Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Darkness

I have just completed an interesting project. I got Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark about a week ago.  And I decided that I would read the book at night… in the tent… in the dark.  And I did.


There is a new type of flashlight now that uses LED bulbs which are far brighter.  I rigged up a “chandelier” using three of the small LED flashlights.  This way I can read in a lawn chair if I want. But I really enjoy it more by lying flat on my back in the sleeping bag with the flashlight lying on my chest pointed at the book. 
  
I’ve been sleeping in the tent for a couple of weeks now and I think the nice weather will continue on for another week. Eventually it will get blazing hot and I’ll have to abandon ship.  Or it will rain solid for a couple of weeks. Then it will either be too hot or too wet. I know that my time outside is limited which makes me both sad and extra appreciative of my time.

The spiritual landscape changes the minute I step outside.  The evening sky lately has been crystal clear.  I stood for a while last night and, without even looking for it, found the Big Dipper.  There it was:  exactly where it always is, doing what it does best whether I notice it or not; doing what it has done for billions of years.  Independent of humanity’s instructions it pointed to the north.  In my case, it was pointing toward the northern section of our land which happens to sit on the border between Hopkins County and Wood County.  I gave the Big Dipper good marks for being in place as if I had power to judge God’s creation. As if there was any doubt that the things the Creator set in place would not perform as directed.

I walked a bit farther beyond the trees and came into the clearing to see the moon. Like the Big Dipper, the moon was on schedule.  It was only a couple of years ago I learned the terms waxing, waning, crescent and gibbous.  Again, I was startled to find that the moon performs even when I’m not checking on it. 

I sometimes underline in a book I especially like, a book that is so full of bon mots that I figure I can surely borrow a couple of phrases here and there to help me explain things when my own words won’t do.  Well, Learning to Walk in the Dark has barely an untouched page.  She is that good of a writer.  Once in a while I stumbled upon a particularly perfect phrase that brings me to wonder how quickly she came into that arrangement of words. Did they come straight from God in a flash of inspiration or did she agonize over them for days? 

She has some startling discoveries in the book that are new to me.  Like the idea that the invention of the light bulb changed our sleep habits.  Depending on the time of year and place on the planet people can have 14 hours of darkness in their day.  Before electrical illumination people spent just a lot of time being “unproductive.”  It wasn’t until artificial lighting that we stumbled upon the concept of 8 hours of sleep. Until then people would sleep about four hours, then spend some time in an awakened state though not fully conscious for a few hours, then fall into another four hours of sleep before awakening naturally.

I found myself wondering if that twilight time helped us think in a deeper, more thorough, way.  I have wondered for a long time about some of the classic writings like the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.  There are only about three or four written drafts of either one yet they are some of the iconic writings of political philosophy in the world.  When Jefferson and Lincoln wrote anything there was no editing software, no spell check, no cut and paste.  Paper and ink were scarce and expensive. The words had to be dressed and ready to go by the time they put them on paper.  Was their secret weapon those hours in the dark when they were not sleeping? Before artificial lighting did people mull over their thoughts and words longer than we do today?

At the end of the book I found out that Barbara Brown Taylor spent a night outside like I do.  One night.  She left her one night’s experiment and said how much she would miss it and I wondered why she didn’t make plans to repeat the experience the following night.  She has much the same set-up as I do:  a small dwelling a short walk from her main house.  Why did this brilliant author, who inspires us with her words, think that once the dark night had been experienced and enjoyed, she was finished?  Despite claiming she loved it, she made no effort to continue the experience.

I started sleeping outside this spring around Easter when the moon was full.  I missed a few days while the weather tried to make up its mind to shift from winter to spring.  Then the moon went dark and I’ve been watching it wax back into being my night light.  Last night it was a waxing half moon and gave me almost enough light to walk in the dark. In a week it will be full. The nights will be illuminated by the moon and I’ll be able to walk around without a flashlight. There will be so much light that the moon will cast shadows of the trees. 

What does it mean, then, to really walk in the dark?  When you can’t even see your own hand? 

Taylor accomplished total darkness by going into a cave.  I did that myself years ago in Arkansas with Emily. One of the counties near her college offered a program where an expert would take you on a hike into a cave. We were looking for fun Mother Daughter stuff to do and the idea of taking a hike into a cave interested us both. Except for the bats.  I'm not sure either of us were looking to spend some time with bats but it ended up not bad at all. I was more afraid of the dark than the bats. I worried that I would freak out once the hike leader told us to turn off our head lamps to experience total darkness.  But it ended up a fairly peaceful exercise. I wasn’t nearly as afraid or panicked as I thought I would be.

We turned out our lights and the group of twenty or so just sat there.  No one made a sound.  There was an air of the spiritual around us.  I was almost disappointed to hear the guide tell us we could turn out lights back on. 

The hike came at the end of a couple of hours’ worth of instructions on what we were going to do and how we would do it and why were doing it.  By the time we came to the part of the hike where we turned out all the lights we were thoroughly prepared with all the information we needed.  I trusted my leader enough that I wasn’t afraid.  I knew he could lead us back to the mouth of the cave and into daylight.

And so it is with my Creator.  Just as I trust the stars and the moon to be in the places God has assigned them, I trust that God has a plan for me and all will go according to that plan. Even when I can’t see my hand in front of my face, when I have no idea which way to turn, I know God will be with me in the darkness.

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