In the Dark

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, in sunny South Florida where it’s still t-shirt weather in November, that the days are getting shorter. But even here in paradise we’re not exempt from the greater laws of nature, whether we notice them or not.

I was out running the other night at about 6:00, when I suddenly realized: it was dark. The street lights weren’t on yet, and the only illumination on my tree-lined street was the faint white glow of the sun already over the horizon and the occasional flashing of headlights as cars sped past. I slowed down, turned off my iPod and listened.

Beneath the whooshing of cars was another layer of sound: crickets and wind gently shaking oak leaves, something tiny moving in the hedges. And beneath those little sounds, silence. I realized I could barely see anything with my eyes anymore, so I closed them and took a deep breath– smelled the down-low scent of ferns and wet earth, and higher up, just a suggestion of someone’s dinner floating past me on the breeze. I smiled.

I love the dark. It’s one of my favorite places to be. A secret, safe, exciting place. A creative place, full of possibility. A place to really feel alive.

There’s disagreement as to exactly how many senses we humans have (some say as many as 30), but it should be clear to anyone who’s ever made the effort to use them all–it’s definitely more than five. At no time is this fact more apparent to me than when I’m in a dark place.

Darkness reminds me of my first photography class in college: loading black and white film rolls into processing tanks in a pitch-black bathroom next to the darkroom. I did it all by feel, closing my eyes (even less necessary here than during the night run in my neighborhood), then unspooling the film from the safety of its canister–stretching it all the way to the floor before winding it back up into the tank. In this dark room I was acutely aware of my body in space; I could feel the very contours and limits of it. But at the same time I felt more than my body–it was as if my extra senses stretched out before me, and I could see the room and its contents even more vividly than if the light had been on.

me, in the dark

There’s a reason most meditation takes place with eyes closed. Not being able to see with your eyes sends you deep inside yourself–and outside the limits of your ‘self’ at the same time.

Darkness is where we go to dream, to imagine and to create. In fact, many of my favorite in-the-dark memories are tinged with a magical quality (did that really happen or did I dream it?):

On a beach in Trinidad, under a sky filled with the light of what seemed like every single star in the universe, I didn’t really see, but felt, a leatherback sea turtle climb out of the crashing waves, dig a hole and lay her eggs. Her soft, sturdy head felt, absurdly, like the leather recliner in the house my grandparents lived in when I was a child…

Late one night, jet-lagged and sleepless in Rome, Italy, I stepped onto my balcony to listen to a lone guitar player sitting under a light on the deserted street, playing for nobody (or maybe for me)…     

It’s easy to underestimate the sheer volume of visual stimulation we encounter every day–phone and computer and TV screens, billboards, the general rush and blur of life. When you cut this out, even just a little bit, the world comes into a different kind of focus.

Like the intimate vulnerability, the easy camaraderie, people share when they’re together in the dark: around a campfire, at a coffee shop at 5:00 am, on a train at midnight headed back home. At times like this it feels like we’re all in it together, this collective dream.

Sometimes at night, after my children are asleep, I go out to the backyard and lie in my hammock. Each night is dark, of course, but always different. One night clouds move restlessly across the sky. The half-moon looks like a melon with the top chopped off, and the sound of the wind moves through the trees like the ocean, just out of sight. The next night the sky is clear and quiet: no wind, only crickets. Connect-the-dot stars cast an invisible net across the moon.

I find my eyes are closed but my imagination is open. My senses are alive.

© Jaime Greenberg and discovered in play, 2011

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