Illuminating: Solstice, a Great Conjunction, and Yellow's Sunlit Night

On the shortest day of the longest year of my so-far life, as Saturn and Jupiter edged toward a rendez-vous closer than they'd had in eight centuries, yellow embodies hope for resilience in 2021.

Look at the stars

Look how they shine for you

And everything you do

Yeah they were all yellow...

—Coldplay

Somewhere in my late childhood, someone told me that yellow was one of the few colors I “shouldn’t” wear. It made me look sallow, apparently. So, despite my love for buttercup flowers (if you hold them under a person’s chin, Daddy said, you can tell whether they like butter) and stubborn devotion to a short-sleeved, white-and-Big-Bird-yellow plaid polyester skirt suit that I insisted on sporting long after I’d outgrown it and the white patent leather Mary Janes that completed the ensemble the one Easter it all fit, about 40 years ago, I stopped wearing yellow.

A cursory look at my paired-down pandemic wardrobe and even a deep dive into the farthest corners of the closet that holds my “outside” clothes and has remained almost entirely untouched since March, confirms that I do not own a single item of yellow clothing. Not panties. Not a scarf. Not even an unpaired sock.

And yet, during this insane year, yellow beckons me.

Yellow is inherently hopeful. It’s cheery and optimistic, the color of a million childish suns drawn in crayon, bananas and lemons, marigolds and tulips, rubber duckies, Winnie the Pooh, autumn aspen leaves, Western Tanagers, and my cousin’s circa-1970 VW Beetle.

If 2020 has shown me anything, it’s that I need more yellow in my life. When a friend and I started a business earlier this year to buoy artists and creatives in this most difficult season, with live performances all but nonexistent and “art” relegated to a luxury rather than the life-giving essential that it is, we wanted a logo that telegraphed hope. We worked for weeks with an artist friend in Sweden trying to get it just right. When we settled on a design—a building with four large, arched windows that might be a theater or a museum—think Lincoln Center in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, or the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.—we turned our attention to color. Dark, inky blue and a contrasting deep turquoise, with yellow for the light that pours through the windows onto the front steps.

Finding just the right yellow was a challenge. Lemon was too…something. Antiseptic? Canary was too soft or ambiguous. Then there was what we called “Scorsese Yellow”—an aggressive hue somewhere between a school bus and an taxi cab.

We knew the right yellow when we finally saw it back in late September.

And it looked like this…

The yellow is warm, inviting, and yes, hopeful. In a year that’s felt so very dark, we wanted to convey a steady but lambent light. Not white or amber.

Yellow.

Earlier this month, Pantone, the company that standardizes color swatches for the design industry, announced its annual color trend forecast for next year. For only the second time, Pantone chose two colors—a neutral called “Ultimate Gray” and a vibrant yellow they’ve dubbed “Illuminating” for 2021. “It's a combination that speaks to the resilience, the optimism and hope and positivity that we need, as we reset, renew, reimagine and reinvent," Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute told CNN.

The achromatic shade of gray and the dazzling yellow are “highlight how different elements come together to express this message of strength and hopefulness," Pressman said.

Strength and hopefulness are New Year’s resolutions I can support, especially after the relentless Dumpster fire of 2020. Pantone’s Illuminating yellow has good energy, symbolically, visually, even spiritually.

In many religious traditions, from Christianity and Buddhism, to Hinduism and shamanism, yellow is a sacred color, often associated with holiness, deities, and the divine in general. Many Buddhist monks wear saffron robes because it is said that Gautama Buddha chose to wear yellow robes (once considered the color of “criminals”) to convey his humility and renunciation of the material world.

In Eastern philosophies, the yellow chakra (located around one’s solar plexus) supposedly is the energy point related to self-esteem, confidence, and personal empowerment. It is also the seat of our intuition, or “gut feeling.” And in some indigenous cultures, such as the Northern Cherokee Nation, yellow symbolizes the sacred direction known as “Up” or “Up Above.”

The artist Vincent Van Gogh, who had a troubled relationship with institutional religion (mostly because it had rejected his fervent desire to be an evangelist) and struggled with mental illness, used yellow throughout his paintings—in sunflowers, wheat sheafs, and the sun itself—to symbolize “God’s love.” In his masterpiece, “Starry Night,” he expressed his distaste for religion by casting the warm yellow glow of starlight over the village below, where you can see the light reflected in windows and on roofs—except for the shadowy church, where the windows are dark.

I was reminded once again of the transformative power of yellow recently while I watching an episode of the exceptionally good Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, about the Danish-Icelandic designer/architect Olafur Eliasson, whose large-scale installation art often employs light and yellow light in particular.

One of Olafur’s best-known installations, “Room for One Colour,” employed yellow mono-frequency tubes (meaning its light was comprised of only yellow instead of a spectrum of colors) to illuminate various rooms and corridors. The effect rendered all other colors in the spaces monochromatic or greyscale—at least to the eyes of the people in the room. It’s an astonishing phenomenon, even witnessing it via a television or computer screen.

“What I like about this kind of light is that it makes me think of not the light, necessarily, but about seeing—it’s the way I see the world really depending on how I see the world, ” Olafur said of his work with yellow light. “Maybe if I change the way I see the world, I can change the world as well.”

Which brings me to my cinematic obsession of 2020: The Sunlit Night. Since its streaming release in July, I’ve seen this, to my eye at least, thoroughly enchanting film five or six times. Seven, really, if you count the fact that I have it running in the background on my laptop as I write this.

The Sunlit Night

I love this film. And no, I don’t care about the savage reviews it’s received elsewhere or its 35 percent “tomatometer” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I love it. I find it transporting in a quirky, endearing way similar to Garden State or The Detectorists, but with a different kind of energy. Feminine. Persistent. Whimsical.

Yellow, really.

The Sunlit Night follows the story of Frances (played by the always delightful Jenny Slate), an art student who escapes a stultifying existence in New York City’s sweltering summertime—a one-bedroom apartment she shares with her sister and bickering artist parents, creative doldrums that have stymied her advancement in art school, and a failed romantic entanglement—for Norway’s remote Lofoten islands inside the Arctic Circle. In this northern-most hinterland, she has an apprenticeship with a notoriously difficult Norwegian painter, Nils (portrayed by Fridtjov Såheim, who you might recognize from his recurring role in the darkly comedic series Lilyhammer—and if you have not yet seen Lilyhammer, good Lord, you must as soon as humanly possible).

Nils is a morose, misanthropic, boorish, drunken Norwegian artist of a certain renown and/or infamy who has alienated most of the art world and seemingly all of the people in his life but for a series of beleaguered assistants, one of whom has left a greeting for Frances scrawled across the pressed-wood cupboard of the rickety RV that is her home for the duration of her stay: “Welcome to Hell.”

The project Frances is to assist Nils in completing is a large-scale installation called “The Yellow Room,” comprised of an old fjord-side barn painted inside and out entirely in shades of yellow with the hope of landing the barn literally “on the map” —an official, national sightseeing map of public art produced by a Norwegian arts council.

“Maybe I could learn something about the world’s brightness from that man and his yellow paint,” Frances imagines as she begins her apprenticeship in the novel version of The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, who also penned the screen adaptation of her book. “Maybe I could learn to be alone.”

The sun never sets during high summer in the Arctic Circle, and Frances must learn to manage the light—physical and metaphorical—in the mostly solitary 12 hours a day when she isn’t painstakingly applying paint to wooden beams and panels in the barn.

'“Nils’ work has been called the same bad names as mine: lazy, cold, not working,” Frances thinks, lying exhausted on a dusty bunk in the RV and squinting into the sunlight streaming through the windows in the middle of the night. “So, this is where you go when you’re exiled—to the edge of the earth. You go to ‘Arctic detention,’ to some dare-you-to-sleep-in-the-sun detention.”

Nils silently drinks beer from green tall-boy cans, guts fish for his solo dinners, and broods. Frances subsists on brown Norwegian cheese (Brunost) and crackers and tries to find inspiration for her artwork amidst the spectacular natural beauty of the Arctic islands and her solitude. Eventually she succeeds, but not alone.

Knowing what to do with the light she finds is an epiphany that comes in collaboration with a cherubic young woman who works inside a freezer case at the local market, a diehard Viking reenactor from Cincinnati (Zach Galifianakis), and a grieving Russian-American baker from Brooklyn (Alex Sharp) who arrives on the island for his father’s Viking funeral.

At the top of the world, where the sun is too bright to see the Aurora Borealis or any of the heavenly firmament, Frances stumbles her way to artistic and personal enlightenment by embracing illumination that must come from within. She has to get out of her own way first in order to see what all the sunlight and yellow are trying to show her.

Why do I find this film so compelling? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with the characters’ messiness. Loss and self-doubt mixed with the kind of courage it takes to leap into the unknown, setting off on a quest even if you’re not sure where it will lead or whether you’re truly equipped to make it. Sunlit Night is populated by characters who are unfinished and imperfect, whose stories we know we’re only getting a tiny slice of, which, to me, makes them feel all the more authentic. They inhabit a collective liminal space, yearning to know how their story ends or even what happens next, but left only with partial answers or resolute uncertainty.

And yet, there is this light, a perpetual light. And all the yellow with its myriad shades and dimensions and the ability to erase every other color in a kind of reverse alchemy, and also to console and fill us with hope.

The Christmas Star and the Great Conjunction

This week, much of the world witnessed a once-in-800-years event in the night skies: A meeting of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, the closest rendez-vous the celestial bodies have had (and that we could see) since the 13th century. The so-called “Great Conjunction” reached its apex Thursday, which also happened to be the winter solstice.

Some folks took to calling the astronomical phenomenon “The Christmas Star.” There might be something to that, according to Space.com:

Some have suggested this holiday season that these two planets might be a replica of the legendary Star of Bethlehem. Actually, one of the more popular theories for the ‘Christmas Star’ was a series of conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC.  For in that year Jupiter and Saturn met not once but three times that year (in May, September and December).  

The first conjunction (on May 29—visible ‘in the east’ before sunrise) presumably started the Magi on their way to Bethlehem from the Far East.  The middle conjunction (September 30) may have strengthened their resolve in the purpose of their journey, while the third and final conjunction (Dec. 5) occurred just as they arrived in Judea to meet with King Herod, who sent them on to Bethlehem to ‘go and search diligently for the young child.’ 

Here in Laguna Beach, on Dec. 21, the sun set at 4:47 PST (or as T.C. Boyle calls it, “Western Plague Time”). Not quite an hour later, standing on our porch facing the Pacific, even before I took my mother’s 50-plus-year-old Sears binoculars from their zippered case, the Great Conjunction was clearly visible to my naked eyes, twinkling in the gloaming after the sun’s ocher orb slipped beneath the horizon just south of Catalina Island, ushering in the longest night of the longest year of my so-far life.

After the Great Conjunction rose out of sight, I went to bed, but sleep was fitful. I awoke numerous times in the night, sometimes opening my laptop to check whatever the latest news on the COVID-19 vaccines coming out of Europe and the UK, might be—hoping maybe today would be the morning I would awaken to the good news of our salvation from this global plague.

The Christmas Star heralds the end of Advent and the season of expectant waiting whilst looking for the light the shines in the darkness that the darkness shall not overcome. Lux in tenebrist lucet … and all of that. Advent ends with the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

The light of the world and hope of salvation, scripture says and I want to believe.

In these last days of the annus horribilis, please keep looking for the light, wherever and however you can find it. And if it happens to appear in an illuminating shade of yellow, try to sit still for a while and let it bathe you in the warmth of its hopefulness.

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