We are at the very crux of the weirdest time of year. Although I write this in what Keats called "drear-nighted December" you, dear reader, will read it in January, the double-faced month that looks to the past and the future. Nothing creepy there. (I should acknowledge that Keats was talking about December in England. In the early 19th century. With incipient tuberculosis. Which should put the dark and cold of December in Tucson in perspective.)
Even here, though, the nights are too long as the proportion of dark to light seems to hang at the drear end of the scale before reversing. The strangeness of the solstice goes much deeper than the orgy of excess that I recently saw an English person refer to as "America vomiting all over Baby Jesus." The frantic quality of Christmas as we celebrate it, the sheer too-muchness of it all, may manifest as consumer blowout, but it wells up from an essentially primitive impulse to propitiate nature and compel the sun to come back again. Please do not leave us in the dark and cold.
I, myself, am entirely a creature of this cycle. Perhaps for that very reason it took me many years to realize the power of the turning year over my life, in spite of increasingly coincident anniversaries: When I was young I escaped the hospital after two lung surgeries just after New Year's, walked out on a husband (the same one, twice) just after Christmas, moved several times, went back to school, and plunged into several relationships, all within a week or two of the winter solstice. My first two weddings were in mid- to late December, me all oblivious. (The third time I got married I waited superstitiously until Jan. 2. It seemed safer. And it's worked out better.)
Recently, I quit a job just before the holidays. I had to. The darkest time of the year compels me to escape, to change something, anything—and cookie-baking does not cut it. I think a lot of us answer to the same inscrutable, grinding psychic necessity—it goes as deep as the Earth's wobble on its axis, and we have about as much power to resist it. When my father more or less dropped dead on Jan. 3, 2000, it was a horrendous shock and yet no surprise. (Would all of this have been reversed if I'd been brought up in the Southern Hemisphere? Or evenly distributed in a life conducted at the equator? Unknowable.)
It doesn't help that after so many years in Southern Arizona I'm an icy-fingered light-junkie. Hence the sympathy I felt, when, on a cold, cloudy Dec. 21, I nearly stepped on a hunched-up, blackened lizard in a parking lot near my house. At first glance I thought it must be dead, but the clammy little thing vaguely flailed its delicate feet when I picked it up. Ah, a chance.
Once home, I put it in a cardboard box with some leaves for cover, then went to Petco for help. The young reptile expert there sold me a tank, warming lights and mealworms, and gave me what turned out to be good advice. (Someone in Reptile Information at the Desert Museum ratified what she told me.) My plan was not to try to make a pet of it, but to see if I could keep it alive until the warm weather came and then let it go in the wash. This might work, they said. The lizard had obviously been surprised by the cold weather and, for whatever reason, had not got into a burrow fast enough. (That reason might have been that it was sick already.)
As it warmed up it seemed lively enough—and desperate to escape—and its beauty and color returned, revealing him (her?) to be, I believe, a desert spiny lizard. But within hours it began spending longer and longer periods without moving, its deep breaths coming at increasing intervals. Was this impending hibernation or approaching death? In the morning I went off to work out and run another round of Christmas errands. By the time I returned, the poor thing was not only not hibernating but stiff.
So much for one small attempt to foil Bitch Winter.
Happy New Year to you, and to all of us. We made it past the holidays alive.