Long summer days are over, on the wrong side of this year’s equinox. They’re the stuff advertisements and music videos are made of: venturing abroad, chasing romance, staying out late. But they’re draining, too, hot and persistent, full of noise. This past summer was particularly loud and stifling and cluttered, with the fever pitch of political theater bleeding into the furious heat. On some interminable afternoons, it was hard to tell if I owed my periodic headache to the news or the weather or some awful combination of the two.
The news won’t stop. This summer, there were trials literal and figurative, feuds, scandals, the seething sense of mistrust that permeates all of politics now, and the ominous possibility that things will feel this way forever. None of that is likely to vanish anytime soon. But the longer nights of autumn bring some comfort.
Fall arrives like extended twilight. The hot months are brutal for all kinds of reasons, and among them is that the obstinate white light of day exposes, at times, more than what’s tolerable. People pour into the world, and it always seems there’s something to say, or some occasion demanding conversation. With politics particularly polarized and engulfing more and more of our conversational territory, self-exposure is always on demand: You must pay attention, you must be present, you must have a position and make it known.
But in autumn, the evening of the year, a gradual hush falls over nature, its human parts included. In the darkness, it’s easier to avoid summons to public attention. The day’s events remain, but the ambient sense of expectation that thrums throughout the daytime eases. When you might credibly be sleeping, you’re free to say nothing at all, and nobody will think anything of it. When it’s dark out, the world itself seems to hesitate. There’s sanctuary in that pause.
It can, admittedly, be a lonely peace. Already the cafes with patio tables are stringing up lights along their terrace walls to lengthen their evenings in a losing battle against the fall. If the dark doesn’t herd the droves off to their separate spaces, the chill eventually will. The sidewalks clear of traffic and conversation; the figures suspended in the gloom between streetlights may as well be solitary, so enclosed are they by darkness. Under those conditions, thoughts tend to turn inward — and I can’t imagine a more precious treasure, now, than a long and unbroken thought. The last one feels as though it came a very long time ago.
Maybe this anticipation of avoidance is a kind of cowardice. There’s no such thing as too much truth, after all. You can’t be too aware of your surroundings, nor too dedicated to responsible citizenship, nor too concerned with the direction our shared national journey is headed in or the impact it will have on those around you. Escapism is a real temptation; I feel it, and I understand. Whichever crisis you’re especially preoccupied with (sexual assault inside and out of the Catholic Church has been a main focus of mine, lately, but there are plenty of horrors to choose from), you’re right to think that taking shelter in the shroud of night and ignoring the polis isn’t a way forward.
The political fire is going to keep blazing. But there are still the daylight hours for that, just fewer of them. And the long nights aren’t forever; they’re just for now. Right now, they seem like a special mercy, which would be foolish to reject.
There is a beauty to autumnal darkness — the softness of the night sounds and the cool air, the way shadow pools in even sparse thickets of urban trees, lending them the gravitas of deep woods. But more than that, there is the respite hidden in them and the way we need it now. “The summer demands and takes away too much,” the poet John Ashbery wrote, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”