The Shortest Day
At eight o'clock, the garden was ripe with shadows, each one sharpening against the dull edge of the morning. Gradually, a grim pink was unveiled through cloud cracks in the east, then lost again. And by the time the sun rose, just after ten past nine, grey daylight hung low over the valley, as though weighed down by the effort of its own becoming. There was no bright sunrise, no glorious, golden dawn, only a slow and reluctant undarkening.
This was the shortest day: midwinter. Most often it falls earlier, on the 21st, but it seemed that even the solstice was sluggish this year. Today, the sun held above the horizon for just over five and a half hours. Tomorrow, the nights will begin to shorten and the days to lengthen out. Spring, I suppose, is on the horizon.
I did not rise easily. During the night I was woken by the wind, then held awake by the rushing of my own thoughts. It took me a long time to sleep again. When I opened my eyes just before eight, both had quietened, though not entirely calmed. The first sound I heard was the chattering of crows from just outside.
These grey mornings make it hard to be cheerful. Particularly when they give way to grey afternoons and black, starless nights. They make it hard not to long for winter to pass, and for warmth to creep in again, spreading generous green light around the garden. I longed for that today as I watched dawn roll so hurriedly into darkness.
Of course, there are few things more stupid than longing life away. Each day that falls behind is one fewer left ahead, and even as I gaze impatiently into the garden, I regret my willingness to wish a winter gone. I regret how one moment after another can pass with such terrifying haste and yet still seem to be moving too slow. But it seems I cannot help it, and that troubles me. It keeps me awake at night.
Bound up tightly with all this wasteful impatience is a kind of physical restlessness that is as familiar as it is unwelcome. At this time of year, it pulls at my sleeve like an impatient child, urging me to go and to keep going.
There are, in Shetland, those who acknowledge that pull and follow it. A few spend their summers here in the islands and then fly south – usually to New Zealand – to enjoy another summer. Like migrating birds, these people stay always a step ahead of winter.
Perfectly natural, some might say. Perfectly normal. We are, after all, a restless species: nomads, wanderers, pilgrims. One thinks here of Bruce Chatwin, and his claim that 'Evolution intended us to be travellers'. Human beings are hard wired to keep moving, he insisted, and their relatively recent propensity to stop and settle down has led to all manner of social and psychological problems. 'I like to think that our brains have an information system giving us our orders for the road' he wrote, 'and that here lies the mainsprings of our restlessness'. The only antidote, according to Chatwin at least, is to heed its call and go.
But mostly I do not go. Mostly I resist. And in part I resist because I disagree. Restlessness is not a craving that can be satisfied simply by giving in. It is not a thing that can be physically escaped or left behind. Like an itch, the scratching of it does not always soothe; it may exacerbate. But I resist, too, for another reason.
Wherever I have travelled in the world, and for whatever reason I have gone, my restlessness has morphed almost invariably into homesickness. My thoughts, which here will wander towards paradises not yet found, soon make their way back to that paradise I have left behind. And the longer I stay away, the more insistent these thoughts become.
In the late 17th century, when homesickness was first described by the physician Jonnaes Hofer, it was given the medical name, nostalgia, derived from Greek and meaning, roughly, the suffering caused by a longing to return. Hallucinations, nausea, loss of appetite and indifference to the world were among the many symptoms. Those who suffered most were invariably soldiers, most often from Switzerland or from Scotland. City dwellers rarely succumbed; those from farms and rural areas were worst affected.
Over the years, there were numerous suggested remedies for this strange and debilitating illness: leeches, opium, purging of the stomach, busying oneself with 'manly' activities and, during the American Civil War, public ridicule. But ultimately most doctors agreed that there was only one guaranteed cure, and that was to go home.
And so here I am, afflicted by restlessness when at home and by homesickness when away. One might be forgiven for pronouncing mine a hopeless case. And one might well be right. But while these two urges have seemed to rage and argue within me always, I am no longer convinced that they are in fact so very different. Rather, I wonder if they might not be, at root, two strains of the same malady: one, a longing for an imagined future; the other, for an imagined past.
Both restlessness and homesickness are symptomatic of a disengagement from the present moment and the present place – an exile that manifests itself as an impulse to flee, either in one direction or the other. Evaluating our own emotions, we routinely misdiagnose the causes of that impulse, but it seems to me that somewhere at the heart of it all must be the desire to end our exile – to become fully present – and to be, in every sense, at home.
So why then are my feet and fingers twitching? Why do I hear this siren song, persuading me to go? In what way am I disconnected from the now and the here in which I find myself, on this black evening, in this chair beside the window?
The answer may be simple. It may be only that I am on the wrong side of the glass.
In these short, dark days, I am not often outside. My experience of the things around me is mostly indirect and non-participatory. I see the garden for a few hours and then it is gone. And if I did not work from home, I would barely see it at all. For most people in Shetland, at this time of year, it is dark when they leave home in the morning and dark when they get back at night. For five or six days in a week, the world outside is known only by memory.
I suspect that were I to be out there every day, either working in the garden or even just crawling about in the dirt, I would be a more satisfied person. I would be cold and damp much of the time,
but this in itself would not equal unhappiness. Indeed it would surely engender a deeper sense of gratitude for those comforts that I find inside the house. I would be healthier, being well exercised, and I would certainly sleep better at night. I have a feeling too that my restlessness would weaken, and that perhaps I would be more fully here.
Such a life has its appeal, undoubtedly, but without a farm or a croft it is hardly a practical option. While I might enjoy hauling on my wellies every morning and splashing around in the mud, a full time devotion to such activities might require certain personal and financial sacrifices. And because of that – because it is optional – a bit of bad weather is enough to keep me inside for days at a time.
There is surely a discipline, then, to engaging more fully with place. I am thinking not just of a determination to go outside, whatever the weather, but of a kind of attentiveness – a conscious effort to notice and to be aware – that might bring one's surroundings more clearly into focus. In suggesting this, I am skirting deliberately around the word mindfulness, and pushing towards something less centred on the self. That something could best be called placefulness: a way of imagining and understanding one's relationship with place and one's participation within it; a way of acknowledging those connections that bind us to the present place and time; a way of living with both past and future, without longing for either.
The problem with the shortest day is that it is gone too quickly. In these mid-winter weeks, light arrives then disappears, and the opportunities to enjoy it pass swiftly by. And when the night does come and darkness surrounds the house, I find myself standing sometimes beside the window, looking out to where the garden ought to be. With the lights switched on and the world wrapped in black, the cold glass becomes a mirror. All I can see there is myself.
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The Things Around Me
The Things Around Me is the story of a Shetland garden, written by Malachy Tallack and illustrated by Will Miles.