Light and Dark: Key West and Burlington

By Deborah Straw

This past Christmas, my 92-year-old second cousin said to me, “I love to see the Christmas lights. We need them now in our time of darkness.” According to psychologist and sleep specialist, Gina Lindsley, the winter “festivals of light,” Christmas and Chanukah, may take place during December not only because of the timing of historical events but because we need the extra light. “There are many who now believe that the most important reasons for festivals of light collecting cross-culturally in the trough of the year has more to do with the cycle of seasons than with true historical dates. According to this thinking, the more important reason for the holidays occurring when they do is to light up the spirits during the darkest days,” Lindsley writes.

We do need to lighten up our spirits during Vermont’s darkest days.

To correspond with light and dark weather, we have a light and dark side to our personalities. These light and dark sides may refer to happy and unhappy sides or to good and evil tendencies. For example, I have both a dark and light side. I am not all cheery. I share a somewhat pessimistic outlook with several aunts and uncles. I probably have a condition called “the winter blues.” But I can also be extremely joyful.

I also believe there is a need in our life for both dark and light periods or places. A need for dark for contemplative, quiet times, time to do work, to rest, to restore our energy for the light times. To hunker down and to be cozy. And an equal need for light—to be carefree, to be spontaneous, to shed worries and to shed clothes.

The director of a health spa once talked to a “Washington Post” reporter about what she termed “the pleasure police”: “If we take an afternoon off and sit out on the porch and read or don’t do anything for a whole afternoon, they’ll find out and drive up to the house with the sirens blaring.” In northern New England, I certainly feel the presence of these invisible “pleasure police.” That’s why, in my 40s, I sought out a sunny, light place to spend a chunk of winter time.

For the past seven or eight years, I have spent close to a month in Key West, our adopted second home, in one of the darkest parts of the year—January. I fell in love with this sub-tropical city at first sight—its palm trees, its year-round bright flowers, its joie de vivre, its sun. But ours has been a bittersweet romance. The town has often let me down. Its glitter too often deceives. For a few years, we tried to determine how to live there, at least part time. So far, our attempts have failed. There’s almost no professional work there. The people who live in Key West are either rich or must work two or three jobs—or take in several roommates—to pay bills. Rents and real estate prices rival those of New York or San Francisco—about double or triple those of Burlington.

Light and dark is an apt metaphor for these two small cities, which have a bit in common and yet are radically different. The population is similar. Both have vital downtowns. The arts are central and of high quality in both towns. Both rely on tourism, although Key West more than Burlington. Dining in both is a wonderful and international experience. Both are situated on large bodies of water; boating, fishing and swimming are activities central to the feel of each place.

The differences are far more obvious. Key West is a sunny city; the sun shines at least 350 days a year. Some people get bored of this; I never do. The sun is much more intense at this latitude; you tan much more quickly; you feel more lazy. Although it does get dark at approximately the same time of the afternoon in the winter, because the temperature is generally balmy (60 – 80 degrees), the nights are seductive and inviting, as opposed to nights in Burlington which are not welcoming, even ominous at times. Burlington is the second or third cloudiest city in the entire country. Even an hour’s drive away, the sun shines much more often. It’s also in the top ten coldest areas in the country. I read just today that the suicide rate is very high in Vermont. That doesn’t surprise me. The lack of light and near-hibernation causes some of us to become depressed and lethargic.

People are somewhat sunnier in disposition in southern Florida, not just people on vacation, even the residents. They—and I—feel lighter, less worried. My spirits light up; they soar. The pace is typical Southern—slow. Things get done on their schedule—which is not punctual. If you want a carpenter, and he says he’ll come tomorrow, he might come next week. If you’re due at a party at 8, it’s just fine if you don’t show up until 10. No one who lives there seems to care. It’s not unusual to spend the entire day reading or sunning. For many, relaxing—not being controlled by a work schedule—is the center of life.

Due to my New England farm roots, I am a bit of a workaholic, but in this subtropical paradise, I can sit and read for days on end, punctuated by walks, meals, drinks, or swims. The slowness takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s a relaxing change. I no longer feel guilt at “doing nothing.” It’s good for me. I feel better, less stressed.

The sun also makes people more spontaneous. In South Florida, people drop in unannounced more often, take breaks for picnic lunches, drop everything to take a dip in the bath-water temperature ocean. They organize a party at the drop of a pelican’s feather. They are not embarrassed to dress unusually, even in drag, or to wear almost nothing. The social climate is the most tolerant I’ve witnessed anywhere in the country. Because it’s warm and sunny all the time, people wear and decorate with warm and sunny colors. They wear as few items as necessary and only in pastel or bright colors; they don’t favor black like we Northerners. Not even much navy or brown. No gray. One time when I went out to tea with a friend, she commented, “You look like a Vermonter.” I had on a long cotton skirt, probably dark, and socks with my sandals. Later that day, I adopted a Keys-appropriate colored t-shirt and shorts and packed up my socks. I hate to look like a tourist!

As a writer, I find Key West continually inspiring. It’s a wacky place, full of people from all over the world doing just as they want to do. The human parade is amazing. The daily paper, “The Citizen,” has a crime report full of astonishing news like “a man steals a dog from a hotel,” or “a man strips on Duval Street in mid-day.” There’s always something that can furnish the background for fiction or poetry.

But if Key West is more stimulating than Burlington for subject matter, Burlington is a better place to get the work done. Many times I’ve written down ideas for a story or poem in Key West and never gotten around to writing the whole piece. It’s just so much easier to relax, to do virtually nothing than to do any work, as much as I love writing. In Burlington, with our six months of cold, dark weather, we have lots of indoor time in which to work.

In fact, this is the biggest benefit I can find to dark weather, long nights and freezing temperatures. We get our work done. We write, we quilt, we make elaborate four-course dinners, we entertain. We paint, we hook rugs, we read all our accumulated books. These are good things.

Not only do we do more serious work; overall, in Vermont, in my estimation, we are more serious people. Perhaps the dark makes us that way. We are a grounded, responsible people, people you can rely on in a pinch. We generally know our neighbors. We can call someone to plow us out or to borrow some eggs. Someone will make us chicken soup if we’re sick. Some of us don’t lock our doors; we trust each other.

In Key West, relationships are more shallow, often transient. People, for the most part, just don’t stay there. Maybe the amount and intensity of light does get to them after a while. That or the two other reasons people eventually leave: fear of fall hurricane season (far shorter than our winter season) and “island” fever—caused by being stuck on a small island, three to four hours from an urban area, in this case, Miami.

The best life for me—and I expect for many northerners as we age and no longer relish shoveling or driving on icy highways—would be to split my days between a place of light and a place of dark. A place of dark with deep, productive roots, and a place to “light up the spirits”—in which to play and be more spontaneous. We all need our private Burlington and Key West.

Deborah Straw is author of Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys and Why is Cancer Killing Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal Companion.

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