November 14, 2018

Bittersweet Days and Long Nights

Rehoboth Ramblings

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When people say that autumn is their favorite time of year, I assume they mean the halcyon days of mid-October (pop-up tornadoes excluded). It is beautiful with the colorful foliage, the cheerful pumpkins, and the way the sun and clouds play hopscotch across the blue sky on crisp autumn days. But the vivid reds and yellows give way to brown and gray, to be followed by white soon enough. Winter is very monochromatic, not to mention bleak. And I always want to ask: what about the encroaching darkness?

The often-quoted lines by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas --“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” -- were inspired by his dying father, and the “good night” the poet refers to is the final good-bye. Yet to transpose these gripping words to a more mundane situation, this is how I feel every November when daylight savings time is taken away from us. I want to rage against the literal dying of the light every afternoon.

Though I suppose rage is too strong a word; complain is more like it. When I think of having seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I think “doesn’t everyone?” Doesn’t everyone feel like “who turned out the lights?” around tea-time the first day of early darkness in November? No wonder people want to celebrate the winter solstice. This is as dark as it gets and things can only go up from here, though it takes a while to notice any real difference.

The red berries of the bittersweet symbolize fall too. That’s appropriate because autumn is sweet but often associated with melancholy feelings. Nature’s beauty is fleeting this time of year. When the late October frost finished off my outdoor potted plants, I knew it was time to bring St. Francis back inside for the winter. St. Francis is a very heavy lawn statue over two feet tall that spends the warmer months in a nook between three closely growing maple trees. He too has a mournful look on his face, as if he’s the patron saint of melancholy.

Because of this sweet autumnal sadness, my favorite season is spring, at least starting in May when the flowering trees bloom. April in New England is nothing to write home about. Spring in New England is a very sometime thing and is often disappointing. In fact, I’m glad the leaves are turning color late this year because the trees around here don’t leaf out until practically Memorial Day, so let them hang onto their leaves as long as possible in the fall. But even if spring is chilly and late, the light increases day by day. I get a feeling of uplift, almost euphoria, knowing that the darkness is receding. I guess on some primal level I’m still afraid of the dark.

But for now we’re stuck with often gloomy short days and long nights of November. Rehoboth has been celebrating our town’s 375th anniversary with many activities this year, so our history is on our minds. As we approach Thanksgiving, that ultimate New England holiday, we might stop and think a bit about what was life for those who settled on these shores in the 17th century, in permanent exile from home and all that was familiar, and trying to make sense of life in a strange and frightening new land.

Judging from the standing-room-only turnout at two very interesting talks at Rehoboth’s Carpenter Museum recently, many people are eager to learn more about colonial life in New England. This summer John McNiff, dressed in colonial-era garb, came from the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence and gave a lively presentation about how our ancestors lived in that distant century.

Then this fall Lisa Brooks, a professor at Amherst College, spoke about King Philip’s War from the native people’s perspective, something that has been too often overlooked in American history. Prof. Brooks has a new book on the subject if you would like to learn more. The title is “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philips’ War” and her study of this period has been receiving excellent reviews. Something worthwhile to read and ponder over on cold winter nights.

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