darkness

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

This Year’s Darkness

It always happens on Thanksgiving week: the rain, the cold, and the darkness all descend at once. One week, it is autumn: I think about winter as a future entity, a thing that will happen to me someday. The next week winter has descended, like a gavel to a bench.

As I drive home from work, the twilight bends towards night, and the gray of the fog, the drizzle, the sheen of the road, the glass-smooth water on the inlet, blend into one dark blanket. I navigate my way home by following the taillights in front of me. It is dark now, I tell myself. I feel like I’m breathing deep, sending oxygen to my toes, preparing for the plunge into winter, for the ten long weeks of darkness before February brings a promising light, a long burning glow beneath the cloud cover.

This year the darkness is darker. I don’t need to tell you why.

(Yesterday on the drive home his voice came on my radio. He was shouting to a crowd in Ohio, boasting about how big he had won. “I can’t stand it,” I said, leaning my head towards the backseat. I didn’t want Smoke, my eight-year-old, to be taken in by his bravado. “Who?” Stump, my three-year-old, asked me. “I don’t even like to say his name,” I said. “Me neither,” Smoke solemnly agreed. “Voldemort,” I said. Stump accepted that answer. It was dark, of course, when this happened.)

I have a new favorite book: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by the great William Steig. It’s for children, but it’s also for me. In it, Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble and accidentally changes himself into a rock. He is immobile and, because he can’t touch the rock, he can’t un-wish his wish. It seems to be an impossible predicament. How will he ever return to himself?

Sylvester’s parents are stricken. They cannot find him nor can they find any clues about his disappearance. Many pages of the book serve only to mark the passage of time, in which all parties struggle to come to terms with their new situation. Sylvester descends into a long, deep sleep. Seasons pass. And here is my favorite page:

wolf-2

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

This page is my favorite because nothing further happens with this wolf. He is not instrumental to the plot. This is his only page. He shows up, he howls in hunger, he leaves. He animates the story’s grief. The pads of his paws, through a layer of snow, touch the rock that is Sylvester. He will survive this season, but the season will require him to suffer.

Like Walking in the Dark

It’s night by the time we arrive at the camp. The office is closed and outside, beneath a single porch light, there is a piece of paper with my last name and cabin number: C7. R, my companion, has been here before. She picks up a map and traces it with her finger. We load our bags into a cart and wheel it along a dirt path.

Even with R’s flashlight, I find it hard to get my bearings. Small green lanterns mark the edge of the trail, but don’t offer enough light to illuminate the grounds. I can barely make out the edges of tree trunks, the outlines of cabin roofs. If I chose to be overwhelmed, I could be. Instead I choose to believe that our cabin will reveal itself to us eventually. I keep following R’s lead as she shines her light on cabin porches, trying to find the row marked C. Eventually, we do.

Though there are forty cabins, it feels as though we are the only ones here. The grounds are silent. The whole forest is still. I am walking through a world I’ve never visited before, a world that will be revealed to me once the sun rises. There is a magic in that.

*

Three weeks ago, Kellie and I bought a house. We’d been looking for a new home for more years than I can count. I can’t count them because we moved in out of looking; we moved from casual to serious to casual and back again. I’ve thought about writing an essay titled “A Tour of Houses We Almost Bought.” There have been a lot of them. Often we looked at a house and decided: “This makes sense for us. We should make an offer.” But then we didn’t follow through.

“I guess we’re not buying that house,” I’d observe a few days later.

“I guess we’re not,” Kellie would agree. “Should we?”

We were waiting for a feeling. We weren’t sure if that made us foolish or smart. I’m still not sure. But this house we’ve finally chosen is big in every sense. It is a big house on a big piece of land. It is wide-open pasture and a big-sky view. But, more than anything, it is big in what it will demand from us. Right now Kellie is giving her life to the walls and the floors, readying them.

In some ways, it feels like the house chose us, like what we were looking for all along wasn’t some practical place that would suit our collective needs, but a place that would challenge us to dream and grow.

I spend my days now flitting back and forth between work and one home and the next, chasing my kids around, delivering food to Kellie who is covered in plaster dust, wondering when I will find the time to put things in boxes, to actually organize us for the imminent move. I’m not sure when this move will happen. I’m not sure of anything right now. I feel caught in the motion of change, but mystified about what that change will bring, about what it will feel like to land in this new place, to wake up there, to make dinner there, to watch my children play there. It feels a little like walking in the dark.

image credit: ehoyer, Creative Commons License 2.0

Embracing Darkness

It’s November now, and I’m afraid of the oncoming winter and the speed at which it descends.

I’m afraid of the way darkness begins to swallow my day at both ends. Every week we lose about eighteen minutes of daylight, nine in the morning, nine in the evening, until those minutes add up to hours, and evening isn’t evening anymore–it’s night.

I’m afraid of the way rain descends like a blanket over the remaining daylight hours. When it arrives, it seems it will never leave. I wake to the sound of rain in darkness. Hours later, after tea and breakfast, I peer through the window, trying to assess the shape and force of the rain.

I am afraid of the feeling I get, a tension that sits between stomach and ribs, when I run from my house to my car, my head bent to keep from getting wet, and then bent all day in my windowless office, down, down, always looking down. I leave work in darkness, arrive to darkness, and all that awaits me is a cold house, a tired wife, and a set of tasks to be done before bedtime. That tension beneath my ribs grows and takes over my body until I am nothing but sinew and fatigue.

I am afraid of the television, afraid that it will take over my house like a monster.

I am afraid of the piles of clutter in my house, because now there is no sunny, open yard to escape to.

I am afraid of my nearly 2-year-old son, afraid that his climbing, inquisitive, joyous spirit cannot be contained indoors.

I’m afraid of the noise, the epic screeching noise of cooped-up kids in my very small home.

I’m afraid of the Christmas season, of all the projects I take on and never complete, of obligations I’ll perceive but never fulfill.

Photo by C.S. Berney

I remind myself that winter is a season. Seasons pass. More importantly, each one has its purpose, a goal it wants to involve you in, a prescription for your personal growth.

Spring: Renew.

Summer: Play.

Fall: Gather.

Winter: Look inward.

Earlier this week, I drove alongside the bay at high tide and thought about how the Pacific Northwest, now more than ever, feels like home. It was a balmy morning. I had awoken to the hammer of rain, but by the time I left the house, there were cloud breaks. The world was wet and the sky was dynamic—storm clouds and patches of blue. The kids and I walked the four blocks to Smoke’s school and it was a world of giant puddles and dead worms and, even better: a giant red toadstool that seems to double in size every day.

toadie

I thought about how darkness can be kind, like a womb, how it can push me deeper into myself, reengage me in the creative work of knowing my own soul.

Winter, I am sorry, but you are harder to love than summer with its endless twilight and warm lakes. You are harder to love than green spring and crisp fall. You are just plain hard to love, but I will try.