Why winter’s darkness uplifts my spirits

Anna Maxymiw used to be afraid of the dark. After a retreat in Arctic Norway, she learned to see the light in the darkness.

It wasn’t always the case, but I’ve come to appreciate the solitude and quiet

Several wooden cabins overlook an archipelago at nighttime.

This First Person column is the experience of Anna Maxymiw, a writer who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

When my brother and I were little, our parents worked hard to make sure we understood that winter nights were precious. They took us on "gnome walks" — ambling around our dark neighbourhood and shining flashlights under bushes to look for fairy-tale creatures. My mother made outdoor stained glass by freezing food-coloured water into blocks of ice, which we arranged around candles nestled in the snow. We had evening storytimes by our fireplace, Mum or Dad reading to us from books like The Yearling as we lay on the floor.

In high school and undergrad, long nights meant more time spent howling with laughter in parks or friends' backyards, more time throwing house parties or teetering across the dance floors at thrumming bars.

My mistrust of the seasonal dark didn't come until I moved to Vancouver to do my master's in creative writing. I lived on my own for the first time and, without a reassuring, chattering cushion of female housemates, I found that walking home alone at night was frightening. I learned that women can be followed and hollered at and threatened, or worse. I started to have nightmares where I'd wake up thinking that a man was sitting on my bed. And my MFA program was exciting but also tumultuous. Some teachers seemed to pit students against one another; people broke down in class. We drank a lot, sometimes with our instructors, and stupid things happened or were said when we were inebriated. All of this added up to insecurity and anxiety, and I learned that long nights afforded more time for uncertainty to burrow its way into my brain. The damp, thick winter darkness became equated with doubt, particularly about my writing abilities and how I compared to the other talented people in my program.

In February 2019, thanks to a fortuitous series of events, my view on winter darkness shifted again. I received a writing grant and was able to take a leave of absence from my job since the winter months were quieter for the company. That's how I found myself spending three weeks doing a writing residency on the little island of Sørvær in the Fleinvær Archipelago, a cluster of islands in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. I never experienced pure polar night, but the days were still startlingly short; when I arrived on Feb. 3, sunrise was at 9:04 a.m. and sunset at 3:28 p.m. Even during the day, the sun never quite made an appearance. It stayed tucked behind a hill, meaning daylight was an eerie glow, a simmering that never reached a boil. The sunlight wasn't yellow and orange; it was mauve, grey and pearl. It didn't beam down; I walked through it like it was a wisp of cloud coming to earth. And the nights were swift, deep and relentless, the dark falling hard and fast onto the earth like a dropped coat.

Before I left for Norway, I was worried about the winter darkness; I thought the long twilight and the deep nights would be frightening. I was wrong.

Green northern lights in the sky above a wooden cabin.

When night fell on Sørvær, I took pleasure in sitting and staring out the window, watching the starlight trickle over the sea's waves. I saw the northern lights curl their green claws across the black sky. I went to bed early every night and slept through windstorms and ferries and otters scratching at the sides of my cabin. I saw the year's biggest supermoon rise so huge and bright that for a moment I thought night was day.

When the island lost power during a fierce storm, we strapped on headlamps, wrapped ourselves in sheepskins and stood outside to revel in the feeling of being so small in the face of such dark wildness. And most importantly, I wrote tens of thousands of words for my new novel, feverishly finishing a crucial draft. I learned, once again, that winter nights are a time for cocooning and creation.

The summer of 2022 was exceptionally busy as my three closest female friends got married. Bridal events filled the calendar. My second book — the one written on the Arctic island — came out, but the launch day was quiet, sandwiched between a wedding and a bridal shower. For the most part, thinking about my new novel took a back seat to wringing the most out of the anticipated Canadian summer: receptions, house guests, flights, dress shopping, gifts, toasts. The days refused to end, and I couldn't find the time or emotional space to sit down and celebrate myself and my accomplishment, let alone start writing my next book, even though the story was right there in my mind, insistent and knocking.

But fall always brings with it some respite. The cooler weather washed over me like a tide as social plans started to peter out. The moment the clocks turned back, I felt more human in a way that only the drawn-out evenings of the cold seasons can bring. I luxuriated in nights of nothingness, early bedtimes, no hangovers. I sat down and got the first words of my next book onto the page. I finally allowed myself to feel proud about my newly published novel. During the summer, I wanted people to recognize that a book — any taxing, transformative creative project — is just as sacred as a wedding. In the quiet months of the fall, I had the space to have my own emotional celebration.

I could see the winter beauty on Sørvær, but I had to learn how to take that loveliness and wrap it around a city. In Toronto, where I live now, I still sometimes have nightmares about a man in my apartment. I don't always feel safe walking home at night. But I can also appreciate a long night without the anxiety I once had. I count the golden glitter of apartment windows; each warm square represents its own separate world, with its own group of people who have their own fears, hopes and plans. In my courtyard, through the dancing branches of a giant walnut tree, I see flickers of candlelight from the windows of the building next door. I watch the skaters whirling around the ice at my local outdoor rink, their laughter a carousel tune. As I walk down a busy street on a Saturday night, I look into the fogged, glowing windows of restaurants and see people sharing a good meal, their joy ringing them like a halo.

I don't want to dismiss the mental health issues the dark months can bring. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression in which people start to feel down when the weather changes; it's usually when summer ends and the days start to grow shorter. We even have a day in the northern hemisphere that we say is the most depressing of the year: Blue Monday, the third Monday in January, when the glow of the holidays is receding and all that stretches ahead are the cold days and the dark nights.

A bright moon shines above a cabin that has warm light coming through the window.

But even in that, there can be opportunity. In her poem The Uses Of Sorrow, Mary Oliver says, "Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness./ It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift."

This can be read as emotional darkness, learning the exquisite lessons that come from hard knocks. I ask you to also expand it to the physical, the comforting blanket of nighttime we're gifted every fall. We can all use the slowing down of the world during the winter season to tuck ourselves away, reflect and work: on art, on sleep, on ourselves.

Winter can be nasty, brutish and long. It tries your patience when the streets are flooded with dingy slush and rock-hard berms of snow line the sidewalks. I sometimes long for summer with its easy outfits, its patios and festivals. When that happens, I go for a winter walk and look up into the lit squares of my neighbours' windows, cataloguing their small joys. I spend an entire night savouring a book. I open my box full of darkness and dip my hands into it, thankful for the opportunity winter has given me.

Do you have a similar experience to this First Person column? We want to hear from you. Write to us at firstperson@cbc.ca.


Anna Maxymiw

Freelance contributor

Anna Maxymiw is a writer who lives in Toronto. Her debut novel, Minique, was published in June 2022.

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