Today is the autumnal equinox, when the Earth is in balance, evenly split between day and night, north and south, warm and cold. Equal day, equal night.
The Earth tilts back and forth each year like an enormous, slow-motion metronome. When the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, we experience spring and summer. When it tilts back the other way, the Southern Hemisphere gets spring and summer while we get autumn and winter.
When the Earth is, in effect, straight up and the sun is not taking sides, we have equinox. Our autumnal equinox is the Southern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox (spring). On each equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west. It is in effect hovering directly over the equator. Tomorrow, the sun heads south (or appears to) and seems to be leaving us behind.
But we don’t have to take it personally. The sun is merely giving the Southern Hemisphere its due. Days grow shorter on our side until Dec. 21, otherwise known as the Winter Solstice, which is when the tilt reverses and the sun heads back our way again.
I don’t know why the Earth tilts back and forth, but if it only leaned one way, the other hemisphere would get the short end of the sun and those populating that hemisphere would be understandably miffed. And if the Earth did not daily rotate on its mythical axis — as is the case with the moon — there would be perpetual day on one side of Earth and perpetual night on the other.
So balance is a good thing and equinoxes (spring and autumn) provide a metaphor both to contemplate and celebrate: Light and darkness in equilibrium, in harmony, which only happens twice a year. The two solstices, on the other hand, are way out of balance but redeemed as they begin to right themselves. Solstices are extremities, but extremities of fullness. Even balance needs to be balanced. We celebrate Christmas, just after the Winter Solstice, as an antidote to oppressive darkness (historically, piggybacking onto Saturnalia, the already established solstice celebration in the Roman empire). We don’t formally honor the Summer Solstice, maybe because we’re too blissed out by the long-lingering daylight.
The dance between darkness and light is one of our core metaphors, giving us an opportunity to explore the imbalance of light and dark within our souls or psyche, which do not always correspond to the seasons. We may suffer a Winter Solstice within as the Summer Solstice reigns outside. Or we may be filled with light inside even as darkness rules. We are frequently out of synch with the natural world, some of us nocturnal, it seems, others diurnal.
As Camus said, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”
But some of us endure an invincible inner winter and need help to see the light again. It isn’t healthy to be all one and never the other. Just as twilight blends into night and dawn prefigures day, so we struggle to harmonize our inner light and darkness.
The poet Charles Finn describes the equinox as “night and day softly embracing / before going their separate ways” and “what perfect balance / between darkness and light / as they touch softly in passing.” He describes our inner equinox as “trying to be mindful of the only dance there is / trying to hold in some kind of balance / so much joy, so much sorrow.”
We cannot run from our darkness any more than we can deny the light. Neither are we twilight or dusk or dawn beings only. We have seasons and storms and lingering afterglows and bright sunshine within that mirror the world without.
The sun is stealing away to the south. Night is gathering momentum. But if we can keep our balance, our inner equinox will see us through.
I greet you, spirits of darkness that dwell in the night and within me.
While you are frightening, you are also a source of power.
May I not fear you but learn to live in holy harmony with you.
Night within me, I welcome you as well.
May all your spirits that reside in me live in harmony with the Spirit of the Holy.
Edward Hays, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim