“This time 3 years ago…”
Facebook, my former social media friend, has become a taunting menace this summer. Serving up fresh pictures of cerulean blue skies, endless horizon shots from 5 in the morning ‘til midnight creeps close, Galician delights of octopus, empanada and fish fresh from the sea, it dangles a phantom summer before me, one never to be realised. Disenchanted in Nanjing wasn’t the word for me. Often, these flashbacks were from 10.30 pm dinners, the evening skies lilac at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Northwest Spain, the day lingering, the light slow to leave.
A stone’s throw down from Ireland, Galicia shares the same festival of light in the summer months, with daylight hours averaging between 15 and 20 hours a day, depending on which twilight gauge you use; astronomical, civil or nautical. That’s about right for my circadian rhythms, I have concluded after an in-depth research project spanning 39 years. The only subject was me. But still. I speak to what I am sure of. Sunshine is good for me. After 21 years in a controlled study with minimal levels of sunshine and daylight, and vast quantities of rain, I concluded the following.
Rain can bring an already low mood down to kiss the floor. Waking up to the sound of hissing wetness lashing from the sky creates exactly zero desire to leap out of bed and embrace the day ahead. More than likely, the endeavour will be filled with islands of time spent daydreaming with one sock on, the mind fleeing the cold, harsh reality of waits beyond the night-time infused warmth of the bedroom. Movement is slow and sluggish, puddles of melancholy and blues seep like a mysterious fluid into a sock heel, cold and repulsive. Everything feels heavy, unwilling; the days play out in minor chords.
Norman Rosenthal defined the term, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in 1984, having suffered from otherwise inexplicable bouts of depression during the winter months in New York. In the first 3 years following his emigration from South Africa, he suffered from three cycles of SAD before putting his research nose to the grindstone the fourth spring, looking for answers. SAD is mostly caused by a seasonal lack of light, though biological predisposition and stress may also influence its onset. Basically, SAD makes people feel sad in the dark months. Women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men, and it shares symptoms with depression; sluggishness, anxiety, agitation, low energy. Sort of like a never-ending Monday.
Rosenthal developed the light box treatment, which transmits white light and activates serotonin systems in the brain. Exercise, healthy diet, relocation and visiting sunny places are also recommended, all of which I endorse fully, to get these serotonin synapses snapping.
Vitamin D is responsible for optimal serotonin levels, and the sun is our greatest source of this A-grade vitamin. As soon as I graduated, I hit the road, stopping by Dubai; too hot, Paris; too beautiful and Cerne Abbas; too naked a giant on the mountain. The weather, child of climate, changeable as the whims of a voracious toddler, showed me its most versatile moods on these forays. Scalding desert sands and dappled leaf light along the Seine, I delighted in the long days and air like hot breath on my skin. A lethargy lifted. Dreams began to seem possible. I travelled, I worked, I learned. I settled in Spain with its never-ending skies and sunshine, before coming to China. I experimented with adventures to the sun in the depths of winter. I learned to manage my circadian rhythms, supplementing Vitamin D and daylight hours when necessary.
The weather is as changeable as our moods, as are travel restrictions and lockdowns. For those who do suffer from SAD, environmental light is an issue. It’s an upper, a friend, a happy place.
This is not the first summer that has ever occurred in Nanjing, but it is the first summer that I have stayed for such an extended period of time. Like so many of us, prompted by safety concerns and border restrictions globally, we adjusted our plans, resolving to make the best of it. But, like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the Nanjing Summer.
Never mind the schizophrenic weather, the mosquitos, the grandma serving of humidity, the sheer weight of the clouds overhead was enough to squash the resolve in the most seasonally unaffected of us. Sunlight struggles to hack through the sinewy cloud cover to little avail, managing at most to make the heat a little muggier and the inside of your eyelids sweat. When it does burst through, the mercury shatters barometers across the city. Showering is an exercise in irony; the attempt to rinse off the sweat just creates more, the whole body getting in on the act and gushing forth perspiration in unison with the air itself. Night falls at 7pm. We used to go down to the beach sometimes at that time, on the very long days.
In Xianlin, to the sawing of cicadas, I looked skywards but rain spattered in my eyes, and when I hung my head, my cheeks wet, a giant toad eyed me impassively from the road beneath my bedroom window, which is in a turret, I kid you not. I know he was eyeing me, because he was the size of a terrier and I could see his face clearly. Frogs belched from the neighbour’s pond, lush greenery burst from above and below and my shoes grew mould overnight. Thoughts of picnics or swimming or hikes were washed away by deluge after deluge. Greyness leached colour from the trees, from my children’s faces; this was not the summer I had relocated so many times to find. Even my most stoic friends began to sigh.
All of this came as something of a surprise. Usually, when we return at the beginning of August, after stuffing ourselves with Atlantic sunshine and friends and family time, the sun has finally hewn through the clouds and the wet season is coming to an end, leaving us with clear blue skies to admire from inside windows of air-conditioned rooms. Between Facebook and the toad, I admit to spending some time in a lacklustre state of meh before it finally dawned on me; this is like SAD, but in the summer. Having unknowingly arrived at many of Rosenthal’s coping mechanisms for SAD organically, I realised what was missing. The Summer Re-Up of Light-time. 7 days later, we landed in Sanya and filled up the reserves.
Back in Nanjing, once again able to think, the tropical lushness seemed more verdant, the fruit sellers camped outside the wet market smiled wider, the air sweet with the scent of ripe peaches and cherries. The birds twittered. I remembered to apply mosquito spray and dumped the sunscreen.
I read John Paul Sartre and think about the concept of living in Bad Faith, of not accepting the freedom inherent in life. “People may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices by pursuing pragmatic concerns and adopting social roles and value systems that are alien to their nature as conscious human beings”, says Sartre. I think of how sometimes a thing is not what we think it is.
I believed that my sense of mental fugue was because I could not go where I wanted to be this summer. Me from the past reminded me of what I was missing every day. But paraphrasing Sartre, in this life, “Things are weirder than we think”. And like the Spanish Inquisition and The Nanjing Summer, no one expected the protracted effects of Covid on long-term travel plans. Like the weather, life has become an eyelid-sweating mess. Like the weather, we adapt, dress appropriately and embrace the weirder than weird when it comes along. Hainan is close at hand, with a balmy 29 degrees and waves that whoosh at just the right volume. The clouds are white and puffy on a powder blue sky.
A Sartrian perspective encourages stripping away the normal façade that shrouds our habitual actions to look for the frightening absurdity beneath. Though vertiginous, this peep into the void can be liberating, opening one up to possibilities hitherto unconsidered. The mass rovings to Hainan and Yunnan Province and beyond; the considered exploration of a patchwork of other locations in and around Nanjing this summer tells me that I am not alone at the edge. Through the mist, we begin to see the bright spots of possibility and as the summer draws close to the end of Act 1, we reconvene to swap travel tales and happy snaps of moments of unexpected, thrilling contentment.
Every cloud of disenchantment has a silver lining. There is great peace in accepting that which cannot be changed. There is also great peace in changing that which can; embracing the freedom, making the choice.