Perhaps it was the mention of constellations in the quote from Sarah Lewis last night, and the mention of W. S, Merwin’s poem that got me thinking about the dark, which features prominently in both. Perhaps it was a friend who wrote, “I have been to the heart of darkness and found it groundless.” Whatever it was set me thinking again about darkness and stars and poems, all of which have circled around and through each other for centuries.
Darkness is an interesting word. We use it to describe several different things that carry some sense of mystery and unknowing, and often some sense of pain. We are scared of the dark. We get lost in the dark. Darkness is a metaphor for depression, for sin, for the undiscovered, for the hidden, for the mysterious. We listen to the dark. We wait until dark. I went back through old notes and bookmarks to find some of my favorite quotes and poems about darkness. Here is a small sampling.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”
― Robert Frost, West-Running Brook
You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it. ― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
“Once upon a time,” he said out loud to the darkness. He said these words because they were the best, the most powerful words that he knew and just the saying of them comforted him.” ― Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
My favorite, however, is the lyric to Guy Clark’s song entitled, “The Dark.”
in the dark you can sometimes hear your own heart beat
or the heart of the one next to you
the house settles down after holding itself up all day
shoulder slumps, gives a big sigh
you hear no one’s foot fall in the hall
that drip in the kitchen sink marking time
june bug on the window screen can’t get in but he keeps on trying
one way or another we’re all in the dark
fireflies, sparks, lightning, stars
campfires, the moon, headlights on cars
the Northern Lights and The Milky Way
you can’t see that stuff in the day
when the earth turns its back on the sun
the stars come out and the planets start to run around
now they call that day is done
but really it’s just getting started
some folks take comfort in that
and how dark is it
it’s too dark for goblins
and how dark is it
it’s so dark you can smell the moon
how dark is it
it’s so dark the wind gets lost
how dark is it
it’s so dark the sky’s on fire
how dark is it
it’s so dark you can see Fort Worth from here
I love the images in the song about the house that has held itself up all day and that one way or another we’re all in the dark, but I think the tune hung with me today because it asks another question: how dark is it?
The sun was up for less than nine and a half hours here in the Shoreline, as this region is called, and it was cloudy and rainy to boot. The days will continue to shrink for another three weeks. The darkness is not yet at high tide. I got up in the dark and rode the train home in the dark—at 4:30. Though I quickly find the romance of now being able to stand in our backyard and see a sky full of stars at night, thanks to the dark, I also know its weight and seemingly unending depth when the darkness stands for depression. I. too, have been one acquainted with the night. And on this night, I found a Mary Oliver poem in the dark that was new to me:
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
The last line of the song unwraps a gift for me: it’s so dark you can see Fort Worth from here. When I look backwards through my life, I can see the seedlings of my depression beginning to grow when I lived there. I didn’t know what it was then. I recognize it now, the way you see foreshadowing in a novel you’re reading for the second or third time. Even so, my memories of Fort Worth are infused with the joy that came from those days as Youth Minister at University Baptist Church, for the young people who taught me how to be a part of a group, and we all learned how to love one another.
Tonight, it’s also dark enough to see Charlestown and Winchester and Marshfield, too; and it’s dark enough to see Durham as well. How dark is it? It’s dark enough to be reminded of the love of friends scattered across the country—even the world, of the hope that continues to catch me by surprise, of the gifts of grief and gratitude and grace.
How dark is it? Dark enough to be thankful.