Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Darkening Land:

Time is always a place.

The dark has negative connotations for many, and is the common fear ~ add cold to that and no wonder people have ambiguous feelings about midwinter. The longest night is approaching, and if you're one of those creatures whose moods correspond with the amount of available light, there's a potential for a funk. My wariness about winter comes, I think, from spending lots of time with older people - it is hard on them.

The Cherokee call the West the Darkening Land. The color of that direction is black, and that's where the trail of the dead leads, toward a distant place, similar to here, but darker. It's the past. And the future. And yet we imagine it exclusively now.

I imagine it as being partly like sleep. Hardly original, but when we lay down and surrender the present, our body involuntarily twitching at the loss of being which we give, like a coin to the ferryman on our styx of dreams, we begin to descend into ever inkier realms of darkness. Darkness, in this case, equals not knowing. Who knows if the being that wakes up is the same one that went to sleep?

"No sooner do we start to fall asleep than space relaxes and falls asleep too - doing so a little ahead of us, losing its struts and fibers, losing its structural forces and its geometric coherence. The space in which we shall spend our nocturnal hours has no perspective, no distance. It is the immediate synthesis of things and ourselves. If we dream an object, we enter into that object as a shell." (Gaston Bachelard)

If the abyss of dreams is not the same as the abyss of the past, they share a lack of border. As I look at the tintypes of family members, tiny dark images that have to be looked at with a magnifying glass to make out the features of a face, I feel as though I'm descending, or traveling westward, into the darkening land. My imagination, slight candle in vast labyrinth, barely illuminates these ancestors, not enough to reveal their names, their loves, or even what they were thinking when the camera flash changed them from a person to a momento. It was important to them to be preserved in an instant for something like an eternity ~ see how they put on their best clothes, and their most representative mask of what they would be seen as, very still on the surface of the black mirror.

(tintype - my grandmother, Sarah Belle Cundiff is on the left. No one, as far as I know, knows who the others are.)

Dreaming about the past we anticpate our reunion with the ancestors. And what else is there to dream of? ... Do you dare dream of the future? Be advised: "There is about all divination a keen and melancholic spirituality, a blend of secret serenity and faint anguish, for the diviner always gives a little of his own light to illuminate others." (G.B. again)

So into the dark world of the tintypes I journey - to trade with the dead. I will give them a little of my fading light, and they, in turn, allow me to try on my mask, one which all the flashbulbs of restless time will not illuminate.

(sketch for The Darkening Land)


Mary Beth said...

Sarah Belle and the other ghostly shapes in the tin type wear flowers. My mind raced to Remembrance Day. Or were they perhaps a wedding party?

And here is your latest work! So alluring! So many symbols for my mind to play with! Windows into the past, Masonic designs, hills, or are they roads, or are they clouds, or all of the above? Even your scratch marks invoke the furrows of the field, the lines of hay left to dry beneath the summer sun.

I have to look. I have to look away. Too many disquieting thoughts flood my mind. I have to return again only to find I’m looking once more at my own internal images. These half remembered dreams that might be real or might be what I needed and whispered to myself over and over and over until I could believe enough to close red rimed eyes in fitful sleep.

“Life is like an onion. We peel away the layers and sometimes we cry.”

27 years exiled in the West. I don’t regret being here. Yet, it feels as if Kentucky was a different lifetime. The memories of are so dark, so smoky. It is as if they were all left to age and cure in Papa Jimmy’s smokehouse along side his hams.

It’s Hell to be rootless. Yes, the land here has claimed me, shared its secrets, nurtures me as it’s own, but I am not a Californian. I never will be. I don’t think or act as the natives. The touchstones in my magic bag of tricks are foreign to them. They don’t get me. They can’t accept that I didn’t assimilate. I’m still the outsider with strange customs, strange language, strange food.

The passage of time hasn’t make living in a strange world any easier. If anything, it’s growing harder now. There aren’t many people left that share my stories. Uncle Dave doesn’t remember Grandma the way I do. She was the greatest source of love and strength in my childhood. Yet, Dave recalls very little of his mother. He says “she faded into the background.”

What if I’m the only one that remembers? What happens when I forget? What happens if I remember it “wrong?” Will they all fade away into darkness?

I’ve become a person without a people and… I’m scared.

Dan Dutton said...

What an evocative comment, Mary Beth!

I struggled with whether to go ahead and make this small scale version of The Darkening Land, or wait until I could do it justice in the full size one - it is good to know that the sketch works for someone, even in its rudimentary state. I could hardly have described the state of mind it encodes better than you have!

I suppose that just as it is difficult to "see" the virtues of darkness (it can be a womb, for instance...) it is also hard to embrace the break in continuity, as though it confirms fear of abandonment & alienation. Since at least the time of the Egyptians our myths have been trying to situate that break somehow to prolong duration into eternity.

I've started to envision the "sinking" of the ancestors into the depth of the unseen/unknown as being like featherbeds of the antiearth. If only I could have enough humility to practice what I preach! Then I'd be content dissolve in the feathery soot & let go of even the last phoenix dream.

I've always thought California would be problematic to live in "No country for old men" as Yeats said of Byzantium - being all gold and on the western edge. The Olympic Penn would work better for me - everything dissolving into grey sea mist & fog. But our muses have a way of siting us exactly where the antagonisms of circumstance will further creativity - so maybe the paradox of being in a darkening land which only appears to be sunny will wring out exactly the poignance your work requires.

When we catch a sudden joy from the flash of light on a bird's wing we consume it all at once (a conflagration of desires satisfied in an instant) - without following the long smoulder in the confining egg, the tough life of hunting worms, etc.

At the risk of quoting two poets badly & most likely mangling:

"He that clingeth to a joy, doth the winged' life destroy. He that kisseth the joy as it flies, lives in eternity's sunrise." (Blake)

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for words of comfort. You're right, it's the loss of control I fear most.

You're also right that i need to return to being more centered and in the moment but not of the moment.

Tough to be perfect!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing!

A faihful, respectful lurker,

Dan Dutton said...

Thanks Melissa! It's so nice to have encouragement ~ I know the quality here veers to and fro ~ I start with an idea and sometimes it heads off into parts unknown. This particular one was already on the outer boundary when I started!

I just barely escaped bee metaphors - the idea that the otherworld/afterworld/past darkness is like a black honeycomb...