Small Lights in Large Darkness by Rebecca Dinerstein

31 May Small Lights in Large Darkness by Rebecca Dinerstein

Photo by Court Whelan, ©Natural Habitat Adventures

Editor’s note: Lonely Planet recently published an extraordinary collection of original tales, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, celebrating both the rigors and the life-changing riches of travel. The story below, by Rebecca Dinerstein, is excerpted from that collection.

My third voyage on the Hurtigruten was the first taken by night: a season earlier I’d crossed Norway’s Vestfjord on this boat under staggering daylight. Now, the Arctic’s Polar Night had become as dominant as the Midnight Sun had been, and as I waited for the boat to pull away from the shore, the water before us lay black. I could hear bells ringing on distant boats I couldn’t see. I sat on the observation deck in my down coat and fur-lined hat. The air was cleaner than any I’d breathed before — its impurities had frozen away. I breathed, and the bells rang. I couldn’t argue with that total darkness, I could only admire it; I could only rest within it and look out toward the invisible horizon at the far end of the fjord.

I arrived on Little Christmas Eve. Growing up Jewish in New York City, I’d never celebrated regular Christmas Eve, let alone Little, so the Nordic embellishment of December 23rd enchanted me. In the home of a friend, I found the table set for a grand dinner and the tree raised. Under the tree lay boxes of icicle ornaments, tiny paper Norwegian flags, and presents bearing every name in the family, including mine. I’d never seen my name under a Christmas tree before. This house sat on an island not far from the North Pole, and these presents struck me as the genuine offerings of elves. We can lose twenty years in ten seconds when presented with delight this pure; I became a child. I sat at the foot of the tree. I touched the green needles. I touched the blue ribbon that held my gift shut. The hills outside my friend’s windows were as dark as the fjord had been, but illuminated with glowing houses, each house full of its own tree. For the first time, I understood the holidays as light-oriented, as Pagan in the sense of being rustic and unaffiliated and merry. This was a time of celebration, no longer of obligation, a time of rest, not of strain.

In the morning we walked to the graveyard. The graves lay under thick snow and the tombstones bore elegant, Scandinavian names with patronymic suffixes: –son, –datter. When you subtracted the birth dates from the death dates, the difference often approached a hundred years. Like the air, these lives had frozen their impurities away, had been preserved, had lasted. The trees rising behind the graveyard were pink because it was midday and the sun was both rising and setting. The snow was blue. As Mr. Lockwood does at the conclusion of Wuthering Heights, I “wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” My friend wished her mormor (mother-mother, a perfectly simple construction for “grandmother’) a God Jul, a Merry Christmas.

At home again, we watched Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Goofy celebrate Christmas in their own colorful homes — a Disney series that has aired every Christmas in Norway for the past sixty years. We drank Julebrus, a crimson-colored soda that tasted like pears and cinnamon. Elaborate gothic font ran over the bottle’s label, forming the words EVENTYR BRUS (“FAIRYTALE SODA”) over an illustration of a panicked white goat butting a menacing troll. The fine print read:



“Now I’m coming to get you,” screamed the Troll. “Yes, you just try! I have two horns, with them shall I gore your eyes out! I have two battle stones, with them shall I crush both marrow and bone,” said the biggest goat. He attacked the troll, put out his eyes, beat out both marrow and bone and butted him over the waterfall. All the goats went to their summer house.”

The holiday season in New York had been essentially competitive — a choice between endless options, gatherings, sales. In the Arctic, it felt merely essential, singular. The house was our one, small, true shelter. The landscape around the house proceeded with its brutal winter regardless of our festivities and did not ask anything of us. With nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and complete darkness around us, we felt permitted to create boundless, reckless light.

Photo by Alexander de Vries, ©Natural Habitat Adventures

Christmas ended and winter remained. I left my friend’s home and returned to my own: a large empty building on a nearby island. I had come to write a book of poems and it was time to get back to work after so much Mickey Mouse. I hadn’t decorated every windowsill of my building with miniature elf figurines, but someone had. These creatures, called nisser, dominated every Norwegian household from November through February. I sat among the nisser and opened my miniature travel laptop, entering into an undersized realm balanced only by the enormity of the local weather: Arctic storms howled and threw the trees against my window.

Every day, for two hours, the darkness would recede. It would be replaced by pastel colors that washed the sky and snow indiscriminately until both land and heaven turned the same purple. When the darkness returned, I knew what fields and what mountains I wasn’t seeing — I learned to see beauty where it was and where it wasn’t. I learned to see beauty where it had been, and where it would appear again when the sun next came to town.

This winter taught me how to brighten. I learned that a small flame makes a wide glow. I learned that even night can be visually scintillating, and that a landscape can communicate a lot of personality when no other persons are near. For lack of distraction, I worked hard that winter and finished my poems. Many of them examined the darkness I’d inhabited, and celebrated the sources of light I’d uncovered. On my final evening in the Arctic, I saw the Aurora Borealis for the first time. It arrived, green, to the patch of sky directly outside my window. Anne, a neighbor in a nearby house, came up to my door. It was two in the morning, I was packing up to leave in the morning, and, miraculously, she had just baked an apple cake. We ate the warm cake in the green snow and thanked winter for its bounty.


Drawn to the arctic? Consider one of these Adventure Collection journeys:

Cruise the Arctic, from Norway to Canada, with GeoEx

Journey to Arctic Svalbard, Land of the Ice Bears, with Natural Habitat Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions

Practice Your Outdoor Leadership Skills Above the Arctic Circle in NOLS Scandinavia

Hike the Land of the Midnight Sun with Backroads



Rebecca Dinerstein is the author of the novel The Sunlit Night and the bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems Lofoten. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York TimesThe Guardian, and The New Yorker online, among others. She received her B.A. from Yale and her M.F.A. in Fiction from New York University, where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow. She lives in Brooklyn.



Reproduced with permission from The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, published by Lonely Planet, © 2016 Lonely Planet.

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