Darkness is physical. It can be an enclosure—an enclosure of our self, of everything else. It’s sight without meaning, like snow.
We know things are there, but we’re unsure what they are. The scariest thing might be swimming with endless black fathoms beneath, although I am no more likely to do that than I am to reach my hand into the black crevice of an opened basement door. Darkness held a particular fear for me as a child. It still does.
And yet, there is something about nighttime. The surge of darkness. And more. My mother always said she liked to stay up late because nighttime was when she could be alone. I understand her fully.
Whatever is in the darkness is mine and mine alone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so overwhelming. And inviting.
In his scattered but subtly beautiful 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki finds nighttime solace in the most unlikely place:1
The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saito Ryoku has said, ‘elegance is frigid.’ […] Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection. […] No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light.
There is wondrous freedom during nighttime. Freedom for a rich self-discovery by way of letting go and being pulled by something greater, larger, and more powerful than us or our daily routine. Deeper than a break or a pause, it’s a setting down of burdens.
“I was at my desk that evening, trying to work,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, a book connecting places, people, and the paths we forge as we walk the earth.2
I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks. Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whiskey to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out.
During his walk, beautifully etched into visual memory, Macfarlane takes time to read and follow the fresh snow, trampled with animal presence: “I picked a trail and set out along it, following those tracks to see where they might lead.”
The endless space of nighttime, the freedom, allows us to relinquish the hard-earned control we father during the day. Many people, like Macfarlane and Tanizaki, write about solitary activities done at night. There is a measure of vulnerability, wonder, and quiet acceptance.
This tone infuses the words of Patti Smith’s episodic reverie Woolgathering:3
I awoke in the center of night. Above my head, beyond the open skylight was the moon—a vibrant gold—like the shield of a frightened but determined young warrior. […] A cloud pulled across the moon. Black radiance. Newborn blind I felt about for my journal and laid there holding it, waiting for the moon to reappear.
Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet, and lover of solitude, urged us to “descend into self.” In the quiet of the night, Smith laid still and dove deep into herself. Swimming in the mind’s dark fathoms is scary but vital.
Perhaps this is what we do at night. Descend into our own deep fathoms. In the quiet night, in solitude, paring away people and needs, being free from interruption, this descent is most possible.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was often up at night, trapped in a body that didn’t let me sleep. I’d go out and water the garden, even in winter. I was so full, pregnant, I had an urge to give. I read somewhere that designer and gardener Nancy Lancaster watered at daybreak when she couldn’t sleep. Flowers are such bright companions, even in the dark.
Of course, the things we do in solitude aren’t always so comforting. Writer Dorothy Parker, a restless sort who was no stranger to mental agitation and overflowing energy, wrote a short story called “The Little Hours.” It features the darker side of being alone, awake:4
Now what’s this? What’s the object of all this darkness all over me? They haven’t gone and buried me alive while my back was turned, have they? […] Oh no, I know what it is. I’m awake. That’s it. I’ve waked up in the middle of the night. Well, isn’t that nice? Isn’t that simply ideal? Twenty minutes past four, sharp, and here’s Baby wide-eyed as a marigold. Look at this, will you? At the time when all decent people are just going to bed, I must wake up.
Night welcomes us to unpack and unload, but that doesn’t mean we will be prepared for what comes out. Like Parker, German author and philosopher Hermann Hesse captures this anxiety in his poem “Walking at Night” written in 1913:5
Bush and meadow, field and tree,
stand in their self-sufficient silence.
Each belonging wholly to itself.
Each deep in its own dream.
Clouds float by and stars stream light
as if appointed as higher sentinels
and the mountain with its steep ridges
towers above, dark, tall, and distant.
Everything remains and will continue.
Only I am alone with anguish and grief.
I drift far from the heart of God
without a purpose through the land.
I still water my plants and flowers at night, often. Feeling that I’m nurturing successfully. I play with the cats, too. They are easy companions, endless awakeness. My cousin, a former teacher, used to do her best work at night, lessons plans. My husband is the opposite—if left awake he merely paces until sleep overtakes him.
There is something about night itself. A dark tableau, an enclosure that holds us together. Emerson, who often walked at night, urged in his essay Nature: “[I]f a man would be alone, let him look to the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.” The stars will always be more present at night.
For your wakeful nights, your calm plunge into fathomless depths—or even for eyes too bent to earth—I leave you with a bit of joy and marvelous wonder: Wordsworth’s “A Night-Piece”:6
The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground with
With any shadow – plant, or tower, or tree
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
to earth. He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.