When I was younger, say nine, before ever watching crime television or probably ever experiencing 24 hour news as more than just background noise in my life, I would go to bed with the entire set of covers over myself, sometimes even the pillow over my head. I had four night lights, one was an angel. I had the story from my mother that houses with street lights never get robbed or forced over with intruders because they are too scared of the light. That stick pole of light was a deterrent to the bad in the world. Bad had many synonyms and many meanings. I imaged the villain climbing the large green recycling can to get to the roof to climb through my painted-shut second story window (my father is not delicate with a brush). I imagined a tree climbing villain, unmasked in his vanity, tiptoeing across a thin branch and knocking lightly before entering. I, of course, would never let him in.
All of this happened in the dark.
I am still feet itching, clammy palmed, pinched shut eye, afraid of the dark. Occasionally I will do things to conquer it which is really little more than entering it. Ghost tours in Williamsburg, trying to shower with only a night light in the morning to let myself adjust, keeping only one night light on in another room at night, not having to turn the porch light on every night so I can save the energy of the world. In winter, at my old house, I had almost a comfortable relationship with the dark when I was able to sit in the living room with the blinds open to the pitch-black porch. It was like looking through slivers of blackness, but not the whole (damn) thing. Just enough room for peeping eyes. Even this would scare me so much that I would turn off the only television in the house and head to my room to find other things to do in the artificial light of bedroom fan.
I’ve never related this to my spirituality in anyway. However, reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark, I realize that I have unconsciously submitted to thinking that the light is better than the dark. The light is the goodness, the dark is not. This is an archetype in literature that I have read since someone had to read to me. And now that it has been pointed out to me, I realize that it is absolutely not true. Even last night as I heard the hum of zombies (from my boyfriend marathoning The Walking Dead) while reading the book, I had to make my boyfriend close the sliding glass door and turn the rain (but mostly the darkness) off. I couldn’t handle the thought of zombies and the thought of darkness.
Not only that, but this idea has also caused hate towards other people. Race is a social construct based on lightness vs. darkness. Healing is “white magic” and Harry Potter is banned in some counties because of “black magic.” In 1984, one of my first YA dystopian novels, the people who control and force Newspeak are “of the dark,” and the main character and his posse plan to meet somewhere “where there is no longer darkness.” Not only that, but there is very little proof that street lights, or artificial lighting has decreased crime rates.
I didn’t buy this book for any of that.
I bought it because I thought it was a blind woman’s perspective on how she walks in the dark. I read three words of the blurb and thought, “how interesting it might be to be blind,” but I certainly don’t wish it on myself. What a got was an analysis of spirituality and revival by using the dark.
It opens with children. It opens with commentary on how parents bring very little darkness into children’s life unless it can be conquered. The original stories of the Brothers Grimm aren’t often read at Bedtime, particularly the one where Cinderella’s sisters get their eyes poked out by crows. I don’t know about you, but knowing the adult I am today, I probably would of liked this version.
My parents live by the idea that Easter is a time of white lilies and sunshine, and my mother, incredibly, is a woman of pure light. I associate this with her goodness. Barbara Brown Taylor introduced me to the idea that Jesus rose in darkness. Jesus became a man again in darkness. Jesus was in the hole of a cave, covered over by a stone so no light could peak(and peek) in. He was revived in the dark, the same way we are when we rest in the evenings.
She introduced me to the phases of the moon and how the moon, just as important as the sun, rises and falls, the same way a heroine must. The moon, often said to be a female.
Taylor also hit a concept that I often say to my students, but don’t live in. The idea that all characters have some dark and some light. A serial killer still has a mother that mourns his boy bowl cuts and school braces photos. A saint still wishes that of another person to trip in the street. There are dark emotions, but the world makes it a point to crush those, put time limits on them, and accept only a shallow amount of these emotions, as if when the dam is broken there will be no way to keep the flood of shadow away.
One of the main things that tip people toward garden-variety depression, she says, is a ‘low tolerance for sadness.’ It is the inability to bear dark emotions that causes many of our most significant problems, in other words, and not the emotions themselves. When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights, including but not limited to drugs, alcohol, shopping, shallow sex, and hours in front of the television set or computer (78).
I make this sound like a how-to live in the dark book though. That’s not it at all. This book took an emotional toll on me. Everything I had previously believed about pitch-black darkness just wasn’t true. And I had this epiphany just before accidentally picking out this book. I was walking my dog at 5 am, a time when I can assure you that only the dog and I exist in the world, and I looked up in the middle of the street and saw the stitch of stars, and they weren’t soft – they were loud. They were the loudest thing in that time of morning. And I just wanted to stand there and listen to them while Tucker sniffed the grass and the sounds of the world hadn’t started, and the only real thing I could hear was my breath, hot in the air, and the stars, making a catastrophe.
That’s why this book was a moment. It was a moment for me when things changed in my life, or are changing. I am inspired by the story of the man, Lusseyran, in Taylor’s book, who became blind at a young age and realized how much more power he had over his own sight when he had lost the actual sense.
Taylor says, “There is so much more visual information available to most of us than we really want to see that we close our eyes to think, to kiss, or to listen” (92). Lusseyran says only a few pages later, “With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body. ‘The oak, the poplar, the nut tree have their own specific levels of sound,’ he wrote by way of explanation” (104). Taylor talks about looking at a table and knowing its story by feeling the grooves of the marks left on it, the way it stands or leans, the gloss, the feel of the wood, all done in darkness.
I’ve never had this experience because I haven’t had to walk in darkness. I can always, in a first would country, turn on a light, unless I’m forced into natural disaster where then darkness is a thing we call the cable company about and complain that we are not able to keep our milk cold. I look for the right light for Instagram photos and filter more brightness into my life that way as well. I expect flashlights to widen their circle and shine. I rely on night lights to sleep still and snooze carefully.
This is not a lesson in self-help. This is a lesson in humanity. It’s what it means to see that you’ve missed a whole half of the world when you were looking clearly, and glaringly into the other half. It might be possible that I’ve spent too much of this quarter of life in the light and it’s time that I camped in the wilderness, kissed against bare winter trees in the evenings, and had more conversations with the man that I love when we can listen to our hearts in the dark because the noise has lessened and that is the only bright thing left in the room.