When I moved to Tucson, one of the first things I bought was a tiny flashlight. The area where I lived was dark with a scanty sprinkling of streetlights and the sidewalks were uneven. Although I had a flashlight, I walked at night with the same caution that I would ordinarily use only on a hiking trail. 

A delightfully schizoid city, Tucson demands that all businesses with neon signs keep them alive and glowing. At the same time, it vigorously keeps many of its residential neighborhoods free from light pollution. One of the city’s primary assets is its night sky, which has made it the site of a major observatory. Since the area is usually blessed with clear weather, almost every night, after a sunset that rivals the drama of the Aurora Borealis, the real light show begins.

The stars in a Tucson sky are the kind I’ve only seen on winter nights during my Alaskan childhood or after sunset in the middle of rural Thailand, never before in a city. They crowd the sky, their light so clear and distinct that they seem to be in motion, gleaming dots pulsating in a version of Morse code that we’re unable to read. 

Under cover of Tucson’s darkness, in every direction there’s a blaze of light, pure and untrammeled.

That beauty shines on every city, every night, only to be blotted out by the glow that presumably brings safety to urban life. We managed to extinguish the stars long before we were able to reach them. But not in Tucson. If that city ever draws me back for good, it will be because I want to live in a place where every night is wrapped in starlight. In the evenings of other cities, when I light my candles and strings of uncolored lights, it’s because I hunger for the radiant community of stars that bring life to the darkness, making us realize that although we may be solitary, we’re not alone.

Even before covid forced isolation upon us,loneliness was threatening to become the hallmark of our time. Many of us have chosen the privacy and freedom that comes with living by ourselves and we’ve learned that the solitude we want carries a price. There are times when our walls echo with silence and we crave connection.

When I lived in Bangkok, alone in a studio apartment,my Thai friends thought I was mad to have made that choice, and perhaps in a way I was. Every night I watched a group of construction workers come home to their makeshift village of tin shacks. It was close enough to where I lived that I could hear the sounds of their lives, their voices, the noises of their children playing, the barking of their dogs. On the morning that they loaded sheets of tin and their household belongings into the backs of pickup trucks and drove away, I felt bereft, knowing I was going to miss them. They had become my surrogate neighbors in a way that the people living in apartments next door to mine had not.

That’s of course the American Way, not Thai. I once lived near a Bangkok woman who cooked her meals on a propane burner in the hallway outside my door. When I walked past her improvised kitchen with a healthy degree of fear and a longing for a fire extinguisher, she always asked me to eat with her. I never did. Now I live in a similar building here in the states and, although I know the names of the many of the people on my floor, I’ve never had a meal with any of them, not even a glass of wine. 

Our longing for privacy has become a disease, perhaps most pronounced in us residents of northern cities. Our summers come with an evening brightness that lasts well past nine o’clock and sends us outdoors, mingling with others, even when if we’ve gone out alone. In winter with its rapid nightfall, we stay home and find ourselves chatting with our pets, just so we can exercise our vocal cords.

Texting has replaced phone calls, Facebook is doing its damndest to supplant face-to-face conversations, and covid has revealed that Happy Hour can take place on Zoom. Winter has turned into a season of screen time–it’s so much easier that way. Still it often seems to me that phones and tablets have claimed my social life, keeping me warm, dry, secure, and lonely for face-to-face companionship. Every year my annual case of SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, grows stronger, caused by light deprivation and the isolation that comes in its wake. 

I’m lucky to live in the middle of Seattle’s public market, a place that fosters community. In the winter, when I need it most, this place turns into its own little town. Shopkeepers become friends with their customers and strangers have quick conversations, admiring each other’s dogs and children in passing interchanges. But the Market closes in the evening and the nights are long. When the sky goes black before five o’clock, that’s when loneliness sharpens, depression threatens to move in, and I begin to run through my annual litany of wishes.

I wish for brightness to draw us outside every night, not only during the holiday season or on occasions when we celebrate with bursts of fireworks. I wish for the comfort of starlight, the ritual of bonfires, even the impossibility of the light from a thousand candles illuminating a park, as it did every year in Bangkok for the late king’s birthday. I wish for floods of light that’s not artificial, bringing friends and strangers together, reminding us how much we all need each other. Although winter takes away the sun and abbreviates our days, we don’t have to give it permission to darken our lives.

In Thailand during an eclipse, people make offerings of black food to divert the appetite of Rahu, who is trying to devour the light. During the year that covid raged, many of us stayed within our homes because only our bodies would satisfy the hunger of the virus. Since nothing else would nourish it, through our isolation we made our own sacrifices. We offered it everything that gives us our deepest happiness: time with our families, visits with friends, eating together at holiday tables, watching children open the gifts we chose for them. We gave it our distractions: shopping, going to a movie theater, hearing a band play at a club, having a cocktail or a glass of wine at the end of the day, walking down a city street and absorbing the energy that fills it. 

It was a year of darkness on every level and it left me greedy for the light that comes from companionship and time spent outdoors without fear, yet it turned out I was reluctant to seize it. Almost a year after receiving my first vaccination, I still often feel that the freedom it provides is tentative and can swiftly disappear. Throughout the past summer,I guarded my six feet of space and avoided elevators. I winced at the sound of a sneeze and glared at unmasked faces. 

But in 2021, on the day before Thanksgiving, I stood in a long line outside a popular bakery and felt happy, without a scrap of apprehension. I knew everyone around me was buying food for a meal that most of us had eaten alone the year before and for that we were all thankful. It was late in the day, the overcast sky was growing black, and the air took on a deeper chill, but I knew each one of us was warmed by a brightness we’d been denied for a very long time. As night approached, beyond the thick clouds that had settled in for heaven only knows how long, we stood together in the unseen brightness of hidden stars.