Once, for ten years, I lived in Juneau, Alaska, where I learned about enduring darkness.
In December in Juneau, the sun rises around 9 a.m. and sets at 3 p.m. Further north, my step-sister and her husband in Anchorage see an hour less of daylight than that, and my friends in Fairbanks glimpse the sun for only three and a half hours each day. Barrow, on the northern tip of the state, endures sixty-seven days of total darkness.
More than most people, Alaskans know darkness.
My first job in Alaska, in 2001, was to travel to far-flung villages to recruit students for a tiny little college, now defunct, called Sheldon Jackson. I spent whole days in pitch-dark northern places like Kotzebue, Nome, and Barrow, hurrying from my taxi to a well-lit high school, unwrapping my scarf from my face so I could give my spiel about Sheldon Jackson College and then hand out wooden pencils and key chains to the students. In the evenings, I ate alone at strange places—a brightly decorated Mexican restaurant in Barrow, a lonely pizza place in Nome—and then I would scurry back to my hotel room to stare out the window at the frigid dark. In Kotzebue, “hotel” meant my sleeping bag on the floor of a classroom in an elementary school.
Sometimes, the darkness was gorgeous. I have never seen stars like I saw in Kotzebue. In Fairbanks one evening, the northern lights ribboned green and pink above the silhouetted trees. In Barrow, the silver moonlight edged the frozen and jagged sea. But always, it was cold, and always I was grateful to retreat to a warm, well-lit place, even the Barrow hotel that displayed an intricately carved walrus penis (called oosik) in its lobby.
But that first year in Alaska, I most often felt despair in the seemingly interminable frigid dark. It was only the second winter—after the first glorious summer—that I learned what all Alaskans know for certain in the depth of winter: that it is not a season for despair, but for waiting. It is a season to keep vigilant, to remind each other that the light willreturn, that the tilted earth will continue forward on its orbit and bring the northern hemisphere closer to the sun again.
In the Lutheran church in which I grew up, this season of waiting in the darkness is the ritual called Advent, from the Latin Adventus, which means “a coming.” Traditionally, Advent is the time of preparation, penance, and fasting before the celebration of the Savior’s arrival at Christmas. I remember sitting quietly beside my parents in our Lutheran church in Iowa while the pastor, draped in a blue stole, lit a candle on an enormous suspended wreath. At home on Sundays, we lit a candle on our own wreath while my mother read a passage from the Bible. Outside, the wind whipped snow into flurries, and I felt glad for our cozy family of four in our sturdy farmhouse. Advent was the quiet time before the presents and all the cookies and relatives. We waited, gazing at the candle flame: soft light in the cold dark.
Long before Christianity, Pagans kept vigil in the dark before the Winter Solstice and the gradual slow return of the light. Some historians theorize that the Christian tradition of lighting candles on a suspended wreath comes from the practice of bringing wooden wagon wheels into the house to keep them pliable in cold weather. To save room, a household would hang the wheels from the ceiling and then turn them into impromptu candle holders, decorating them with evergreen boughs. I imagine my ancestors huddling around a crackling fire in Schleswig-Holstein, in northern Germany, their faces glowing in the candlelight from the swaying wagon wheel. For months, they would wait, the cold earth outside hard and fallow. And every year, the light would return. Every year, the plants would sprout green again in the muddy spring.
This December of 2016, in the gathering darkness, Donald Trump has been elected president, and he has chosen a cabinet of people who deny climate change, who want to privatize schools, who want to take back affordable health care, who want to restrict the rights of women, who want to deport undocumented immigrants, who are cavalier about foreign affairs, who want to overturn antidiscrimination and marriage laws for LGBTQ+ people, who want to drill with abandon, and who are openly supported by white supremacists.
And as Trump and his entourage march closer to January, injustices blaze elsewhere, too: a single juror recently balked at convicting a police officer for the fatal shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston; after the hung jury announcement, people wept over another black man’s death left unavenged. In North Dakota, hundreds of protesters braved water cannons and attack dogs to literally stand as obstacles to the bulldozers on the planned Dakota Access Pipeline; many feel that the concession to seek another route is merely a ploy to wait for Trump to become president. As Muslim Americans fear the president-elect’s threats to make a Muslim registry, my Muslim students wonder aloud if it is safe for them to wear the hijab or to speak openly about their religion. My undocumented students worry that DACA will be repealed. And climate scientists report grimly that the ice was too slow to form in the Arctic this year, and that the rising global temperatures may be irreversible, even as Trump threatens to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
This is a dark time.
We could choose to sink into despair. We could live in that space in which so many of us wandered, stunned, in the days after Trump’s election. We mourned. Those of us who have known grief recognized the numbed, muted emotions, the remove, the wish for any other world than this one.
But my time in Alaska and my childhood observation of Advent teaches me this: the darkness does not endure. Eventually, light returns if we wait, awake, aware, ready. Vigilant.
Now is the very time to get up from the floor and light the candles. Now is the time to keep vigil, to prepare.
As much as I wanted the recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan to reveal that Hillary is the real winner of the Electoral College, and as much as I longed for dozens of “faithless electors” to vote their conscience on December 19 and deny Trump the presidency, I know it’s safest to prepare for the long winter dark. That shaft of light here, that warmer afternoon there—I’ll let them remind me: the dark doesn’t last. The light always comes.
And I remind myself: more than most people, Alaskans—who endure so much darkness in the winter—know light. From May 10 to August 2, the sun blissfully refuses to set in Barrow. In late June in Juneau, we used to hold barbecues on the beach in full warm sunlight at 11 p.m. We basked in those light-drunk days, the freezing dark a bare memory.
I am still mourning, but I am also keeping vigil: I am teaching, I am advocating, I am writing, I am reading (currently: 1984; up next: a history of the Velvet Revolution), and I am donating money to places that resist the darkness—the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, organizations that help immigrants. Every Sunday, I gather with my wife and daughter at our table to light our own Advent wreath and to read poetry that reminds us to hope and to move constantly toward a kinder world.
If we keep our vigil well, our eyes open, the light will come back. It will.