thou shall not confuse night with darkness

Image 1


After all those years of quiet desperation spent in the library it finally occurred to them that the meaning of the phrases they had taken to be metaphorical actually was to be understood literally. One of them said it, said it twice as if a discovery this horrendous and yet simple and elegant, had to be given a reflecting twin to cast light into the darkness of their ignorance. One of them instantly began to tear at the fine web of cross references and foot notes he had been weaving patiently for years and without ever questioning the worthiness of this pursuit, but they were like angel hair or glass wool and cut his hands with fine sharp lines out of which blood emerged like red pearls on a string. “I shall not be told convinced” he blurted out, not holding back now, “All those weeks, months, even years, sitting in the dark like a toad, with my skin starting to resemble the parchment  of the oldest books we had delivered from unknown depths of the library, all that knowledge I have assembled in my humble brain that has me compete with the most elaborate encyclopedias of this library, all this weaving and threading of letters, words, meaning, phrases is to be ridiculed by a simple, single and singular shining truth. What of the darkness that we have illuminated with stray thoughts of meaning, what of the wondrous glimmer of an insight long desired and yet so small that it is like a single candle flicker in a great hall. What of its beauty and possibilities? Look at your single truth that already shines into every corner now that you have unlocked its secret, that leaves no shadow, no desire, no discovery, no randomness and outshines all my small beautiful candles. How am I supposed to live with something so simple and shining when I have dedicated my whole life to the complex, hidden, wondrous discovery of paradox answers, when I love the darkness in which a single light shines, when i am a creature of the night and dedicated to a pursuit without hope? How am I to rise out of my darkness into this shining, merciless light?” And he began crying miserably, holding his bloodied hands out as if he was asking for a charitable donation, and the others looked on in silence.


Canis Major as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a ...

Canis Major as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Next to it are Lepus and Columba (partly cut off). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Your fist like this”, she said, “covers about 10 degrees of the night sky.”  She moved my hand slowly over the dark water and spoke in her methodical way, no use to interrupt her. “20 degrees south-east of the belt of Orion, you see, there is the brightest star in the night sky, right in the constellation of Canis Major.” She waited for a moment for me to catch up with her. Our entwined hands travelled over the night sky and stopped. And there it was, deep underneath us, the brightest star of the night sky, as far as I could see. “Do you see this star?” she asked. “It is called Sirius. It is 23 times more luminous than our sun, twice the mass and the diameter of the sun. It is only 8.5 light years away.” The way she said “only 8.5 light years”, it sounded as if she was talking about a Sunday picnic destination. It sounded like: We could take the bike. It’s only 8.5 light years away. Before I had a chance to point that out to her, however, she had started talking again, and almost without warning, though in answer of my question, switched from her facts, from degrees between two points of light in the celestial sphere, luminosity and brightness, and mass of celestial objects, to a startling revelation.


time, oscillating

Station Clock

Station Clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the meantime I discovered the places “where the seams come undone”, as my mother called it. Every classroom in my school had a clock on the wall right over the door, and all the clocks had identical clock faces, and every one of them showed a slightly different time.

I don’t know whether clocks in classrooms today are all connected to one central, totalitarian time piece as I suspect might be the case, though I hope it is not so. I always loved the way time oscillated between classes, obstinately refusing to be tamed. Officially, students had three minutes to walk to the next classroom after a period ended. But for the way from science to math, for example, you’d better made do with 1 minute and 29 seconds – the clock in Ms. Kirsch’s class was as fast as our teacher’s ability to conjure numbers out of the back entrance to Hilbert’s Hotel and as inexorable as her refusal to admit to time measured outside her class room.

On the other hand, you could afford to leisurely stroll to French after that, using not only the 1 minute and 31 leftover seconds from math but also the 40 seconds the French clock was late, giving you an ample 5 minutes and 11 seconds (not counted the additional minute or two Mme. Petite rustled with her papers, ignoring her students’ ongoing conversation). The clock in language arts had the peculiar and infamous habit of stopping at exactly 12.01 pm every couple of weeks and could only be persuaded back into service by Superintendent Segrob who, for that very reason, was particularly fond of it, and year after year insisted on repairing rather than replacing it.

Every day for a few moments just before noon instruction in language arts paused and everyone’s eyes followed the unhurried second hand making its way from 11.59.59 am to just after 12.01.02 pm. It was almost like a pagan ritual, these approximately sixty-three seconds of silence, as if we were paying our respects to the spirit of the clock, Time. Time, sputtering, fleeing, stopping, resuming its course, divided itself up over the 79 clocks in our school according to its own preference. With other words, it seemed to be on our side and refused to be institutionalized.

I know that the language art clock did not stop on that day. I don’t think it would have been possible for it to stop while I was willing it on. Apart from Time herself though nobody noticed that I counted every second of the school day, 24,000 seconds in all, stops, gains and losses, until, at last, the 2.47 pm bell wrapped it all up hurriedly and dropped the leftovers for the time dogs.

a questionable moral choice

a questionable moral choice

My pale, transparent reflection in the window pane confirmed another aspect that I had omitted when thinking about the ever morphing, transitional aspect of every physical space. I was a transitional being as well. Everything had to change. Only yesterday … Continue reading

Woe to the unfortunate stranger who should come upon the gate they were keeping

For a brief moment also I did wonder now whether I was still dreaming. Yet the wet sand, the sea gulls of the lake circling overhead, the light on the water, the dark blue reflections of the two adjacent Mountains, Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah, in the misty mirror of the lake on the distant Southern shore, everything had a coherence that was not dreamlike. And yet the situation was surreal, not only because I had fallen asleep on my bed and woken up on a wet, cold beach hundreds of miles away from home. The sun, for example, was incredibly small, too small for our planet, planet earth. In the east the sharp crescent of a waxing moon, greeting the morning with disdain, was accompanied by a second crescent, a twin moon. And the surface underneath me was still breathing. And yet I knew the silhouettes of the twin peaks by heart. My mother used to tell us on warm summer nights, when the sun had already left the sky and only the patient outlines of the rock formations on both sides of the lake were still cutting into the advancing darkness, that the mountains were ancient guardians who were forgotten by their masters and not having been relieved of their duty had decided to keep their post to the edge of doom. Woe to the unfortunate stranger who should come upon the gate they were keeping. Lake Willoughby was an incredibly deep, glacial, water filled ravine, and there was some sparse folk lore about creatures living in the dark, about a connecting underground acquifer between the lake and its twin lake, Crystal Lake, to the West behind Mount Hor. It was a strange place, but being as remote had kept all stories at bay.

I sat still for a while, waiting for the scenery to change or disappear like dream images do, especially if you pay too much attention to the details, but the situation was as real as you can imagine, and not prone to change any more than Ms. Havenshire’s classroom during an especially tedious lecture on a philosophical concept that excited her. I stared around for a while, bravely ignoring the piercing cold, trying to take an inventory of everything. Except for the strange planetary constellations, the lake seemed real. I had never been up here in fall but I imagined it to look as lonely and cold as it did now. It is not exactly a lively place even in summer. And in winter, once the snow started, it would be one of those places that were cut off from the outside world for weeks on end, alas with the local people being prepared for it and not disconcerted by a few inches more or less of snow or even by massive boulders coming thundering down the mountains just like every winter. There was no skiing and therefore no seasonal dwellers in winter. Both, Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah were too steep and fully covered with trees.

I was shivering violently now, my clothes were as damp as if I had actually spent the night unprotected on the beach. When I finally stumbled up to my feet, it took me a moment to find my balance just as it would have on a big gym mat. I tried to disregard the breathing of the surface and made a few gingerly placed steps towards the water. What to do next? What to do if you are suddenly stranded in a place without any preparation or at least warning? Why was I here? In a dream, typically, events keep unfolding and you keep reacting but the lake was quiet with quick shadows dancing over the surface. I stopped at the water’s edge. Little waves arrived at the shore with a sweet sound. Light was dancing silver on the ripples. I was getting colder by the second, shaking most convincingly.

I had to find shelter. There was a colony of summer cottages at the North Beach, they would be boarded up for the winter, but maybe I could find a way in all the same to warm up and think. It seemed a reasonable plan, if you can at all call it reasonable that you have to think about finding shelter in a dream. Again I asked myself what I would do once I got inside. Maybe there would be a phone but even if there was, it probably would be disconnected for winter. Would it even make sense to call home and ask for someone to please come and rescue me? How ever to explain how I got here? And would it be possible to call home even if I found a working phone? I turned around to scan the tidy row of vacation cottages at the North Shore to find one that would suit my improvised plan and I faced an impenetrable row of trees. The cottages were gone.

Without opening my eyes, I carefully and with a sense of controlled terror extended my other hand…

I lay curled up like a cat and I could feel the curve of my spine, I could feel my knees against my chest and my hand underneath my cheek. Without opening my eyes, I carefully and with a sense of controlled terror extended my other hand to feel the surface of my quilt. I would know the stitching of its pattern, the softness of the filling having long since relaxed against the fabric. My fingers gently touched the surface. I hesitated. It felt grainy. Not grainy like cookie crumbles. Grainy, like sand. When I thought “sand”, I shoved my fingers deeper into the surface. They did not meet much resistance. I pushed easily into the sand like I would, aimlessly, on a beautiful day on the beach. All the while the surface underneath me was breathing. I had to open my eyes to find myself. I wondered whether I was still dreaming, and for a moment considered trying to drift back into nothingness, but I felt wide awake, too awake.

So I did. I opened my eyes. It was not dark at all as I had fully expected, yet the sun was pale, far away in the winter sky, just so illuminating the grey mists rising up from the water. I knew where I was. I was most definitely not on my bed in Summerville, NJ. I was curled up, like the sole survivor of a ship wreck, on the shore of a lake. I sat up, stunned, on the wet sand, numb with cold as much as with surprise. I knew the beach. It was small. I had spent many summers here with my family. I was sitting on the North Shore Beach of Lake Willoughby.

All things considered, it was strange that my mind accepted this truth so readily. I didn’t think: I must be dreaming. I didn’t look for an explanation.

the earth itself, underneath my body, was a breathing organism, like a gigantic whale you find yourself stranded on

How hard my mind had to work to keep control, to still try to make sense out of a wealth on information that had long stopped to be apprehensible by any rules I had been led to understand applied. But only submission to the world of grown-ups would have you believe that they were – in general – truthful about the world. I didn’t believe this anymore but tried to rely on my own senses instead. It was treacherous ground.

For example that night. As I lay in the dark, eyes closed though wide awake, the surface of my bed felt soft as was to be expected, but it felt soft in the way I had experienced and shied away from before. It seemed to be soft in an organic, breathing way. I tried to distinguish between my own breathing pattern and the breathing of that soft, pliable surface I felt underneath my body.  It was an uncanny feeling – but just ask yourself how many sensations you can really clearly distinguish besides soft and hard, warm and cold, pain and pleasure. Truth is, you constantly rely on additional sensations and context to tell you about the thing you are experiencing through just one of your senses to make sense of something.

What was it that I was feeling? Something that I feared, but I didn’t know why I feared it or whether I had reason to fear it in the first place as I was completely unaware of its nature. All I knew was that last time I checked my bed had not been breathing. As before it felt actually – and it made perfect sense to think those words as irrational as they might seem – that the earth itself, underneath my feet, my body, was a breathing organism, like a gigantic whale you find yourself stranded on. It didn’t make sense and I couldn’t explain to myself where that strange idea actually orginated. Nothing I had read or talked about lately had pointed in that direction. Remember, there was no internet and but little TV. None in our house, by the way.

And yet, I just felt it, right there and then, the surface underneath me belonged to something alive, and I knew I had to open my eyes to find out what was going on, but I was entirely too scared to live up to my own imaginative ability. All I could manage to do, pathetically,  was to continue breathing slowly just as I had done during those long ago nights when I had led some non-existing intruder to believe that I was asleep. And with each moment the sensation of a sighing, breathing surface underneath my body was getting stronger.

god and a decade ending with the brief and delirious ruling of acid freaks, post feminists and de-constructors of language

When I thought about the idea of god waking me (or not) I became afraid. There was a German lullaby by Brahms that my then ancient great-grandmother used to sing to me when I was really very little which ended with the words: “Tomorrow morning, if God wants so,
you will wake once again.…”  Our family life was altogether politically non-theistic, except for the great-grandmother who passed away when I was about four, but the idea of god deciding about my waking in the morning was still disconcerting. What if he did not want to? On a whim? Would I just sleep forever? Would I die? What if he plain forgot about me?

When I had asked my mother about the song she had explained to me that the lyrics dated to a time when it was understood that everything – everything – happened only with god’s consent and that these lines, by their content, did not deal primarily with the idea of god remembering to wake people or not.

I don’t know whether that explanation did much to put my anxiety to rest, I think probably not. But it certainly was with relief that one day I realized that I actively did not believe in god. That was an easy attitude to acquire in my family, by the way, and an easy attitude in that decade following the sixties, a decade ending with the brief and delirious ruling of acid freaks, post feminists and de-constructors of language which left a lasting impression on western societies and which was my intellectual parents’ undeniable contribution to a new cultural value system, a system that allowed for people like them to unfold their wings and discover entirely new horizons and ideas.  I don’t remember that we had ever attended any church service. Even wedding ceremonies in my parents’ circle of friends and family were civil ceremonies. No baptisms. Still, God remained a quaint distant relation who, after a history of misfortunes, had found asylum in old nursery rhymes and lyrics. All but forgotten and without charitable visitors, but hanging on.

My parents’ were avidly confessing atheists for many years until older age and the dawning sense of their own mortality softened their rhetoric. And yet, my childish sense of superstition, during the phase of their most decided and articulated stand on the topic, detected an ominous quality to the concept “god” and it took some years and my awakening intellect to overcome the threatening taste the fear of that forgotten but lingering god left in my mind. Maybe god explained and explored would have been easier to understand but I was pretty much left to my own devices to figure out what the idea of god stood for.  I vaguely feared god until I shed that fear pretty much like I had shed the fear of the nightly intruder eventually. Only much later did it occur to me that the elimination of god did not erase the randomness and with it the terror of the unpredictable nature of death.

Plinius, the cat

And Plinius. The cat. Plinius was on my side. You can’t bend a cat. You can’t make a perfect copy of a cat. In his own way, Plinius was less predictable than the most extravagant human could possibly be. Starting with his smell. Yes, he smelled like cat, but not like any old cat. He smelled specifically like Plinius. I have had plenty of cats all through my grown up life but not one of them has ever smelled anything like him. If it is true that we are normally not very good at remembering smells (and though we have invented devices to record and play back actual sound and images we have never invented any automaton that would – on request – conjure up a specific smell.), but that rule does not include remembering Plinius’ smell. Equal part cat litter, dust, fur and … realness. I don’t even have a comparison, a word for that smell, but I can say “Plinius” and I can actually smell him. He was very present and himself until he just wasn’t anymore, until, one day, without proper good-byes, he disappeared.

the dragon lair

I did not stop at the reception desk but walked straight towards the staircase leading up to the first floor. I felt confident, no adrenalin rush this time.

A demanding voice stopped me: “And where do you think you are going, Miss?” I stopped dead in my track. This was not supposed to happen. I turned around slowly and walked over to the reception desk. A no-nonsense woman, maybe in her mid-fifties, observed my progress critically. When I had reached the desk, I put on my nicest smile and stated: “ I have an appointment with Prof. H. I can just walk straight up, thank you.” “Prof. H.?” the woman inquired. The buttons of her starched and ironed shirt strained against her quivering bust. “Yes,” I answered, leaning over the polished desk a bit, lowering my voice, “I have been working on an assignment she gave me.” That did not seem to impress her much. I waited. “Feeling a bit funny, aren’t we” she answered without any expression. I changed my tactic: “Please, M’am, why don’t you just call and ask her,” I suggested. “Her office is on the first floor.” We stared at each other. She slowly turned red. “Where do you think you are,” she finally hissed, “a fancy hotel? Wall Street?” She exhaled deeply, then inhaled again, as if she was practicing her yoga breath. The shirt buttons were getting a good work-out which I noticed as a detail despite my growing annoyance. Why wouldn’t she just let me find my way as was custom in the building or at least call up? I was certain that Prof. H. wanted to see me just about as urgently as I wanted to see her. But the reception desk lady behaved like a dragon in front of a lair. I thought I could even smell her foul breath. “Listen, missy,” she snarled “I don’t know what you intend by walking straight into a men’s homeless shelter and I am sure I don’t want to know. I do not care whether you are looking for your daddy or grandpa, you have to wait until they come out. What I want, right now, is for you to leave this building through the front door and not bother me any further.” I took a step back. Men’s homeless shelter? I looked around. This was unmistakably the same lobby I had crossed through the last time. “Now. Missy,” commanded the voice of the dragon lady  “… or I will call the police to see you out.”