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  • This holiday, for the first time in 14 years, I traveled to the north during winter.

    Moving from Maine to South Africa meant switching seasons and the first December holiday at the beach, under the palms by the pool, that first summer Christmas was strange, but I got used to it. In the years in between, I forgot how precious the hours or moments of warmth when the wind drops and the sun shines clear. I forgot how afternoon’s brief promise trends to evening all to soon. I forgot the long dark.

    Back in August, at a school function, Klaus, a Dane, and I, a northern New Englander, wondered at the cumulative affect of seasons dark and dreary. In the open, outdoor clarity of South African winter light we wondered how enforced interior landscapes might mold individual and cultural psyches.

    Winter in South Africa, we laughed. Neither of us had been back to live a northern winter in years.

    Now I am back for a two-week encounter with winter and it is the dark that strikes me. The stingy quality of light, yielding a panic, a rush, a curling-clench inward, a tightness of heart, a wheezing shortness of mind.

    People hustle across parking lots and from car to door. No one lingers now. Even at midday, during an all too brief break in the presiding gloom, I don’t see people out on benches, steps and doorways, don’t see heads thrown back and faces offered, throats exposed for the gods and goddesses of light and warmth to take and do with us as they will. If I stop mid-step and lean back, I am suddenly in the way, blocking the flow and all the dark garbed, heads down, shoulders hunched legions go streaming past and around and curse my stubborn blocking of the way.

    When I walk at night through the town gone still and shut-in quiet, I see into rooms and houses. See the flat screens mounted on walls like trophies of the great consumer hunt and all the inhabitants safe and soft inside, gathered round, basking in the flickering blue glow. The faux modern hearth, an illusion of community and warmth, a string of beacons lit against the chill. In reality I think these beacons let in darker spirits long held at bay by the bright mid-winter fires we built in younger years in defiance of darkness and despair.

    I walk by the whimsy of Christmas lights strung, walk along, through the flare of cars going by and the shine of headlights in muddy puddles and the spatter of rain and the deep sullen chill.

    Long, long ago, wanderers carried fire. In shells clamped tight or deep within a hollowed horn, with tinder dry and near. They carried a bright ember, a living spark to guard against the cold and night. Thus armed they set out, unafraid and wild-free to seek and find and yet they knew that deep within they kept alive the glow and warmth of all of summer’s fiery passion, needing only the softest breathe to reignite

    Here, in the dark’s embrace I realize how deeply I have changed and I turn to the south and whisper. Oh come to me beloved and let the sparks fly as they might and let us make a fire, a fire burning bright, and together we will drive back the night.

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