A mackerel sky weighed low over Long Island Sound as the Amtrak coach carried me home for Thanksgiving. From the time when as a boy I first noticed them, these altocumulus clouds, parallel bands laid end to end like vertebrae, have been associated for me with late fall in the weeks after leaves have fallen and the grass has faded, but the hard cold is still to come. I find mackerel skies vaguely threatening, perhaps because under them the weather seems to close in, or perhaps because I remember them, in colder times, sometimes preceding early-season snowstorms in which the world became dimmed still further in shadow.
November gray skies prepare us for winter. They make us introspective and brooding. When Ishmael sets out, at the beginning of Moby-Dick, for his journey on the Pequod, he does so because it is “damp, drizzly November in [his] soul.” Ishmael went to sea “to drive off the spleen,” escape thoughts of death and contain his pugilistic impulses. For others, however, November’s dreariness brings them together. My elderly mother used to tell us how much she enjoyed the long, dark evenings when the family was together; and of course most people celebrate Thanksgiving en famille.
Shorter daylight hours contribute to our November feelings. Walking with my grandnieces this past Thanksgiving, I was conscious of how very early the sun sets this time of year. I rushed to get them home before the fading light made us less visible to late afternoon drivers. Deep in the psyche there is something that tells us to gird ourselves up to move out into the evening darkness or early morning gloom to face the cold. By spring that deep-down defensiveness wears us down; the poverty of light enervates us more than the cold and wind and snow.
November’s shadows hold within them lessons for the soul as well as the psyche. Like Ishmael on his sea-journey, each of us needs to find and assess the ways we can escape from letting the world lie too heavily on us or allowing ourselves to brood over petty upsets. It is time to practice patience, make apologies and take initiatives to ease relations. But it is also an occasion to tap into those resources that enable us to be patient. Like Ishmael, when I find myself growing short-tempered, I know it is time to move on, to travel perhaps, take in a couple of movies or visit friends.
Once we have become conscious of their effect on us, shorter days and cloudy skies can be an occasion for neglected introspection as well. Rather than allow ourselves to fall into depression, we can attune ourselves to the greater quiet and solitude late autumn brings. We can journal and pray. We can take up hobbies and crafts. In years past, farmers and their families took up woodcarving and quilting in winter. Though doctors may fret, one reason we overeat in winter is that cooking, not to mention eating, is simply a comforting indoor pastime. It is an art that engages all the senses, which even postmodern city-dwellers can enjoy. Spirituality, after all, includes reconnecting with the dynamics of the natural world from which urban life abstracts us.
For some, seasonal affective disorder is a real hardship. Those who suffer from it can be helped with trips to the Sunbelt and light therapy, but some of the hands-on, physical activities that were once part of the annual cycle of life may be of help to them as well. Our urban alienation from the land, the cycle of seasons and the work of our hands may have as much to do with wintertime depression as underlying biochemical changes in the brain.
Finally, for myself, the liturgy of Advent, with its play of light and darkness, its plaintive, longing music and its message of justice for the oppressed, never fails to lead me out of November’s shadows.