The Homely Truth About the Shortest Day

We passed the shortest day of the year last week. It’s the annual drama of encroaching darkness turning to growing light, the grand rebirth, the celestial, uplifting reminder that in any sphere of life, the gloom gives way to brightness.

I’ve always imagined the event as accompanied by an elegant symmetry. I thought that the darkness closed in evenly from both sides, that the sun rose a little later each morning and set a little earlier until the shortest day on December 21st, when the process neatly reversed at both ends of the day. The sequence, I thought, between early December and early January had the shape of a tall hourglass. The left “sunrise” side sloped in to the right during most of December and the right “sunset” side sloped left, each changing by a minute or two each day. On December 21st, they met at the narrow waist and reversed direction.

Well, it doesn’t work that way. Changes in sunrise and sunset times aren’t in synch. The sun doesn’t neatly rise later each morning until the 21st and then reverse course. It keeps rising later and later well beyond the 21st, past Christmas and into the first week of January. Imagine the left side of the hourglass sloping down and right until it’s well below the waist.

The timing of sunsets changes in the opposite way. Sunsets change direction, from happening earlier to happening later, about a week before the shortest day. Imagine the right side of the hour glass sloping inward not all the way down to the waist but only part way. Such an hourglass would have a weird, uneven tube descending from the upper left to lower right. It isn’t until early January that both sides would be moving apart from each other again.

The shortest day is the shortest only because the speed of the changes in the times of rising and setting vary from day to day. In early December, the sun rises later by a sizable couple of minutes every day, while sunset drags on at almost the same time, so the length of daylight shrinks until the 21st. After that, the changes in sunrise slow way down while it is sunset’s turn to pick up the pace, getting rapidly later (by about 7 minutes between the 21st and New Year’s Eve in New York) and lengthening the day.

So the shortest day grows out of a ragged process, not the aligned and symmetrical one we thought we were seeing. The universe spins in ways that we don’t or can’t grasp in detail, but we pull the meanings that we need from our approximations anyway.


Seasons and Heartbeats

Seasons and Heartbeats

Age: 68. These days the seasons are less like a perfume to me and more like a clock.

When I was young, autumns were my favorite season—painfully romantic, full of the future, life-enhancing and lonely at the same time. The smoke in the air and the cold freshness made me want to run around, run anywhere. I loved playing football because it required running around fast and falling on the ground, a favorite activity of boys (and one which I think remains the basic appeal of the sport).

Each season had its flavor and power. Winter’s were perhaps the mildest—cozy, private, a little claustrophobic. Spring could be “the cruelest month”—I think it depended on how my love life was going—but the renewal everywhere made me lightly happy. Summer brought its sex appeal, but the absence of school was a real emptiness. I couldn’t live up to summer’s fullness and high expectations. When the Beach Boys sang “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” I was relieved to know they felt that way too.

rhythm of seasons

The rhythm of the seasons… (

These days, decades later, either my senses are declining or sheer repetition has taken the intensity out of the seasons, or both. Though autumn is still my favorite and summer still less than idyllic, now I’m more caught up in watching the plants grow, bloom, and fade. I’m in awe not so much of the seasons themselves but of the inescapability of the changes, the daylight lengthening or shrinking, the air turning warmer or cooler. Lovely as it all is, it’s the relentlessness of the cycle that gets to me now.

Sometimes I think, one less summer left, one less autumn to go.

heart beat

 …and the heart (

The other rhythm I’m aware of these days is my heart’s. It has been irregular for periods, enough so that I no longer take it for granted when it’s regular. As this autumn was coming in, it struck me that the seasons also are a heartbeat. My heart pumps in, pumps out, pumps in, while the seasons pump the life of the planet, year in, year out. The globe’s temperature, moisture, and light pass by in a rotation that brings forth sprouting, blooming, fading, dormancy, sprouting—the cardiac coordination between the planet and its life.

My heart will run down—is running down—my seasons will run down and run out, but my inclusion in the endless beat of the seasons all these years—the inclusion of every living thing in the rhythm that carries us along—has been a taste of immortality.