At the time of night-prayer, as the sun slides down,
The route the senses walk on closes,
the route to be invisible opens.
Rumi, Persian poet, 1207-1273
Early January, and the days are lopsided with dark hours. We have gone through the holidays, when Christmas lights break through the winter darkness. They stretch as white, blue, and red strings along roofs, adorning fences, rolled in circles around trees of all sizes. But now they start to fade as people either pull them down or just stop hitting the switch that covered the dark winter night for a few festive weeks.
For some odd reason, I am reading Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night's Journey Into Day during this dark time of year. It is a collection of essays, poems, and stories about lives during the darkness, written by insomniac writers of the past and present. They range from Rumi poetry, to Richard Byrd's account of sleep in an Arctic shelter, to the Mohawk native Americans and their origin story from the stars.
Many of the authors speak of the incredible expanse and power of the nighttime sky. The naturalist Rachel Carson writes of camping on the headland of a bay, where "the horizons were remote and distant rims on the edge of space. Millions of stars blazed in darkness and on the far shore a few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of human life." She laments how so many people take all this for granted.
It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead.
Other writers note the power of the night to stir our senses. The explorer Byrd lived alone in the Arctic for six months, and led a highly routinized existence in order to survive. "My whole life here in a sense is an experiment in harmony....But a man can live a lifetime in a few half-dreaming moments of introspection between going to bed and falling asleep: a lifetime reordered and edited to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the mind."
I grew up on the edge of a small village, where the night sky was rarely thinned out by light pollution. The stars were sharp and distinct. Winter could be the most striking time to scan the heavens, as the air seemed so crisp and clear. The snow cover created a white expanse underfoot that created a reverse of the dark sky with its millions of white dots.
During other seasons, darkness would arrive later and conjure up other ghosts. We lived directly next to the village cemetery, bordered by an open field next to our house where we played baseball or kickball. For us neighborhood kids, dusk meant our ballgames would end and we would move to someone else's yard to play kick-the-can or capture-the-flag. While the cemetery field was great for any type of game, the proximity to hundreds of gravesites at night added a spooky dimension to night games. Being kids, we would make eerie noises or joke about midnight walks between headstones; but none of us would actually venture there.
Now I am in my 60s, and the darkness has other affects. Nighttime noise comes in different sizes -- the house siding crackling in extreme winter cold, or the train rolling between hills across the valley. But that's not what makes my sleep restless or keeps me awake at 4:00am. The darkness limits external vision and seems to enhance the visions or pictures that arise internally in the mind and heart. Those thoughts start rolling around the internal senses, ranging from angst to hope to wonder.
When the morning light arrives, the darkness is chased. The night visions no longer seem overwhelming or unmanageable. I do not blame the darkness, as if it were an evil magician. Even as a kid, I knew that we could still play in the dark.