Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.
Everything they tell you is wrong. And by they I mean journalist. A degree in journalism is a degree in deceit. A journalist, the last creature on earth who would ever be caught dancing, knows only how to dance around truth. He knows how to skirt the facts, how to tip-toe the issue, how to write shadows, in his thin veiled prose. Journalists, for example, have been screaming, years upon years upon years they have shouted, that technology will make you happier, that you cannot exist in life without constant noise, that you must murder Time. We become afraid of silence. We become afraid of the dark. We fight Time. But we don’t know what silence is, and we have never experienced darkness, and we have no time. Even in our most silent moments, we hear the hum of a haunted house, the low buzz of distant traffic, the whir of twenty-first-century air, cooling or heating our homes and bodies, or an orange cat creeping behind us. Even in our darkest moments, we see the green glow of a clock, or the blinking blue of a desktop, or the lamplight yellow from streetlight to window. Even in our most restful moments, we wonder if we could not have rested more efficiently. We have been trained, to some extent, to fear, to misunderstand, the true value of noise and light and time.
Recently, I have been experimenting. It’s been several years since I’ve owned a television or paid for any sort of internet, and I have only experienced benefits. Rarely, very rarely, do I miss those things, and, so help me God, they will never again be a major part of my life. Sure, I have moments where I long to relax to a movie, but these moments grow less powerful with each year. My definition of entertainment has, no doubt, changed. When wearied with reading or writing, I find other, constructive, things to do. I may listen to a podcast, a ball game, or a piece of classical music. I may spend a night with pipe and whiskey, sometimes jazz, alone in thought and distraction. I may spend an evening cooking, or cleaning, activities humans have always done and will always continue to participate in because, unlike Netflix, they speak to who we are. Humans cook because they value good food: food that takes planning, preparation, physical effort. Humans clean for the same reason they confess: to remove the grime. Scrubbing the dirt off the bathroom sink, we see the sink as new, redeemed. Confessing our sins, we feel the grime of sin scrubbed off our souls and we feel new, redeemed. At times, it is to be confessed, I listen to music or podcasts while I tend to my home. But I can’t help but think that the times I don’t are richer experiences. Those moments when I am, like Sir Gawain, allowing all of my senses to engage with the activity, when I not only see and smell the celery as I chop it but hear it crunch, when sweeping the floor, I feel, I see, and I hear the broom bristles scrape the cheap linoleum. Indeed, this little apartment has its own sounds; almost, I feel, it has a spirit about it. Tending a home reflects tending the soul. Both should be experienced with as much sensory awareness as we can muster.
I am certainly no saint. I’ve too much pride and self-righteousness, along with a host of other sins. But I cannot help considering that my evenings are not richer, more deeply contemplated, more rooted to reality, than my neighbors—whoever’s soul be in a better state—who drown their evenings with poor music and television. The twenty-first century is a gnostic world, separated from elemental reality. When the female speaker of Hardy’s “Under the Waterfall” cleans a bowl in water, the elements carry her into memory and reflection, to a person. The past meets the present meets the future. But for us, the bowl is an obstacle, an annoyance, almost unreal, because it stands in our way to the gnostic fairyland of cyberspace we’ve created. As I’ve distanced myself from those spaces, I’ve realized that, if anything doesn’t exist, it is cyberspace. But, as I’ve said, they have flipped the truth.
So, I’ve been experimenting. I did away with my microwave this past summer, and as with the other unnecessary items, have experienced only benefits. Not only do I have to cook my food, now I even have to wait for leftovers to heat in the oven. I cannot stress what a joy it is to live in time, to take time in our daily activities, to learn the necessary patience of the ancients, or at least to attempt to experience as much of it as we can. Now that my meals take longer, I remember to pray before them. The evening meal now feels a little more like an event, and instead of shoving food down my throat as quickly as I can, like the American’s in Martin Chuzzlewit, I tend to savor it. All this because I know that, to begin with, it takes time and effort. We are less likely to rush through activities, more likely to appreciate them, if they are accomplished in time.
They also tell you the days grow shorter this time of year. But the days grow longer. Suddenly, five o’clock feels like seven o’clock, and we realize we have more time than we thought. The dark is not an ending to the day so much as a beginning to the next, and light is best contrasted against it. Edmund Burke says our buildings should be dark inside as a contrast to the outside and to create sublime feelings. He is right—would that our churches read more Burke. A dark room is larger, more terrifying, more mysterious, and we gnostics secretly long for mystery even while we’re killing it.
I have a dear friend who enjoys spending his evenings in candlelight. I have experimented myself. The small light of a candle is, to be fair, less useful, less practical. But the small light of a candle actually glows. The air, perhaps the spirit of this place, plays upon it, and it moves. It draws attention to itself so that, as the rest of the room is veiled in darkness, all attention focuses in on it. Only with candlelight do we experience that joyful flicker of flame, so alive, so real. The light around this flame also moves. Shadows grow and slink on the walls, and the light, crawling and separating from the flame, looks as if it can be handled—felt, tasted, smelt—until, by degrees, it fades, slowly, slowly, into darkness with clear beginning but no definable end. We see its birth. We wonder at its death.
My evenings have been, since this experiment, more mysterious. The apartment seems longer, as I cannot see its end. The night seems longer, as I do not kill time with lamplight and noise. The best nights recently include a candle or two, a glass of whiskey, and a 1950s radio broadcast of Sherlock Holmes. Granted, my evenings may be, to all appearances, less exciting. I may be, as it were, putting to rest a great number of opportunities by existing like some thirteenth-century monk, covered in darkness and silence. But in that darkness, a flame glows, sparkling with life and movement at the slightest, most primal pleasure. Every night, when I light my candle, I separate the light from the darkness, and I see that it is good. That flame may be less useful, less practical, but it is not dead light. No, this little light of mine breathes. This little light shines. This little light dances.
Written, in part, in candlelight
Las Vegas, Nevada
Painting: “Theatrical Figure”
Oil on canvas, C. 19th century