Civil twilight. For the past long year in California, it was the only time of day I indulged in the normality of Before Times. It is during this dreary time when the stars still mingle with the moon in the sky but the sun announces that it is on its way, that I have only weakly held on to the outside world through surfing.
I’ve been surfing near my home in the Bay Area for the past decade, but it has become almost a daily habit during the pandemic. In the dead of winter, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. so that I have some time for coffee and a short distance. I’ll fill a jug with hot water and load it into the car along with my wetsuit, which is still damp and a little musty from yesterday. The surfboards are already packed. The stars are still clear against the night sky. I often see Venus. But there was an imperceptible shift when the sun hit 18 degrees below the horizon. It turns out that there are gradients of dawn and they all have a name. That moment is the first: astronomical dawn.
It’s still dark and will be until I’m almost on the beach. The sun, which creeps 18 to 12 degrees below the horizon, works its way through astronomical twilight. The streets are quiet, but the world is awakening. Lights flicker in houses and lonely runners with spotlights begin to cover the sidewalks and paths. At 12 degrees, nautical dawn, early morning traffic slows down on the Bay Bridge, which I cross on the way to Pacifica or Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Still, the night stays so long that I can’t really make out the faces of the other surfers when I arrive. We chat from the length of a car as we dress, trying to see what the waves do. I have to use my phone’s flashlight to find the wax at the bottom of my pocket.
When the sun is six degrees below the horizon, it’s civil dawn. This is how civil twilight begins, the phase in which the sun finally moves towards the horizon. The sky is getting brighter. This is when we paddle out and hope to steal an uncrowded time with the waves.
I like that phrase – civil dawn. I like the feeling when We are in the water, we respect the ocean and each other, together but separately. There is room for generosity. Few of us are out and about at this time, so we have plenty of space and a quiet line-up. In these moments just before dawn, it is possible to surf in the light of the moon and sun if the time of the month is right. Sometimes we surf in the glow of the Pacifica Taco Bell when the lights are on. At Ocean Beach, the container ships flash directly off the coast.
Surfers can be a grumpy, territorial lot. All it takes is a person to come to you to generate terrible thoughts about humanity. But I’m trying to be the best I can be out there I smile and say good morning and look before I make a wave. By and large, the people I see at dusk do the same thing. We exist in a border area between day and night, end and beginning. Together and alone. The neither-nor the quality of this period is somehow inclusive. I have the feeling that we are taking more care within its blurred boundaries.
For many, twilight means finality: the end of a day, the end of a career, the end of a life. But twilight books the day and presents itself both at the beginning and at the end. It is an interim period when the sun is not yet visible, but the earth is neither fully lit nor completely dark. It is a soft and diffusing glow that holds the promise of day and night together.
(Photo: TWCarlson / Creative Commons)
I catch a wave and the moment I fly over the face my focus is acutely intentional: I am, however brief, free from the worries of the world. This present sense of lightness is joyful. Because of surfing, I still know how to smile when things are otherwise gloomy. The unusually large waves this winter season I also forced myself to be prepared to push my limits and deal with waves of villains and defeats and other people’s flight boards and bodies. I know how to expect the unexpected.
Civil dawn ends at sunrise. I stay about an hour more and navigate the lineup until there are too many people for my comfort, both surfers and human mean pandemic. I’m going home, back to a virtual work and virtual school and virtual community schedule. I apply my force field and mask myself with my sons for walks around the block or to the shop in the corner. I stay inside and have dinner with my husband and read books and watch movies. We’ll do it all again tomorrow.
We wait for the light at the end of the tunnel after doing this strange job – a low-level hibernation into the darkness of a largely inner existence familiar with our confidants in too small a space to survive the maddening insecurity of one Pandemic and the unrest of a divided body politics. In December, color technology and design company Pantone announced its 2021 colors of the year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. Usually there is only one hue, but it turns out that we need both – the darkness and the light – to accurately represent the arc of the coming year.
The civil twilight of an old year and an old era merges and moves through the night into the civil dawn of a new one. Maybe this is the spark after the dark. I am preparing to re-enter a changed new world that is only just becoming visible. And while it may not feel like it yet, so are you.
Main photo: Luis Ortega Flores / Stocksy