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2005-12-21 - 9:15 a.m.

solstice and the blue hour

Welcome to the shortest day of the year. The transit strike is in its second day, and the temps outside feel like -9C. I will work at home instead of handling the 50-minute walk to and from the college. And I will be ready with candles at 4:31pm this afternoon, when the sun sets.

In the winter of 1997, I worked in a small medieval university town in southern Sweden. Our office was in a creaky, leaky old building that swayed in the wind, a bit like a wooden sailboat. There were 5-6 of us of various nationalities working in the rooms under the roof. We had representatives from China, France, USA, Germany, Morocco, and England..and even one Estonian Swede.

Each of us was dealing with our individual battles with careers and personal demons, but because we were huddled in so tightly, we seemed to know the feelings of the others through simple osmosis. I, for example, was trying to finish up my thesis, while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and trying to start up my new life as a postdoc in a new country. That was just one of the stories.

Our boss (the famed Attila) worked remotely and had not yet mastered the concept of email. At all times of the day, the antiquated FAX machine would start whirling, spitting out a new demand. The FAX would produce piles shiny, curly pages from her. One day the FAX machine ran out of paper and from the extended silence, we thought perhaps Attila was ill...and then we discovered the problem. Once refilled, the machine blasted out over 100 backlogged curly pages of demands.

There was one Swede among us, a tall blonde, beautiful, funny, half-Estonian woman named Johanna. Johanna was my officemate, fortunately. I say fortunately because her humor and humanity made my life in Sweden far better than it could have been. Johanna was well-aware of her international setting (and spoke four languages). Between Santa Lucia Day and the Solstice, she decided to institute a daily ritual of 4 o'clock tea, during which this bizarre amalgamation of people would assemble for their choice beverage. The Chinese with their green tea; the pregnant Morrocan with her cinnamon tea; the Frenchman with his battery acid coffee with 12 sugar lumps; Johanna and I with black tea, or Swedish Gloeg..

The darkness of a Swedish winter creates a flurry of moods. I wouldn't say that they are all negative, but rather all intensified as the winter soltice approaches. And this daily assembly was all the more poignant because it occurred at "l'heure bleue" - The Blue Hour. This is the time of the day in northern Europe when the sky takes on a color I had never noticed in a sky before, a shade of blue that is so rich and warm that one has to stop to take notice. And this was the time we came together, lit candles on the coffee table, and talked about nothing.

I don't remember much of my time in Sweden, but I do remember sharing laughs at this coffee table - laughter that had to have crossed 4-5 cultures. We would sit and chat for 20-30 minutes as the sky grew darker around us and the candles...and then the bloody FAX machine would interrupt us once again...

Suzanne Vega recently wrote a song that says our problems of yesterday are much more romantic than the problems we face today. Probably true. But I'm glad for that romanticism, because through it I've remember the strategies that help to get me through the next dark time. And since that time, the Blue Hour has taken on a special meaning for me. Now I try to take notice of this time of day, to appreciate the beauty of the sky. Lighting a candle and taking a breath is one way of staying sane through darkness.

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