Wild city // Darkness and light

Most afternoons this time of year I think, “Oh, it is getting dark so early.” I have to laugh that I am still surprised, post-Thanksgiving, that the light is waning. Down, down we go, to the longest dark, the shortest light, of the year.

A woman at our church who died in her 90s used to talk to us each November about the beauty of darkness. We’d all be looking forward to the winter solstice, to the turning toward light, and she’d say, wait: Think of the richness that you have right now.

She knew darkness in its many facets. A night owl, she stayed up late, writing. She was revered in our community, a warm-hearted person, one who had survived a staggering personal tragedy. We listened to her closely, and tried to understand.

I’m no night owl. I like to be in bed by 10 p.m., but I sometimes awaken at 4 a.m. and have trouble getting back to sleep. A few years ago I began to think that rather than fight it, I should think of this interlude as my soul time.

It seemed that whatever I wasn’t addressing during the day was trying to make contact, was trying to get through to me in the wee hours of the night. Since then I have often been able to put words to what needed to be acknowledged, and then get back to sleep.

Just last night I realized that if I approach this wakefulness calmly, even when I am unable to put words to it, something moving in me, or through me, could still be both taken in and let go.

When I think of the transition, light to dark, what comes back to me is one particular day years ago. It must have been a weekend, well into the afternoon. I lay on my bed daydreaming. I was in my 30s, single, still trying to imagine myself into my life. On that day I felt an unusually broad and deep ease, no nervous stir of any kind.

My house back then, a rental, small and strange, sat on the edge of a small central Minnesota town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another house like it: made of cinderblock, painted sea green, with dark green shutters. It was the kind of funky dwelling my husband likes to call a Mary Jean house. The small front concrete stoop had cracked years before when an earthquake had rumbled through.

There was just one little shack beyond my house, and then farm fields and a farmhouse, crowing roosters, and guinea hens squabbling in the roadside ditches.

My bedroom looked out over my small backyard, where there were clotheslines, a gnarled old apple tree, a resident house wren that taunted my cats, a freely vining old stock yellow rose sprawling all over a hedge, and two beds of peonies.

The bedroom was painted sky blue. The faded curtains, blue also, had large red peony blossoms on them, sweetly echoing what stood in the flowerbed just beyond that wall, softening the line between inside and outside.

On that particular day, thinking of nothing at all, I lay on the bed gazing out the window at the sky. I lay there for hours, and watched the afternoon light ever so gradually dim to dusk, then to semi-dark, then to dark.

I am hard-pressed to pinpoint why I enjoyed this so much. I could say I am easily entertained. I could say it was a wildly stressful time, and the interlude of peace was a balm.

I could say it was a welcome counterpoint to the tension I felt in that house. I had bad dreams there regularly, of a family fighting. I had thought about going to the nursing home to visit the former residents and to see if I could learn anything. I wondered if that might help put down whatever it was they had left behind.

I could say that lying there put me in touch with my animal nature, with how soothing it is to just be alert to the world, to watch it and see what it does.

But I think mostly I was in touch that day with how accessible peace actually is, if I can only open myself to it. Just the turning of the day to night could provide it, out there beyond my window and walls. I could step into it, any afternoon I chose to, made the time to.  

I saw there was a trembling in that transition, and tenderness in the quality of light late in the day. I thought I heard the almost audible sigh that comes as the day turns, and then I felt settle over me the soft blanket of night that helps us sleep.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.