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Jane Ahlin, Published December 26 2010

Ahlin: As Earth spins to perihelion, dark days, but lots of hope

Perhaps most earthlings already know that on Jan. 3, 2011, this good old planet of ours will reach perihelion. But I didn’t. Of course, until I read about it, I’d never heard of “perihelion,” much less known its meaning.

For those who share my lack of knowledge, perihelion is the point in Earth’s orbit closest to the sun – what amounts to a mere 91 million miles of separation in the planetary world. Unlike the summer and winter solstices, which are determined by the distance of the sun from Earth’s equator and translate into the shortest and longest of our days, perihelion doesn’t give a fig for daylight or darkness.

For us, however, the fact that we’re closest to the sun when days are shorter than short and temperatures lower than low seems quite opposite what it should be. Our logical, sensible selves would put our planet closest to the sun on a hot, sultry, mid-July day at the lake, a blissfully long day when we’re on vacation, a sun-drenched day we don’t want to see end, a day when we sit on the dock late into the evening, sipping wine and watching the last rays of sunlight leave the sky. How much more reasonable and downright civil it would be as evening finally falls and loons begin to call to click glasses and say, “To the sun and perihelion and many happy returns.”

Oh, well, let them toast perihelion in Tasmania or Tierra del Fuego, where the days are long and lovely this time of year. Where we live, breakfast and dinner require electric light, and workdays begin and end in darkness. Even on cloudless days, the sun is a reluctant visitor, briefly brilliant reflected off snow but unwilling and unable to warm us. Not that the dearth of daylight diminishes holiday hustle and bustle. Instead, the backdrop to the annual burst of frenetic activity either is slant-light or deepening shadow.

Whatever else happens, the earth sleeps.

I’ve never lived between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, Earth’s latitudinal area on either side of the equator where there are no seasons, just changes in rainfall. And as much as I detest the length of our winter, I can’t say such a dramatic move is on my “bucket list,” either. (The thought lends perspective to the disorientation African immigrants experience coming to this northern region, however. Moving to the other side of the world going either direction must be hard, but moving from hot to frigid cold has to be harder.) Of course, weather isn’t the only thing that makes a place comfortable.

Late sunrise, early sunset, and frozen earth aren’t all bad. When the world is cold and colorless, we know the value of turning inward. It’s as if the natural world forces us to ponder, or at least, gives us an excuse for deep thinking and for melancholy. Granted, we’d just as soon not have that excuse for darned near half the year, but right now it’s OK.

In fact, it’s particularly nice this week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when we retreat from holiday cheer and let memories visit us like old friends. (A bit of sadness attached to a good memory is worth it.)

Memories pile on memories as we age, and yet, that sense of drawing in, letting the warmth of hearth and home sink into us as we allow ourselves to be thoughtful, to consider and muse and wonder about and mull over and maybe even brood a bit, begins when we are young. Early on, we know that in this place, the deep-dark of winter quiets our spirits so that we can appreciate our lives and look forward with hope.

There’s no place on Earth devoid of ugliness, tragedy and unfairness. There’s no place where the world does not beat people up and beat them down, no place where innocents never get hurt. Whether living in a tropical paradise or a marshmallow world, people suffer and hope. In our part of the world, hope just happens to go hand in hand with the richness of darkness. Like perihelion, hope doesn’t give a fig for the length of the day.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum’s commentary page. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com