceptions up and into its arms so we may understand that without darkness, light would have no place to root within us. Darkness and light make life’s tedious balance visible, and when life is visible, its story unfolds. In “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark(7) Emily Dickinson (8) dares us to look darkness directly into the eye. The poem dares us to hold the giant darkness inside our hands so that we can peer into it and learn to see the universe staring back. Now, step into the darkness:

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.


Experience “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” in the “Poetry of Perception” (9) video created by HarvardX Neuroscience (10) and Nadja Oertelt (11):


Endnotes and Resources*:

1. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. 1623.
2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Michael Hoffman. 1999. Film.
3. Daniels-Moehle, Nadia. Day 184: Winter Solstice. 2018.
4. Crash Course. Plait, Phill. “Light: Crash Course Astronomy #24”. YouTube. 2015. 
5. Tate. Art Terms.
6. Tate Art Terms. Chiaroscuro. Tate Website.
7. Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Various publishers/editions.
8. Poetry Foundation. Emily Dickinson. Accessed 2019. 
9. Poetry of Perception. HarvardX Neuroscience and Nadja Oertelt. 2015. Vimeo. Video Series.
10. EdX. Fundamentals of Neuroscience from HarvardX.
11. Books For Walls Project. Discovering: Nadja Oertelt and Matteo Farinella. 2018.

People, Works, Terms Mentioned:
William Shakespeare /A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Winter Solstice/Wavelengths/Chiaroscuro/Emily Dickenson/We Grow Accustomed to the Dark/Nadja Oretelt/HarvardX

*All references and resources have been thoroughly researched prior to use.