Sunday, November 24, 2013
In the navy blue of just dark, the headlights illuminate only a few feet in front of the car. The high beams give shadows to the rocks on the road directly in front of the tires in outlandish proportion to their size, but the hundred-foot pines on the other side of the ditch remain invisible. Behind me the full moon is but a promise, not even a tease of her liquid silver light yet spilling over the horizon.
Just as I feel myself begin to lean into the bad curve, the arc of road where the beavers dam the creek every winter and the big aluminum culvert may or may not forestall the washing out of the road, a pair of yellow eyes appear at the lip where hard-packed dirt falls away to soft ditch. The eyes are too low to be deer, too high to be possum or armadillo. They have to be raccoon or fox and it is too late, too dark for a fox to be out. Raccoon it must be.
I take my foot off the accelerator and feel the car slow as the lights pans the bend. The raccoon is standing on his haunches, tiny paws drawn up to his chest as though in supplication. He is young. I can tell by his leanness and the fact that his mask isn’t very dark.
The number of raccoons, deer, possums, armadillos, foxes, and bobcats I have encountered on this dark stretch of road over the years is not one I can begin to compute, but I do know that every single one of them has behaved in exactly the same way: They have darted into the light. This one will, too.
So I wait.
He twitches. He jerks his head back and forth a couple of times. He makes a quarter-turn toward the ditch and, just as I am about to believe that this raccoon, this one creature out of all the creatures, will behave in a manner contrary to instinct and move back into the darkness, he bolts out into the center of the road where the two yellow cones of light coming from the front of the car frame him like an escaping prisoner caught against the razor wire.
Another infinitesimal hesitation and he is gone. Into the blackness that is the ditch on the other side of the road, into the night where just moments before he had been moving safely and leisurely.
The idea that light is safety is a generally accepted axiom of life. Most of what we fear is that which we cannot see. With light comes vision, with light comes a banishing of fear. And, yet, at least sometimes, as with the raccoon, the urge to rush into light – to know everything, to be blind to nothing – does little more than invite danger and expose vulnerability.
This is what I am thinking as I accelerate once more and head toward home. It makes me shudder. I am a light-seeker. I navigate by looking for the sun to rise in the east and set in the west, by watching the stars. Feeling my way in the dark is not my way.
And now the raccoon is making me wonder: Is this the choice we must make? Do we choose to remain safe and in the dark, stumbling around over roots and rocks, chairs and coffee tables, ill-fitting jobs and passionless relationships? Or do we choose to become vulnerable and step in the light, exposed for all the world to see as small and fragile creatures, willing to challenge large and frightening beasts because life in the dark is not enough?
As I near home I notice that I can now make out the road yards and yards ahead, far beyond the reach of the headlights. The moon, round and ripe, is clearing the horizon. Through the brushy limbs of distant pines I see her clear face and feel her long slender fingers stroke my shoulder. Perhaps the choice is not what I had thought. Perhaps it is not light or dark. Perhaps it is not a choice at all, but simply a learning that there is light within the darkness, a place where courage is respected, where fearlessness can be safe, where vulnerability is protected.
I go inside to bed and leave the blinds open. The moonlight puddles on the floor.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Not long ago I was driving down a long flat stretch of highway listening on my iPod to an interview of Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, he of such soul-ripping lines as “You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.” In the interview he kept saying things I wanted to remember, bits and pieces of sentences that I wanted to scratch out on tiny slips of paper and stuff into a phylactery and feel bouncing on my forehead as I walked through the day, phrases I wanted to tattoo on the underside of my eyelids so that I might fall asleep staring into their mystery and contemplating their magic. Single words I wanted to turn into tropical fruit Life-Savers and dissolve on my tongue in all their artificial color sweetness.
I’ve been trying to cut down on writing while I drive, though, so instead of reaching for the pen and pad I keep in the console, I opened this relatively new app on my phone. It’s called Evernote. I heard about it from my preacher in a sermon he delivered back in the spring. (My church is cool like that. We talk about apps and stuff.) With Evernote I can speak what I want to remember into the telephone and its amazing technology translates my voice into words and saves them in a computer file.
So Billy Collins was saying that most writers talk about “writing what you know,” but that poets are different. “We write what we hear,” he said. It was a succinctly beautiful line. I did not want to lose it. I picked up the phone, tapped the icon to begin recording, and spoke slowly and loud enough to overcome the road noise. “We write what we hear.”
I discovered later, when I got the opportunity to go back and review my dictation, that Evernote had some difficulty in understanding my South Georgia drawl. “We write what we hear” had morphed into “we write what be here.” I started laughing and then realized that, improper grammatical structure aside, there was equal truth in the scrambled version of the poet’s declaration.
The breath of a buck blowing hard in the blackness at the edge of the deck. My own heart beating in rhythm to the pulse of one small star penetrating that same blackness. A voice, long silenced, reciting words long remembered. The breath, the heartbeat, the voice overlaid like tracks of music - brass over percussion over strings. Those sounds, those distinct vibrations moving through the air as waves that get caught by the curve of my ear and pushed through narrow fissures of tissue to a brain that then declares, “Remember that other night when ...?” We write what we hear.
But at the same time, in the same words, writing acknowledges the existence of “what be here” and, in so doing, makes it real to both writer and reader. When words are stitched, strung, woven, or pasted together the invisible becomes visible, the intangible concrete, the ephemeral lasting. It is why we excavate ruins for clay tablets and papyrus scrolls, present diplomas and proclamations, issue marriage licenses and birth certificates. We need to make a record to make our existence real.
Billy Collins wasn’t speaking just for poets and Evernote wasn’t mistranscribing just for me. With each thought and smile and sigh offered up into the world we are writing what we hear. And writing what be here in this challenging, astonishing, mysterious world.