Sunlight is my alarm clock. Each morning, as the soft glow of first light begins to seep in through the thinned creases in the shades, my eyes open as if on a repeating timer. The brightness is almost imperceptible at first. It still seems dark, but I can make out the general outlines of the house and see my husband’s face if I stare long enough. My eyes adjust slowly in those first few minutes, like when you come back from the bathroom and have to grope around for your seat, guided by the light of the screen. The brightness increases by degrees, which toll the time to me as well as any clock. I get up, pull up the shades, and sunlight floods our tiny, little house. The cycle of the day has begun.
It’s winter again. Daily chores and activities are scheduled by the heat of the sun. The water pipes thaw as the sun crests the mountains. Only then can we make coffee and tea, prepare breakfast, wash dishes, get water into the tank. The birds begin to gather in the spots where the sun has chased away the shadows, chattering about long fasts and cold nights. We put seed out and sometimes sit and read among them, warming like rocks and giving the little ones a chance to eat. If there’s a wash, the bin sits in the sunlight. We take turns agitating the clothes with our hands until the frigid water becomes intolerable, then a little dance in the sun, rubbing our hand in the heat. We need to get the clothes hanging by noon or they freeze stiff and turn the wet-bath floor into a chilly pool if we have to bring them in. We double up on the heat of the day. The sun oven makes lunch while we hike, and I try to describe the beauty we see with a lens. We feel most creative in the late afternoons, relaxing into writing and painting as the sun eases into the Western sky. Soon, the sun hosts its kaleidoscopic show as the last light of the day dances with the clouds and plays with the facets of the landscape. Then we’re plunged into darkness again. We pull down the shades and settle in for dinner and the wiling away of night until sleep. The cycle of the day comes to an end.
Nights are about light. With no street lights, no house lights, no city lights, the rhythms of our nights ebb and flow with the waxing and waning light of the moon. The pitch-black nights of the new moon render walking absurd, with the coyotes and pumas, and the steep, deadly drop-offs absorbed by the night. These are nights for sitting and contemplating the absurdity of a million stars and of seeing your own galaxy from the inside out. The spotlight of the full moon bathes the outdoors in an eerie radiance, in which shadows transform trees into monsters and the cracking of a single branch in the quiet makes you jump. These are nights for walking and contemplating how tightly-gripped hands and closely-rubbed shoulders can turn to romance. The nights in between, we track the phases and watch the blackness change by degrees as the moon grows from crescent to quarter to gibbous and then back again. Even our bedtime fluctuates, coming earlier or later depending on the moonrise and on how late we’re willing to stay up to catch it.
I used to not know the cycles of the moon. When I was little, I used to think the moon was always full. I would be with my family, driving at night or outside to find the dog, and always be surprised to see it. It felt like a happy accident; I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. How cool! With my own life cycling so strictly between school and home, I didn’t consider that something wild would be held to the same rules. Then there would be nights when I’d be outside and I couldn’t find the moon, and I slowly realized that we all lived life according to some routine. I remember feeling disappointed.
Forty years later, I would be using the cycles of the moon to reset my own. Doing research on my fibroid symptoms and irregular periods, I stumbled across the practice of seed cycling. I went all organic, eliminating artificial hormones from my diet and body care and ate particular seeds on particular days in an effort to balance my natural hormones. I monitored the days of my period and waited for them to fall into rhythm with the phases of the moon. I used to be contemporary, sarcastically referring to my period as my “monthly gift” and trying to hide or justify a fluctuating mood. My period repaid me with stubborn randomness, PMS, and incomprehensible changes in thought and behavior. Now I’m prehistoric, a White Moon cycler with menses on the new moon and ovulation on the full moon. I have my own phases now, clear, calm, and with clockwork precision. I appreciate my period as a monthly sign of wellness, and as I cycle in and out of introspection and extroversion, thoughtfulness and productivity, melancholy and cheerfulness, I celebrate each moment as a natural occurrence and as significant as quarter and gibbous moons.
It seems difficult to effectively articulate the healing power of Nature. I think most people believe in the concept by now. The desire for green after days spent surrounded by grey. It’s where people go when they need to “get away from it all” or when the stress of real life convinces you that an ideal life would be simpler and quieter and prettier. It’s the stuff of screensavers and calendars and vacations. It’s a simple fact that we all know as children. Life is better outside. Which makes me wonder if this knowledge, too, isn’t cyclical. A natural proclivity toward being one with Nature that we all return to once we’ve seen the failings of an artificial life. Like enlightenment after a series of unsuccessful attempts at ignoring the call. I’ve felt enlightened after a weekend getaway or temporary seclusion in Nature. But the exact effect that time had on me felt abstract and difficult to verbalize. Like going to a revival and receiving power from the unknowable. But for me, healing came not from being submerged in Nature but from being synced with her. Being dependent on her. Scheduled by her.
It’s interesting to be synced with the moon now, when my days are so closely tied to the sun. For the past three years, I worked night shift. The moon was my sun. I lived a vampire life, sealing my windows against the sun with aluminum foil and only going outside at night. Most of my co-workers cycled back to a normal day schedule on their days off to nurture a social life. But I preferred to nurture my health by trying to maintain some semblance of normal sleep. So, the rhythm of my days was marked by the beat of my nights. Two nights on, two nights off, three nights on, two nights off, two nights on, three nights off. Then repeat.
On my nights off, my husband and I wandered the island. We hiked for miles, generally following the seawall along the western coast of the East China Sea. The more populated areas would vibrate with the music of karaoke bars, the clang of skateboarders practicing tricks on the curbs, and the general din of revelry from the outdoor food stands, coffee shops, and izakayas along the way. The artificial glow of a thousand lanterns, stringed lightbulbs, and vending machines lit the place up like the Vegas Strip. We tried to keep to the more secluded areas of the parks and beaches, where the crashing waves made the only sound and you had to rely on the light of the moon to find your way. On those nights, we met the moon for the first time, becoming intimate with its phases and cycles and measuring its rotation by how high it was in the sky at 3 am. Moonlight illuminated Okinawa in a light that most never saw. The congestion of concrete was absorbed into blackness and the mundane was made magical. Moonlit paths became fantasy worlds where trees and shadows were animated creatures and the playfulness of stray kittens evoked the innocence of a night conceived in Nature.
Most of our time in Okinawa was spent cycling in and out of natural and artificial. Hours spent working inside with only computer light or florescent light. Wearing sunglasses on the drive home to deny the sun a chance to correct my circadian rhythm. Wearing a sleep mask during the day to fool my body into thinking it was darker than it actually was. Sleeping during the day and living at night. And then searching for Nature in a darkened world, trying to remember what the color green looked like in sunshine.
One full moon night in early March, we were driving south through Uruma to check out some castle ruins in moonlight. Like a lot of cities on Okinawa, Uruma is a modern city kept alive through farming. The contrasting realities of urban and rural run parallel for miles upon miles, separated only by a narrow, two-lane road. When you drive that road at night, the dark agricultural fields on one side disappear in the blinding radiance of city lights on the other. Your head stays constantly turned toward the urban side and by the end of the road you have a crick in your neck from admiring the spectacle of the city lit up at night.
But that night, random square acres of those fields were lit up like a football stadium on Friday night. Except it was 3am. We weren’t at all sure what we were seeing. Aliens landing? Bold marijuana cultivation? Late night veggie picking? We turned off the main road and bumped along the dirt paths to get a closer look. I’ll admit I even plucked a leaf to see if smell or taste could solve the mystery. In the end, only Google was able to shed light on the story (pun intended).
It started as a dilemma. Chrysanthemums want to bloom in the Fall. They naturally read the longer nights as a clue that it’s time to bloom. Many people in Japan, however, like to buy chrysanthemums in the Spring. So… a dilemma of supply and demand reconciled by a clever trick of nature. By flooding the growing chrysanthemums with light throughout the Spring nights, farmers can fool them into thinking the nights are not as long as they actually are. The chrysanthemums grow longer and longer stems but dutifully delay their flowery finale until the lights go out and they’re plunged into flower-worthy darkness. The result is a commercially viable product for farmers, but a magical, glowing wonder for those willing to venture out after midnight. These duped chrysanthemums are transformed into blazing islands of light punctuating an otherwise jet-black darkness.
The effect was quite bewildering. The buzz of electricity felt weirdly anachronistic in a field littered with old, rusted wheelbarrows, twig and grass whisk brooms, and the smell of manure wafting through the air. You get used to the perpetual twilight of cities that never fully sleep. But these were patches of artificial days in an area of land that generally knows when to go black. And yet, they commanded our view. The startling contrast of light and dark mesmerized in a way the cityscape across the way could not. I reached for my sunglasses, determined not to be confounded out of my own perfectly designed cycle.
I found out later that these chrysanthemums would be driven and flown like divas to eager vendors all over the island and across the mainland. Because of their long, elegant stems, they are highly prized and sold for top Yen. Some of them end up in Buddhist observances during the spring equinox, when the sun sets due West and in the exact direction of the Pure Land of the Enlightened Buddha. The day is equally split between time with the sun and time with the moon; a perfect yin and yang moment that encourages thoughts on death as the perfect end to the vicious cycles of life. The gracious impartiality of the sun and a chance at contemplation are symbolized by the chrysanthemum, which represents the solar and analytical aspects of yang energy. And perhaps it is the chrysanthemum that best completes the circle, ending its own extended life cycle as a symbol of the transitional journey to the shores of Nirvana through death.
Interestingly, Buddhists have historically linked enlightenment to a full moon, another perfect circle, embodying the lunar and intuitive nature of yin energy. As I stood there, watching those chrysanthemums grow in artificial light, I looked up to see the light of the full moon filtered through a haze of clouds. I had my own moment of enlightenment. I thought about how different those flowers would be if they were allowed to grow under the guidance of Nature’s perfect light instead of altered by artificial. I thought about my own life, flooded too with artificial light and with distorted cycles that betrayed the yin and yang perfection of the sun and the moon. I looked West and stood determined to come full circle, transitioning from artificial back to natural, nights back to days, and from the towns back to Nature, once I made the return journey to the shores of my own Nirvana back home.