Although it’s sometimes hard to tell, we’re in the season of rising light.
Some of us have a confused relationship with this time of year. The prevailing story, at least in Western culture, has a particular purchase on anyone who’s lived through a northeastern, Midwestern, or Great Plains winter: that story relates the flare of cheer in the Christmas season, followed by a plunge into the long, dark, depressing slog of January, February, and March. People who live in this story yearn for sunlit beaches, skimpy clothing, and drinks with little umbrellas in them, reminding them of what they’ve temporarily left behind. Anyone with aching snow-shoveling muscles in New England after this week’s blizzard will attest to the power of this story of the season. The rising of the light—the lengthening of days—is a promise of kinder times ahead.
Many of us in central Texas long—perversely, perhaps—for this story to ring true here as well. (I’m wife or mother of some of them.) We yearn for a white Christmas, and when the late December temperature creeps up to the 80 degree mark, we moan, “It’s not supposed to be like this! It’s supposed to be cold!” Despite the prevailing story that cold and dark are to be dreaded, in central Texas this is the season to yearn for, the season of dark and (intermittent) cold. For at least some of the year, it’s the light and heat, not the cold and dark, that can be downright unpleasant, almost unbearable. I feel that our winter and spring (so compressed they can be conflated) are the equivalent of fall in New England: tourists come and say, “How beautiful!” but the natives sigh, knowing that what’s just ahead will require some toughness to get through. Here it can be a real pleasure to burrow into the dark; the rising light brings with it a whiff of the (probable) scorching to come.
My musing on light has its roots in non-climatological terrain as well; Martin and I are in a group that’s reading and discussing Genesis: Translation and Commentary, by Robert Alter. Although there’s no particular comment on that most famous of first utterances, Let there be light, I can’t help but think about what it might mean that light is the firstborn of creation, at least according to Jews and Christians. This light is distinctive from sun- and moonlight, which weren’t created until the fourth day, and which seem to be subordinate to the aboriginal light of the first day. As God’s breath hovered over the waters, over the deep, and the darkness, God spoke, and there was light. And God saw the light: presumably this means that God had not experienced light before this moment, although virtually everything I just wrote—God, experienced, light, before this moment—should probably be in quotation marks or resting upon a tower of footnotes. But according to this story, light is humanity’s older sibling, both of them created by that which knew the deep, the dark, the tohu-bohu before they did in a distinctive way: before the light.
I’ve also been lurching my way through Marilyn Robinson’s elegant new screed Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, in which she argues against what she sees as an absurdly reductive definition of the human brain and mind by some, perhaps many, modern scientists, a definition that refuses to take into account what she calls “that haunting I who wakes in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently.” This “haunting I,” so profoundly felt, is dismissed by those scientists (or “parascientists,” as she calls them) as mere subjectivity or, worse, evidence of the annoyingly persistent and primitive superstition we moderns call religion.
In one of those serendipitous encounters with my subconscious, as I reread Robinson’s description of this persistent human sense of hauntedness, of leasing interior real estate to someone you recognize but don’t really know, I read the next sentence completely wrong. She writes: “Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM.” Except at first, I read “I AM”—God’s own self-definition—as “1 A.M.”
I AM often awake at 1 a.m., in the deepest dark of the night, the time when most of us know ourselves to be haunted. If you awaken at 1 a.m. with a dream vibrating in your mind, the dream stays with you in ways that it doesn’t when you wake to light. Sometimes you can play with the dream, poke and shape it in ways that make it pop when it encounters daylight. Sometimes at 1 a.m. you can be wide awake and create as complicated a nightmare as any dreaming mind can produce. To stalk the mind at night—at least, for some of us—is to move as close to the realm of tohubohu, of aboriginal chaos, as created beings are able to get, at least without ingesting psychotropic drugs or harrowing the hell of human atrocity.
Despite the categorical confusion it causes, this season may be my favorite, if for no other reason than the blade-bright light of late afternoon, especially as I get to see it from the kitchen window at Madroño. The copper and golden grasses of the pasture in front of the house blaze as the sun drops behind the western hills, each shoot seemingly sharp enough to pierce the chests of the bison passing across it. The bison themselves look like something out of an ancient dream, not the product of my own tiny experiences but arising from some atavistic communal memory. There are those who might pooh-pooh these moments as fanciful or irrelevant to anything “real.” But in this time of rising light, this time between sleep and waking, between the relief of winter and the slog of summer, I’m compelled to remember that light and humanity once inhabited the same chaotic womb, that we rise and fall together. It’s a good season, once you’ve written your thank-you notes, to watch the rising light with gratitude for the family of creation. And with resignation, too: if it’s already January 14, August will be here before we can even blink.
What we’re reading
Heather: Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity
Martin: Keith Richards with James Fox, Life