Two wavy horizontal watercolor lines, one purple, one green, woven together.
Life is a mixed blessing. Credit: Amy J. Ko.

The shortest day

Today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. For me, it’s a day of duality; it’s both the darkest and shortest day, with just eight hours of daylight, usually shrouded by a thick layer of Seattle clouds and rain. In some ways, it is the day I am least hopeful about life, because it leads me to ponder everything that has happened in the past year, and sometimes, in past decades. And then, of course, it can be a day of hope, foreshadowing longer days, a promise of spring, and new opportunities for love and growth.

The darkness, of course, surfaces my struggles. And there have been many. I grew up often excluded for being mixed race in a very white town. My parents divorced when I was young and couldn’t have a civil conversation, which led me to be peacemaker and parent before I was ten. My puberty was a tragedy, creating a suffocating gender dysphoria that denied me any sense of self-worth. I had a child when I was 21 and still in college, lived on the edge of poverty through graduate school, struggled to manage my then-wife’s emerging bipolar disorder, and then got divorced the same year I moved to Seattle and started as a professor. Throughout, I lost a cousin to suicide and five aunts and uncles to five kinds of cancer, and another to heart failure. Being in the gender closest for so long, I’ve long avoided friendship and intimacy, to hide myself from others. On most days since my parents divorced, my life has felt empty, alone, broken, and burdened.

But when I look outside, the optimist in me can’t help but see the smallest signs of sunshine. The clouds are a little less grey. The rain isn’t as hard. Snow will come, but it will be bright. And as hard as the coming winter and spring will be, I know there will be many days of hope after, as we slowly win the war against this virus, we carefully leave our homes to see friends and loved ones, and we all begin to heal a bit, dressing each others’ wounds with kindness, and telling the stories of our scars. It will be melancholy and muted, but we will find more joy than we remember possible.

It’s these hopes that remind me of my life’s joys. My childhood was rich with a kind of play rarely possible in today’s anxious world. My childhood friends and I had a ruthless loyalty that was stabilizing when nothing else was. My parents, as much as they fought, were ceaseless parents, always ensuring I had everything I needed, often at their own emotional expense. Work has been both a passion and a refuge, allowing me to thrive in one small way while the rest of my life continually crumbled. I found love early in life, meeting a beautiful woman who challenged me in the best ways, and gave us a wonderfully enigmatic, beautiful child whose grown to be the most secretly splendid person I know. And while that love faded, I found the love of my life, the kindest, most loving, and most wise person I know, who tells me she loves me a hundred times a day and means it. Love, more than anything else, has been the salve to my battered being.

This year, then, has mirrored my past forty years. Full of pain and shame and trauma and loss and loneliness, but also love and passion and refuge. If 2021 can offer the same mess of tragedy and warmth, it might just be okay.



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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.