Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear of Darkness

When I was little, I saw gorillas in the dark.

I don’t recall my exact age but it must have been around when I started elementary school. After sleeping with relative ease for years, one night I lay in bed, peered at the blackness around me and saw big black gorillas.

I was terrified. I called out for help. When my parents came to my room and turned on the light, there were, of course, no gorillas. Just plain white walls, the same fringy yellow carpet, the same clutter of toys and clothes and I had, even at that young age started to accumulate.

When I had calmed down, they turned off the light again. And the gorillas were back.

The next step was to plug in a small orange lamp that flickered on and off like a strobe light. I’m not sure who would rest easy in the presence of such a thing, but more troubling was the gorillas who appeared and disappeared in rapid succession, loping closer to me each time I could see them in the dark.

My parents let me sleep with the light on for the rest of that night, and the next day bought a more traditional nightlight that glowed faintly from the corner of my room, bright enough to ward off all manner of beast I might see the black of the room, subtle enough not to keep me awake.

I outgrew the nightlight. Though I had on-again off-again fears of what creatures might share the darkness with me in the years to follow, spurred on by every scary movie I might see, or some of the early episodes of The X-Files, such fears were nothing I couldn’t escape by tucking my head beneath the covers or distracting myself by imagining stories--most effectively of all by turning on the lights for a couple minutes.

*

A fact I never knew until Archie came to live with me--cats can see in the dark.

Well, that’s not quite right.

Without getting overly scientific about it, cats evolved as night-time hunters, and so have a much greater ability to adjust to very limited light. For the contemporary house cat, that means freedom to wander an apartment, climb bookcases, and hunt vermin by what illumination streetlights provide through the cracks between Venetian blinds.

Despite this greater capacity for sight, cats cannot see in true darkness, which brings me to the day when Archie must have snuck into my closet while I fished out my work clothes, and remained stealthy enough to go unnoticed when I closed the door, got dressed, and headed to the office.

What a strange world it must have been for creature accustomed to seeing in all places at all times to be confined to blackness for a period of nine hours. I wonder what philosophical questions he may have pondered. What gorillas his imagination may have conjured.

What I do know: he found his way to a trash bag full of old bank statements I intended shred. Between teeth and claws he managed tear of half the papers to ribbons. Otherwise? I suspect he slept for much of the day, just as he would have in the light. Maybe he slept easier without the distraction of spiders scaling the walls, or the robins in the tree outside the living room window, or the expanse of hardwood floor to dart aimlessly back and forth across.

Still, by the time I got home, surprised that he didn’t greet me at the door, I heard his muted, plaintive meows, luring me to find him and let him back into the light.

*

On a dreary autumn Friday, I went to the gym after work, drove home, and napped. It was dark when I woke. In lieu of any better plans for dinner, I threw on a hooded sweatshirt to walk to the Chinese place a block away to get takeout.

As I walked past a row of houses, through the drizzle on a poorly lit street, a young woman approached from the opposite direction, earbuds in. She didn’t notice me until the space between us had reduced to four or five sidewalk squares. A porch light lit her face as it rose from the pavement and looked at me in terror.

I smiled and said hello.

She quickened her pace to just shy of a run.

And as I continued my walk, it occurred to me that the way the porch light hung may have revealed her face, but coming from the opposite direction, I remained the most shadowy of figures. Tall. Hood up. Face obscured. In all of that darkness I might have had a third eyeball protruding from my forehead. Might have had blood dripping from my vampire’s visage. Might have been a gorilla.

Or may have been a stranger intent on snatching her Vera Bradley handbag. Such things do happen on the streets of Baltimore, particularly in the dark of night.

And I suppose that’s where all this fear comes from. Reality, informed by frightening tales, contorted with all of the disorientation of not being able to see; amplified by a world of the unknown.

I made my way from that dark stretch of sidewalk to the traffic light at the intersection where a line of cars waited, headlights shining a path to guide them to bars and movie theaters; to take them home.

And I rounded the corner, where the red and blue neon sign read OPEN, and stepped into the familiar smells of soy sauce and glossy breaded meats; the same sounds of Mandarin hollers that I’d heard at my grandparents’ house when we visited in my youth. I stepped into the light.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Swamp Ophelia

I stood without clothes.
Danced in the sand
I was aching with freedom
And kissing the damned
I said, “remember this as how it should be.”

The refrain above closes “Fugitive,” the opening track of Swamp Ophelia, my favorite album by one of my favorite musical acts, The Indigo Girls. I first heard this CD in the mid-1990s not so long after its release, and though over time I’ve come to love the whole album, this stand-alone song may stand out most for the sheer fact that I’ve never not liked it. It sounded profound the first time I heard it, sitting at an oak card table playing pinochle with my sister and my grandmother. I loved it no less 18 years later, listening to the MP3 as I drove two hours back to my Los Angeles hotel after a first date that lasted 24 hours, highlighted by a lengthy stretch on a San Diego beach after which I felt every syllable of the sentiment of dancing in the sand. It’s a song about hiding, sure. But just much an anthem for release.

Jump jump
Jump so high
Watch me let you down
If I stumble
I will stumble
If I fall
I will fall

As much as I loved “Fugitive” it wasn’t my favorite track from Swamp Ophelia. In the early days, that distinction went to “Touch Me Fall.” It’s an epic in the tradition of a “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” starting in a very dark place before a string interlude ups the tempo, only for an explosion of electric guitar and rolling drums to launch the final leg of the song. You’ll be hard pressed to find a song more emotionally complex and chaotic, yet strikingly beautiful just the same.

It feels so funny to be free.

We all have our demons. I spent the better part of my pre-collegiate years aspiring to a time when I would leave a house that felt far from a home. This is a song of escape. Of discovering freedom and all of the joy that comes with it. I hold no illusions that the origins of this song were much like the associations I applied to, but that doesn’t make the message resonate any less clearly.

Don’t you write it down
Remember this in your head
Don’t take a picture
Remember this in your heart

For me, “Dead Man’s Hill” is and always will be a coming of age song. I remember listening to it while trading AOL Instant Messages with a dear friend a few nights before I left home for what would be the final summer for each of us CTY students. I crafted a clumsy poem for her about leaving her camera at home, and getting ready for three weeks we’d never forget. She tactfully told me they weren’t my best crafted verses, but that she appreciated the sentiment and felt much the same way.

I’ve read that this song is a meditation on a childhood experience in which Amy Ray witnessed older boys setting cats on fire (and the last verse pretty literally supports this interpretation). Less inspiring, for sure, but no less potent as you weave element of shame all the more intrinsically into the power of memory.

“Least Complicated” is probably the best-known song from Swamp Ophelia, and second only to “Closer to Fine” and maybe “Galileo” as an iconic selection from The Indigo Girls catalog. Indeed, I won’t argue with anyone who suggests this song is the best of the album--a simple piece of music, brought to life by just as simple if universally true lyrics, “the hardest to learn is the least complicated.” Perhaps with a touch of clairvoyance, my younger self foresaw a time when I would listen to this song with a hurt heart, and sure enough, years later, spurned by girls who would not return my affections, I would turn to this song, accepting that so many of my attempts were anchored in the fact that “I never was cool.” This isn’t a song you have to work to understand. Nor is it one that you can easily deny.

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And maybe steer us clear of some the pain it took
To get us where we are this far.

Maybe that’s all that we need
Is to meet in the middle of impossibility

It’s difficult for me to separate my two favorite songs of Swamp Ophelia--“The Wood Song” and “Mystery.” Growing up Indigo, I was squarely a fan of Amy Ray’s rocking melodies over Emily Salier’s mellower offerings. As such, I tended to gloss over these tracks, positioned in juxtaposition with one another on the album. Whether I’ve softened over time, grown more sensitive, or simply come to identify more closely with the messages embedded in Emily’s lyrics, these two songs are now the epitome of what I love about her as a songwriter--letting ambitious, wordly, but universal truths unfurl with the all the majesty of music and purity of lyrics they deserve. “The Wood Song” has always sounded like a small town song to me. One of community, family, richness and love. “Mystery” is more intimate. A song about a love that is not na├»ve, but is hopeful just the same.

I get flack for my Indigo Girls fanboy status. True, I don’t know many other men whose first concert was an Indigo Girls show, or who will go for a late night walk with Swamp Ophelia streaming through their earbuds. But for the better part of twenty years, this band, and more specifically this album has been a treasure to me. A means to cope. A vehicle of hope. A collection of stories worth every re-telling.