When I was 21, I did something that my parents, as well as just about everybody who knew me, were convinced was going to be the biggest mistake of my life. I quit school.
Six weeks short of finishing my BA, on the strength of a tiny “help wanted” ad in a big-city paper, I took a train and launched myself into a whole new life.
My family blamed undergrad fatigue. I blame winter. Not only winter, but a unique phenomenon of the Canadian winter: that trick, or gift, of light that we get at the same time each year. It is, for me, the most remarkable, even miraculous – and yet generally unobserved – part of the season.
Indigenous northern peoples have their hundreds of words for snow. I once read that descendants of pub-going English cultures have a similar number of words for alcohol poisoning. Language the world over is closely linked to physical and emotional survival.
So why is it that we have not developed a comparable vocabulary to describe the presence, as well as the absence, of different kinds of winter light?
We grow eloquent describing the dark. But we have so few words with which to talk or write about the subtle shifts in the daytime sky, especially in central Canada, where commercial towers or monster suburban houses dominate so many horizons. To even try, I find I need to tell my story.
There is a day each winter when the sky shifts and a hint of new life returns, if not to the land, then at least to the brain. We celebrate the solstice and the equinox, but this day in mid-February goes unnamed and unnoted, except, as far as I can tell, by me.
Eric Rohmer’s Delphine had her flash of green. I have the ides of February – the time of the year, deep in midwinter, when the suddenly changing light makes me do life-altering things.
Each year, during the days of this phenomenon, I struggle to find the words to describe it, to pin it – as I used to say, in my days as a newspaper reporter – to the page.
This type of light is not the bright, hard, crystal-clear kind that northern people see on extremely cold winter days, which has been part of what I have always assumed is the deep anthropological basis for Groundhog Day (because cloudy days in deep winter are often warmer and maybe they send a signal to the burrowing creatures that the outside world will soon be more hospitable).
It falls a bit later, in the second week of February, and can involve, but does not necessarily require, sunshine. It is, however, unmistakable. On the day this occurs, it feels to me like an opening, a lifting, a lightening of the mind, the heart and the spirit.
One knows that there will be dark, gloomy, wet, soul-shrinking days ahead. But this single day in mid-winter is like a promise, a reminder, that the seasonal turn lies not too far ahead.
At 21, walking the streets of Guelph and Toronto under a magical mid-February sky, I was filled with an urge to go adventuring. The adventure ended up being a job in a shop, which led to 18 more months to finish my first of several university degrees.
But it led me onto a completely different – and, I am convinced, much more rewarding – path than would have been possible had I stayed tucked up where I was and waited for spring.
At 23, in the same week, inspired by that same wintry light, I applied to the university program that would make me a journalist.
Three Februarys later, I met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband.
The following February, I left another man I had been living with, and moved into a legendary Toronto journalism collective in which I lived for five exhilarating years.
Two Februarys after that, the man I loved realized that he reciprocated my affection, and altered his domestic arrangements to be with me.
Two more and we conceived the child that was, according to family legend, the only thing that would induce me to move away from the journalists and into the house we’ve made our home.
I take part in and remember all the usual rituals and experiences that come with Canada’s winter: I put my tongue out to catch the first snowflake, string lights at the solstice, curse the slush that piles up in January and skate on frozen ponds. I have fought my way to school on days when my breath was pushed down my throat by the fierce northern Ontario winds, and reached that point at which your feet can be a tiny degree short of frostbite, but who cared as long as the car started in the morning.
But it is the glimmer of a lighter sky that remains, for me, the most memorable part of the season in which the top of the planet spins away from the sun and we are left to find our own path through the darkness, until we are spun back into the light once again.
Kimberley Noble lives in Toronto.