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The On Being Project

When the Light Drains the Night

Solstice, the shortest day, and the light is falling too early through the cabin windows, the cabin falling dark too quick. Holding my eyes wide open, I have said to the white-gray light all day, and plead with it now in its hour of pageantry: don’t go. All day I have worried I will grow old.

The pageant retreats, bleeds the mass of pines on the ridge like ink running down the bare hills. Venus beaming hard as quartzite in the western sky and the night stretching out like a dark sea before me, I walk out across the frozen fields, out under the pines. At times I have wanted to tether my body to this ground and cry out, I will never leave you! (The ways that I plead and bargain against all reason with the sun and Earth.)

Recently I untethered myself from another, from a future I thought I’d have, from the lips that told me, Here is the world. I craved these days of solitude (ten days speaking to no one in the midwinter, seeing no one). This emptiness. With my future undone, I am trying very much to live in the present. I am clinging and grasping to each day. I feel time is slipping from my grip, that there are days gone that can never be gotten back, that I am falling and that there’s nothing at all to stop me, nothing to hold me here.

But the cedars, for a moment, hold me now, in the throw of their shadow, in the needled moonlight. I have been studying the cedars, the junipers, and pines to see what kinds of deals they might be striking, to try to catch them down on their knees. I have looked at them these past fast days, in the pale morning, or in the bright blue afternoon, when the sun sparkles, or when the silent mists drift along the ridges, or when the sky streaks orange and blazes in the evening. I have looked hard into their deep green boughs. I cannot find sorrow there.

When the light drains from their branches, I cannot hear them whispering, Stay, just here. I cannot see their branches grasping. I only see them barely swaying, silent, turning green to black, while I am forever in the pre-trembling of bones turned brittle.

(Erik Drost / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved.)

White sheep grazing in the moonlight along the sloping fields. The barn standing dark and quiet. In the corner, three baby goats hunched together in the hay. I go to them, lean in to smell their sweet fur, touch the almost invisible bones under their faces.

This world! How many old, dusty-smelling barns filled with hay and goats, how many sheep grazing on hillsides in the moonlight have kept a person from falling into the abyss — have, for a moment, held a person aloft?
Because I have seen the quick slip of light in the west, because I have felt the Earth spinning, because I know it will stop for no one, that there is no deal I can strike, I linger there, in the stillness, mingling my breath with theirs.

I hope, if they could scrutinize and judge, as humans will, the way I spend my time on Earth, that they would not say I have spent this shortest day unwisely — in silence, reaching deeper into the sorrow, watching the lighted sky.

A field of dandelions at sunset. (Tobias Moser / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved.)

This piece was written partly as a response to Galway Kinnell’s poem “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” and plays with a couple of his phrases.

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