Wednesday, July 20, 2005

After Dark.

Wilmington, NC, like many places in the United States, is not a walkable city. In my alacritous hurry to flee from Columbus, Ohio, to this coastal enclave in the South, I assumed that it was, based on its comfy geographical area and small population. So now I live five miles from downtown on the Cape Fear River, and five miles from Wrightsville Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. In short, I live in a sidewalkless, motor-necessary stretch of suburbia in which the very idea of traveling on foot involves crossing major state routes that time the traffic lights to kill you when you attempt to do so. It’s Frogger, for those who can remember and identify with the concept.

So I, motorless, took the Wal-Mart bicycle to the beach (and everywhere else) for a while, before the rear wheel bearing locked up, three post-warranty months later, and told me to never buy anything from Wal-Mart again. Live and learn. But, being famously stubborn, I will still walk three miles for diversions that other folk merely drive to. And so I discovered wonders of the walk in the dark.

There’s a town-center mall, of the kind that’s all the rage these days, about three-plus miles from my apartment. A bus goes there now, but I’m remarkably bad at adhering to schedules, so I missed it and decided to walk there the other day. I’m also bad at reading movie time postings, so I got there after Batman Begins had already started. 50 minute walk, on a North Carolina Summer day, all for nothing.

And so I walked back home. Long walks are neither alien nor burdensome to me, as I walked home from my senior year of high school five miles from my school, which my grandparents’ suburban address had allowed me to attend after I had been expelled from the second Catholic school that I had unsuccessfully attended. (Some folks just don’t do rules well, and I was a remarkably obstinate teenager.)

But something that I did get to experience was…darkness. As a lifelong urbanite whose memory bank is immersed in the buzz and glow of streetlights, I don’t really see much darkness of the inky, rural variety: it’s something that I may have experienced, long ago, on camping expeditions as a Boy Scout, but something that I truly don’t remember.

When I walked home from the Mayfair Theater, I understood darkness.

There are no streetlights on rte 74/76/Eastwood Road when you walk down it after 9PM. There weren’t any to begin with. But a city kid can come to understand the idea of blackness, the notion that besides the headlights and the traffic lights, there is simply no artificial light at all, and hence, on a cloudy night, virtually no light. And so I looked at my feet, because that was about all I could see with any degree of clarity, so that I wouldn’t trip over anything.

I came to realize that in the dark, you are free. You react to the frogs and the deer and the palmetto bugs at the last instant, because that’s the first instant in which you can actually observe them. The remainder of the time, it is you, and darkness. The dangerous, thrilling tenuousness of blackness all about drags one into an immediacy so powerful that a quickly-beating heart and the understanding that you’re invisible to the cars whipping by at 55mph becomes a blessing, a reminder that you’re alive. I felt so focused and so vibrant that everything circling about in my addled brain actually shut up for a moment, told me to see what is, because that’s what was going to get me home safely. In the dark, there is no space for daydreaming and conjecture.

Eventually, nearly an hour later, I arrived home, having navigated the blackness into the lights of urban sprawl, the glow of an area sprung forth near the university from I-40’s expansion into Wilmington. The air-conditioning and safety of my apartment were comforting, but they were also, oddly, disappointing. In the dark I was alive; now I merely subsisted. Then a quote about darkness intruded into my reflection:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Granted, MacBeth's take on the dark was none too uplifting, because he had used darkness as a shield and a cloak to disguise his own inner lust and greed, and like any force too powerful to be manipulated, the darkness had turned on him: as Birnan wood came calling, and his stolen time ran short, he realized that there was a bill to be paid. But darkness is a thing of beauty as well as a thing of terror--it suspends the illusory quality of the visual world and leaves us in a place of compelling presence. It reminds us of the brevity of existence, without doubt, just as we understand the brevity of a day. But understanding the brevity of something is also to understand its value--to realize that time and effort are things not to be squandered, that life is fragile and ephemeral, a wondrous thing to be admired and appreciated all the more for its transitory nature.

I won't take that walk again, for the reasons I cited initially: it's bloody stupid and dangerous to cross a six-lane road with cars travelling at interstate speeds when it's pitch black out and no one can see you. But I am glad that I took it once. Darkness hides a lot from us, but it also reveals much. Cloaked in the rural no-man's-land between two small pockets of urban light on a sultry Southern eve, I felt unified and alert, no longer distracted and distant. If the dark can grant that gift, who knows what other subtleties, what undiscovered lessons it holds? Like anything mysterious, the dark can seem ominous and forbodeing. But looked at through a different lens, it is merely a different landscape, in which bats and deer, frogs and insects pick up the slack for their resting diurnal cousins, among them the sleeping world of humans. In the abyss of the night, when the air is quiet and the anarchic cacophany of day recedes, the absence of light can create a light of a very different kind--the light of dawning awareness.


Blogger Hamel said...

A wonderful read, EJ. I love how you note that darkness changes our interaction with reality. And the 50 minute walk all for nothing? Only in the movie world. ANd based on your review, probably a bit prophetic.

Wed Jul 20, 08:37:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dublin Saab said...

Very interesting to get the perspective on a life long city kid. I, as you know, grew up in the woods so for me it's the artificial daylight of the city that's a bit alien.

Next you need to experiance the true brightness of a full moon away from the glow of sodium lights.

Wed Jul 20, 11:03:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Katie B. said...

This has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to log in and say, "Hi!" I also wanted to tell you that I just read this great book, Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen. OMG!!! It was fantastic! I was disappointed when it ended, only b/c it was so great - the ending was fab too - deeply satisfying - like really good ice cream only filled with full flavor humor! Did you recommend it to me? I know I've been wanting to read it for a while but it's always out at the PL. I found a pbk at Costco and devoured it. Have you read it? It is crazy full of these vividly weirdola characters and interconnected strangeness - it is ripe with fun! I also read his juv book called, Hoot a while back. it was quite fun too. Now that I'm finished with this read I don't know what to do with myself!?
I also read, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It was ok up until the boring ending. I rec, Skinny Dip to anyone looking for a fun summer read.
I'll reconnect with your actual posts when luvvy and I get off the yacht, darling. ;-p

Thu Jul 21, 05:59:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nightcrawler said...

Very good post EJ. Like Hamel, I too enjoyed the link between the reality that we experience and the darkness. Things are so much different at night. Your senses are finer tuned, the smells and sounds are different and even the air takes on a differnt quality. Doesn't sound like a wasted trip at all to me.

Thu Jul 21, 10:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

Your post reminded me of my all-time favorite memory with one of my best friends at school. She's from NYC and we went camping together and I will never, ever forget how terrified (in a good way) she was of the firmament and milky way our first night out.

Thu Jul 21, 11:27:00 PM EDT  

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