Watching our last sunset.
“After 7:00 pm and it’s still light out,” says Jackie.
My friend Chuck likes to point out that we’ve already reached the worst of the winter darkness: Tomorrow the sun will set at 4:27 PM, and that’s as bad as it will get. As early as December 12th the sun won’t set until 4:28, and it just gets better from there.
For people working a regular job, a later sunset is a big deal (although it’s not really a big deal until January 24th, when sunset time is finally after 5:00 PM).
For me, though, it’s sunrise that really matters, and that keeps getting worse for a long while yet. We don’t hit our latest sunrise until December 30th when it’s not until 7:15 AM—and then it just stays there for almost two weeks. Things don’t really start getting better until January 12th, when the sun rises at 7:14.
So really, I should be luxuriating in the relatively early sunrise this morning. The sun will be up at 6:59 AM—before 7:00! Why, it won’t be this good again until February 5th! That’s after Groundhog’s Day!!!
(All these dates and times local to Savoy, Illinois in 2015–2016. Ephemeris data for your location will vary. But if you live in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, they won’t vary by enough.)
This tree, with some sort of little red fruits all covered in ice by a freezing fog, kinda looks sunrise pink. Maybe I could pretend it is the dawn. Of course, before dawn it’s too dark to see it.
Despite my anticipatory angst, I’m actually holding up pretty well so far. I’m sure the extra time spent walking outdoors is helping. Yesterday, I walked to my taiji class, then walked around during the time between the two classes (with Jackie for the first half of her walk home, and then around playing Ingress), and then walked home again after my second class. It was just a little over 6 miles, but my longest walk in a good while. I’m sure the two hours of taiji helped as well.
By which I mean it has a picture of a cat and a picture of a sunset. (Plus, there’s a bonus picture of the cat.)
I’m prone to a particular bit of black humor this time of year. Usually a little earlier—maybe at the beginning of November—I’ll mention how early the sunsets are, how late the sunrises are, and point out that things are just going to get worse for six more weeks, and that it’ll be twelve weeks before things are this good again.
I joked similarly to my brother a day or two ago, and he pointed out that, although my joke is true in October or November, in December it’s wrong: by this point in the year things almost don’t get any worse. And he’s right. After all, the word solstice comes from the Latin for standstill.
Today there’s going to be nine and a half hours of daylight, and on the solstice there’s going to be nine and a third hours of daylight. Big whoop. I can deal with that.
Rounded to the nearest minute, we have already reached our earliest sunset of the year. That is, today the sun will set at 4:27. It will continue to set at 4:27 until December 13th, when it will set at 4:28.
(The sunrises continue to get later for a bit. It’s not until December 29th that we get a sunrise at 7:15, and not until January 4th that we get a sunrise at 7:14.)
I didn’t use to take much comfort in this. Knowing that things didn’t get much worse from here on out didn’t help when I was already depressed. But these days I tolerate the dark pretty well, and that means that I can take comfort from knowing that things are already about as bad as they’re going to get. Yes, it will still be mostly indoor exercise weather until March, but that’s okay—I have strategies for indoor exercise.
I’m not sure exactly what to credit for the improvement. I suspect that not working a regular job is the biggest factor, but taking vitamin D supplements seems to have helped as well. And, of course, getting enough exercise is both a cause and an effect.
We were downtown for drinks and dinner at Seven Saints with Barbara and Rosie, and I noticed a rather spectacular sunset (click for larger, more spectacular version).
A merely fair picture of it—it was more spectacular in person—but good enough, I thought, to share.
And, in relation to my recent post on pelvises, among the Halloween decorations inside Seven Saints, I happened to notice another depiction of a skeleton with iliac crests dramatically smaller than an actual skeleton’s. Look at that! Surely no one could expect a lifetime exposure to such misleading representations to do anything other than produce a whole range of body dysmorphic issues.
This used to be a pretty bad time of year. Already the days have gotten dark. Already dawn comes too late to get me up on time to go work at a regular job. Worse, the solstice is still six weeks away. That means it’s going to be twelve more weeks before things are even this good again.
It used to be that I’d start obsessing about the coming dark days only a few weeks after the summer solstice. July was usually fine, but sometime in August I’d start thinking that summer was winding down. I’d dread the prospect of getting up in the dark—something my brain chemistry thinks is profoundly unnatural. Shortly after that I’d be not merely getting up in the dark, I’d be heading off to work in the dark—and then coming home in the dark as well, since the sun would set before 5:00 PM until late January.
By now, despite a brief respite with the end of daylight savings time, I’d no longer be merely dreading seasonal depression, I’d be actually suffering from it.
The last three years have been much better. Not only am I suffering less during the depths of winter, I’m also much better off through late summer and early fall, because I’m not spending that time dreading the winter.
A lot of it, I think, comes from not having to work a regular job. Not only can I sleep until dawn (which is when I tend to get up even during the summer weeks when it means getting up before 4:30), I have more flexibility to take advantage of what hours of sunlight there are. Perhaps equally important, my depressive thoughts used to center on work: Because I was depressed, I’d have trouble getting things done. Because I was not getting things done, I’d worry about keeping my job. And then, in a classic spiral, worry over keeping my job would make me more depressed.
So, not having to work a regular job is win on both fronts, and is the main thing I credit with my improvement these past three years.
I did do one other thing that may have helped: I started taking vitamin D. I take 1000 IU daily from October to March, figuring that I get enough sunlight to make my own during the other months of the year. (It doesn’t take much.)
(I also now understand people who use tanning booths, many of whom have told me that they don’t do it because they want to have a tan, but because they “feel better” when do. I have no doubt that many are treating themselves for a vitamin D deficiency.)
Back when this was more of a problem, I experimented some with full-spectrum lighting, which some people find helpful. It never seemed to help me. One thing that I never tried—because the apparatus tended to be expensive—was a dawn simulator. I might have been really helped by a timed light that started out dim and then brightened over the course of thirty minutes to something akin to early morning sun streaming through the window.
I should say that my seasonal depression was never severe. I never felt I needed to seek medical treatment, for example. I handled it informally with the ordinary, obvious stuff—trying to get enough exercise, trying to get enough sleep, trying to minimize stress, adding some more fun stuff to my day when I was feeling out of sorts.
That was enough to keep things under control during the dark days of winter. But it wasn’t enough to keep me from spending late summer and early fall worrying about the dark days of winter.