Life in a Time of Darkness

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And just like that, 2021 is behind us. The first week of the Advent season has arrived, with Christmas slowly drifting in on the frostbitten air. The scarves and beanies are on, the first snow has fallen in the city, and the nights are getting longer.

My childhood may have consisted of Christmases in the summer, but the imagery of dark, cold wintery nights is embedded even in the minds of Australian children. Our British heritage combined with a taste for contemporary American pop culture (too many repeated viewings of Home Alone and Jingle All The Way no doubt) means that we have internalised the romantic nature of snowball fights and sledding even if most of us don’t see snow for the first time until much later in life.

The thought of cosying up to a crackling fire, building snowmen and ice skating on natural ponds...It’s all fantastical and charming! Much more so than heat waves and bush fires! However, one thing that isn’t quite as fantastical or charming is the seemingly perpetual darkness - something no amount of Mariah Carey or Nat King Cole can prepare you for.

Waking up before 7am? It’s dark. Coming home from school after 4pm? It’s dark. If you happen to work somewhere with no windows, as I did for some time, then good luck getting your recommended daily dose of vitamin D.

My first few European Christmases gave a new meaning to all the imagery I had taken for granted as a child - candles, glowing angels, lights as both house and tree decorations, hanging “shining stars” upon “highest boughs”. The Christmas obsession with light suddenly made sense.

During prolonged times of darkness, it’s easy to sink in despair. The loss of freedom to go out and the literal cold seeping into our bones affects us psychologically creating the potential onslaught of depressive moods. It’s even been reported that up to 10% of the total population in Europe experience seasonal affective disorder -a yearly increase in depression due to the winter darkness.

Photo: Radio Prague International

These are seasonal circumstances we are familiar with from year to year. Winter comes, winter goes. But the darkness we face this season seems a little deeper, thanks to our ongoing battle with COVID.

No time in recent memory has felt darker than the past 18 months or so. The waves of lockdown and infection rates have numbed us beyond fatigue. We don our face masks, sanitise our hands and vaccinate, hoping for the best for ourselves. As Czech Republic enters another uncertain period, hope is all the more fragile.

The famous Prague Christmas markets are closed, bars and clubs are curfewed, and although shopping centres are open for business, food courts and common areas are roped off with caution tape, harkening back to the post-apocalyptic scenery of the first lockdown in early 2020...a distant memory by now.

Yet, instead of giving into despair, there is some comfort to be had. From the warmth of my kitchen, I observed the first snow flurry of the season with a smile on my face and a four-month old in my arms (her first snowfall...ever!). My eyes soon found some curious scenes across the street.

The neighbouring block of apartments is close enough for me to indulge in some friendly people-watching. A series of windows like a selection of liveplay universes I can send and receive waves and smiles to and from. Though I have no personal access to these worlds, I build stories for each microcosm in my head.

Three separate windows on three separate floors were preparing their Christmas season. An older couple, living with a child and a 60 inch TV, were going through the motions of hanging red stars, multi-coloured icicles on their balcony, and a mess of bright golden lights on their window. I could just imagine the husband grumbling under his breath, untangling the box buried in dust at the back of their storage cupboard. Nonetheless, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Two floors down, a younger mother and teenage daughter had a more modest string of lights adorning their window. Simple but earnest in its attempt to add to the Christmas cheer. They were laughing and I imagined them listening to a playlist they had compiled together as an inter-generational activity.

In the building next door, a more mundane sight - a woman hanging laundry to dry. Her window was full of plants and small Christmas ornaments. Somehow, this scene seemed more personal. I turned my attention back to the street.

Each individual living in their own apartment, isolated from one another. Yet, in their own way, they were working to lend a little bit of light and cheer to the oppressive darkness around them. With grey, overcast skies, sometimes dusk is upon us by 3pm, with the deep dark of apparent midnight well on its way by dinner time.

As I paced my neighbourhood later that evening, this time from street level, the effect was even more noticeable. The glow of lights from many windows draped the concrete and asphalt in an array of colour and festive cheer. The wet streets added a reflective quality, casting fractal patterns of blinking bokeh through the darkness.

It reminded me of the time we find ourselves in. Each window represented an individual perhaps struggling with separation from family, friends, or just the general disruption to the norm. Still, we can be united in our fight against the looming darkness. Each little window serves as a way to pierce through the night, be it with a candle, a string of lights, or any small attempt to illuminate the neighbourhood.

Even if the dark night ahead looks more imposing or longer than any before, we can still cast our own light from each of our own windows, and that could just be enough for now.