Lately I’ve been renegotiating with the dark.
Darkness gets a bad rap, including in my own mind. Each year I dread the coming on of longer nights, culminating in the anachronistic switch to Daylight Savings Time. By then, it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home. This long winter darkness is so claustrophobic for me, so depressing, that anticipating it is almost as bad as actually putting up with it.
The literal darkness of winter merges, of course, with metaphorical darkness – that “dark night of the soul” that 16th Century mystic Saint John of the Cross first defined. Some of the hardest, most fearful moments of my life have coalesced at roughly 4 a.m., when the world seems most terrifying, most unpromising, most dark.
I know of course that darkness harbors danger. Evil hides in unlit corners, as our faithful neighborhood watch teams rightly point out. It’s not just nocturnal critters like possums, raccoons and bats showing up, rattling our nerves and trash cans. There are human critters all too ready to capitalize on the dark, stalkers and thieves and pyromaniacs, sneaking around with their badass intentions where we can’t quite see them.
But it’s not really the dark’s fault. Back in the day we feminists used to parade around once a year or so on “Take Back the Night” marches, including several through downtown Flint, and though our efforts only seemed to apply when there were a dozen of us or more, it did feel good to shout out that the night belongs to everybody. At the heart of that movement was a call for safety. For me, there also was a less strident song – that there’s something beautiful about the night, something primally necessary to reclaim.
We spend half our lives in darkness. Life is short -- why should I squander half of it in a state of fear and resistance? Wouldn’t it seem that nature’s effect on humans, the yin and yang of day and night, might have an up side? Why should daylight get all the good press?
Could there, in short, be such a thing as happy darkness?
This question bubbled up over friendship – a friendship built on walks and a restless baby. My neighbor Vickie figured out a stroller ride calmed newborn Frannie, and asked if I’d like to come along. We’d meet after dinner and, with a baby buggy between us, explore many streets in the neighborhood. As Frannie gaped and cooed at passing details, Vickie and I talked about everything, including the languorous sun drooping behind the silver maples of Maxine, Beard, Woodside, Lynwood, Calumet, Blanchard, Kensington. We went wherever we felt like going.
Eventually Frannie learned to go to sleep without her daily wheeling, but thanks to her daddy holding down the fort, her mom and I kept walking.
As the days shortened, we found ourselves starting out in dusk, each night noting decreasing minutes of light. When finally our whole walk was in the dark, I thought we couldn’t keep it up.
There are all kinds of logical arguments, after all, for not going out after dark. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught as women. We’ve been marooned in fear. But we enjoyed our nightly strolls so much we didn’t want to stop. So we didn’t. We take sensible precautions, but we’ve found it quite possible to feel at home, in the neighborhood that is our home, even after dark.
Spending three or four hours a week meandering into the night like we own it has been exhilarating and liberating. It is a luxury. It’s an antidote for claustrophobia. It’s a guarantee, almost always, of a better night’s sleep.
After dark, the neighborhood yields a remarkable glowing magic. This matters to my sense of our place, which so often saddens and worries me. At night the houses look calm and inviting, their rectangles and orderly panes of indoor light distinct and intriguing. We appreciate particular front porches, where porch lights frame interesting doors, brick steps, trellises, roof angles, and climbing ivy. We wouldn’t so much notice these in daylight, when many details blend together in equalizing swathes of sunbeams.
That is, we see things differently in different kinds of light. Part of the magic is it’s never really dark. Yet night light is different from the light of day: the variegated oranges, ochres and ambers of artificial light, the silvery moonlight through canopies of hardwoods – it’s elegant, nuanced, etched in mystery.
We pick blocks to stroll that have the best streetlights, and our progress from one cone of light to another is rhythmic and metered. Like a good poem, we move from dark to light to dark to light.
One night Vickie said when you walk the neighborhood after dark, it looks like every family is happy. The quality of inside light, enjoyed from our outsiders’ view, is serene. It’s possible to imagine that lovely light means lovely life – it’s possible to imagine, a cozy, hopeful visual illusion. When we walk by the lit-up houses, in other words, they make us happy. That’s a kind of truth, a trick of the darkness and the light we all provide to counter it.
Saint John of the Cross’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul” describes a journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. It’s instructive that that trip of the spirit takes place at night. Saint John’s pilgrimage involves the “purification of the senses,” a step the darkness accommodates very well. We rest our bodies, at night, from the daylight stimulations of eyes and ears, the way in yoga class we sometimes roll soft eyewraps around our heads to give the brain a break. People need a rest from daylight. What we find at night can be a journey rich with gifts. Even in Flint, there can be a happy darkness.