Because the Night 04: Render Unto the Night What It’s Due
“The useless dawn finds me in a deserted street-corner; I have outlived the night. Nights are proud waves: darkblue topheavy waves laden with all hues of deep spoil, laden with things unlikely and desirable.
Nights have a habit of mysterious gifts and refusals, of things half given away, half withheld, of joys with a dark hemisphere. Nights act that way, I tell you.”
As The Cloudspotter’s Guide opens, Gavin Pretor-Pinney takes up his virtuous, book-length cause: the redemption of clouds.
He rehearses our cultural shorthand: how clouds stand in for gathered heartbreak, lingering depression, expectations stripped of natural light. In pop songs, lines of poetry, and the cloth of conversations casually passed, we cast clouds as natural ruiners.
“The clouds deserved better than to be regarded merely as a metaphor for doom. Someone needed to stand up for clouds,” the British author writes.
Pretor-Pinney’s particular affection appeals to me, a holder of particular affections. His book describes classes of clouds; argues for their allure with good humor and purest zeal; and exhibits, in the fashion of Borges, how they are laden with things unlikely and desirable.
He writes, and I make out tender shapes of clouds over my own life.
We forget how everything is composed of everything else; that is, how light and dark live less obvious lives, switch parts when they think no one is looking.
Cloudy days, of course, are surpassed only by ensuing nights. One prepares the sky for the other, makes prophecies on its behalf, passes elements through the slowly-shifting heavens, some soft inheritance.
As Pretor-Pinney devotes his language to clouds, one more shape emerges: the contours of my own redress. Like their passing heralds, nights absorb all our unkind parallels and disappointments; we speak of their darkness like the blots we know within and without.
Novel sentences and cinematic scenes treat night as a synonym for damage and death. Our stories regard night’s hours as one elastic moment when wild forces lie in western wait, threatening to swallow the body and its soul. Nothing good ever happens beyond a certain tick of the clock.
In pop songs, barely more benevolent, night sounds like inevitable surrender. The flesh gives up its resolve, gives in to what flesh always curves itself to do.
Our art assumes, however, that the hours just after sunrise tow our best hopes: of starting again and seeing clearly, of finally permitting our true hearts to take us through the day.
Sure, night holds its dangers and the sun casts a certain clarity. But we forget how everything is composed of everything else; that is, how light and dark live less obvious lives, switch parts when they think no one is looking.
We grow blind to broad daylight’s snares and suburban sins, to systems built from 9 to 5, only to break. Stare into the sun long enough and your eyes no longer see into the secret places or realize colors only the night gives up.
I want to believe night exists in heaven, but no one talks like that. Streets of gold and uncloudy days make up the stuff of our full-throated, four-part singing. A hundred hymns tell me what I will not miss, how someday I will not want what I haven’t got (with apologies to Sinead O’Connor).
But I would notice night’s absence, a carved void more fathomless than dark itself. And the God forever traveling highways between my head and heart seems to cherish shades of gray backlit by the moon and stars.
The God forever traveling highways between my head and heart seems to cherish shades of gray backlit by the moon and stars.
How he loves the lights we fashion from common grace, coaxing different nighttime greens from our neighborhood trees. He is the sort to chisel night before sin ever turns up and call it good.
Maybe whatever and wherever comes next, daylight hours have their say, then yield to northern lights beautiful beyond what the brave ever see. Heaven’s invisible sun gives way to every other star once living or collapsed, born again to be themselves through our eternal whenevers.
After all, night belongs to the insomniacs and insatiable lovemakers, third-shift clock-punchers and the poets disguised as C-store clerks, crafting blackout verses from peeling four-dollar wine labels. I hear theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and I don’t want to live forever without their senses, what they once scribbled down and will someday make manifest.
In their presence and God’s, we’ll fulfill the words of Louise Glück, gone now just five days and four nights:
“The night isn’t dark; the world is dark.
Stay with me a little longer.”
I can’t number the nights left to me. Some classes of night live only in rearview memories. Gone are my Jimmy Eat World nights, swooning and heavy with romantic guitars, each p.m. moment pressing into possibility.
Donald Hall nights await, though now I sometimes try them on. The late poet described his last few hundred nights, sighing out each line composed in earlier hours, taking evening consolation from the Boston Red Sox and their gestures around the diamond. My team, the San Francisco Giants, plays on Pacific time, so I experiment with a strange knowing: some summer evening, my final hours may descend even though I’ve only reached the bottom of the fifth.
Just this once, faith is the evidence of things seen and suspended overhead.
Before then, nights are mine to explore and I want to waste nothing. Thousands of minor glories await—standing beneath the still of an evening snow, listening close as Coltrane plays in time with my lover’s rising and falling breath, watching words become miracles and letting those miracles carry me one night to the next.
A few dozen nights past, my family occupied half the two-lane road stretching toward Salem, Missouri. And I swear to you even now, I thought we might drive up and into the heart of the first September moon.
That generous moon sitting low, the same size whether watching from heaven or earth, we drifted past a missionary Baptist church. I wondered what their preacher knows of that moon, if he ever stops the Sunday-night service to lead his flock into the shadowed forest.
If so, he might look up, silent for what seems like ages, before declaring the glories of a God who hears our prayers and binds them together, who lights them on fire to hang in the sky. Just this once, faith is the evidence of things seen and suspended overhead.
Forget what the daylight doubters say: nights act this way, I tell you.