Watching in the Dark

Tonight we should be able to see the aurora borealis. There is a website with the forecast, but this part of the country isn’t included there. We are too far south of the arctic circle. Today, however, there is a solar flare and the sky is supposed to dance all over Europe. I’ve got an eye on the window. Watching the clouds. The sun sinking.

Last night I met with L. What should have been a leisurely dinner, had I not been so hungry for injera and chilies. She actually told me to slow down. Take a breath. She’s feeling grief now, flowing in like a tide. She’s aware of her own breathing. Her mother-in-law has been moved to palliative care. A matter of days. A matter of hours. The kind of uncertainty that crowds the present with future sorrow. We are both twisting and untwisting – in varying tempos. She’s having trouble sleeping. I understand.

After dinner, we went to see Elizabeth Schwartz dancing several of Isadora Duncan’s works. Schwartz began studying Duncan’s work in 1977. Before that she studied under Merce Cunningham. She is now 72.

She performed the pieces first with music, then with a narration of words to describe each movement: wave, wave, sustain, splash… Then again. With music.

She wore Duncan’s thin, Grecian dress. Two tears in the front panel, running up along her thighs. She desired. She reached-toward. Then she skipped, hopped, arched her back and surrendered. A bacchae, a mother, a comrade. She is exhausted.

Her body wore years of experience, a wisdom in the movements, an aesthetic in the presentation that touches deeper than ornamentation: This is not for you. It is more than you can conquer. It has already survived you and your desire to possess. It beat you to it. Mocks you for your tiny reach. Tiny desires. It is a glimpse of your future. Your impotence.

Doesn’t that scare you? Doesn’t she scare you?

The indigenous people of the Pacific regions say that humans walk backward into the future. I don’t think they mean that as a criticism. Though I do.

I write. Glancing towards the window occasionally. One thought for next week’s doctor’s appointments. One reminder to pull my shoulders back and lock the root – mula bandha for a moment. Breathe. Hum. Ah-men. So be it.

A new thought: L.’s mother-in-law is 72.

Duncun did not dance at 72, her bones were bare in the grave by then. What we get – what we leave from this life is so arbitrary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question: Who tells your story? And whose story do you tell?

There were about forty people in the audience last night. And when invited, about a third of them took to the stage to learn one of the dances. To make it theirs. As usual: I observed. And I found myself close to tears at this play-acting of what used to be the transference of memory – long before film, before Laban notations. When memory was a living entity that evolved in the physical, metaphysical transference. When it wasn’t faithfully preserved as a single story mediated by the cognitive abilities of a single brain. When gods were greater than humans. Myths greater than fame.

Maybe that time never was at all. Maybe this is my pathetic recognition of mortality, a pathetic still-longing for a union with something lasting.

Meanwhile, I prepare for this year’s production, an adaptation of Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird. I am trying to stay in the moment of flow. “Yes, and…” I say to myself, acknowledging all that washes in (the doubts, the obvious) without becoming overwhelmed. Trusting. Wondering at the Blue Bird‘s diamond hat that allows the children to see the living soul of everything on earth. Water’s wantonness, Fire’s temper. “The soul of sugar is no more interesting than the soul of pepper”, says the fairy. But what of our souls, I wonder?

There is a line from the original Blue Bird just as the trees of the forest, and the animals – domesticated and not – distraught and desperate move to kill the humans in an act of vengeance and self-defense, Light advises the frightened child: “But, my poor boy, didn’t you know?… Turn the diamond! They will return into silence and obscurity and you will no longer [need to] perceive their hidden feelings.”

In other words: Walk backward into the future.

But no. I’m going to look. Even when the darkness comes – with the aurora borealis, whether I see it or not.

Every story ends, is picked up, and reborn.


photo: Ren Powell

A Bit of Perspective on Nature

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings
of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

Not now when the world is dark on my way to work, and dark again as I head home – but on most mornings on the train, I can turn and see the trail I’d run along two hours earlier – from this other perspective, and at 100 kph.

The sky is wider somehow, seeing it from behind a pane of dirty glass. Though that doesn’t seem logical.

But there’s no sound of my footsteps. There’s no scrutinizing the shadows on the path, no still frogs, dead blackbirds, or snapped limbs scattered to trip me up. So I look up and over the water to the horizon where the hills layer themselves in ever-lighter blues to white where they smudge into the sky itself. Quiet, steady hum.

The lake is simultaneously bigger and smaller from this perspective.

Despite the creeping suburbs, I know there are elk among the trees on the far shore. Deer and mink. And there are thin vipers hidden just underground or between the stones in the centuries-old hedges. There’s a part of me that whispers: still, not wild enough. Not wild enough until the summer’s ticks dig bullseyes into flesh and release sickness into the bloodstreams of weekend hikers.

Nature does put me in a state of awe. “Wonder and mysticism and gratitude” – I guess. But also fear. If I were to call nature my religion, it would be the religion of the Middle Ages with its attending ugliness, its violence.

For every lily that unfolds in the sunlight, an injured lemming staggers days towards its death. Mallards force themselves on hens, and insects snip one another in half.

Nature isn’t pretty.

And it’s beautiful.

Biology was one of my favorite subjects in high school. Drawing the mitochondria and the Gogli apparatus was like doing God’s doodling. Now florescence and electron microscopes show diseased cells as bright and as ornamental as peacock feathers. Death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The poets have always known this, even if they’ve romanticized as a way to tame their fears. We’re snake charmers, all of us.

I keep asking myself if nature has compassion. But I find myself circling back to the idea that a whole is made up of parts: does a mallard have compassion? Does an army ant? Does lichen feel for the stone it erodes?

Does the earth
itself grieve its half-deaths
its own evisceration
shrouding itself
in plastics?

Are we losing our religion?