Say goodnight gloaming

The name of this blog comes from the final verse of Josh Ritter’s stream-of-consciousness, universe-trotting epic song Thin Blue Flame. At the end, the speaker wakes back on earth, finding heaven at home, and suggests we should all stop looking up and look around instead. See what we can make happen down here, with one another. For one another.

See if we can’t just hang out together a little moreset an example for the “old man wandering the halls alone.”

Gloaming refers to the window of time between the sunset and complete darkness. The soft, waning glow is provided by the upper atmosphere’s reflection of sunlight on the Earth. “Dusk” is a synonym. According to my source, around here the gloaming lasts for an average of thirty minutes a day throughout the year, beginning as early as 4:13pm (shopping-crazed late December) and ending as late as 8 o’clock (sit-on-the-stoop nights in June).

The duration of the gloaming depends on your distance from the equator. The closer you are, the shorter the gloaming.

Should you find yourself in Barrow, Alaska (71°18′ N) on January 23rd, go ahead and start that hockey game at sunset: the gloaming lasts a rather satisfying two hours and thirty-one minutes on that day. But then there is also no gloaming at all for a good part of the year135 days by my countwhen the sun is continuously above or below the horizon..

Gloaming IV Gloaming V

“Twilight” is also given as a synonym for gloaming, but this slightly confuses matters, for twilight actually refers to the time before sunrise, too. Astronomers talk about something called civil twilight, which begins before sunset, goes all day, and ends in the evening when the sun sinks six degrees beneath the horizon. I like that term ‘civil twilight,’ but I draw the line at civil dawn. I am a chronic night owl.

I spent some time in the gloaming in October. It was easy: the sunset was working its way from 6:30 to 5:30pm, about the time I’m usually walking out of my office building. The quality and quantity of the natural light are dictated by the atmosphere and the local weather, I learned. It’s amazing how different one night is to another. Some nights I walked west feeling as bruised as the sky in front of me: the horizon glowed a murky yellowish green, night’s clear blue in pursuit.

On the weekends I got a Zipcar, my driving atlas, and out of town. At farm stands I sipped hot cider and read agricultural news clippings on bulletin boards, on hiking trails I beheld a forest on fire. I felt like a strangeran alienamidst all that natural beauty, all that sky. And that fact made me feel even stranger. I put a gourd on my desk at my office, and I got to thinking about the autumn as the gloaming of the year.

I celebrated my birthday and let the storminess inside take my nerve. I looked resentfully on this place and my place in it, and I worried over the notion of the gloaming of one’s life. I gazed up and mocked the one starthe only starthat ever shows its face around here. And I took some pictures.
. .

Gloaming I Gloaming II

. .
To stand small amongst these knife-edged buildings in the gloaming is to watch a changing of the guard. The greedy city stands ready to upstage the sun. Streetlights flicker on against a sky drained of blue. Shadows appear on sidewalks. The fine things and people glimpsed in shop and gathering place windows promise a fleeting warmth. Windows shine, traffic signals beat, headlights beam. The city whispers Forget the sun.

“Can I take your picture?”

A woman-shaped blur obliterates the steeple in the lens of my camera. I lower it, rise up from the cobblestones, and start to laugh.

“No, I—” She has a greying bob, a fringed shawl slung round her shoulders. The searching smile of a stranger offering random kindness.

“Well—Okay,” I say. She takes the camera with a celebratory air and hops a few steps backward. My eyes dart over her shoulder, scanning the street for familiar faces. Office workers stream toward the subway station across the street.

“One! Two—”

I look into the amber light, suddenly feeling naked and idiotic. I press my shoulder to the streetlight pole, loop my arm around its ridged trunk as though it was traveling companion. And there, two blocks from my office, I impersonate a tourist and grin-grimace into the flash.

“Perfect! There you go,” she says, tugging at her shawl and handing the camera back to me.

“Thanks.” I nod, startled by a wave of gratitude. I want to ask what she saw from the other side. I have the urge to follow her, wherever she’s going.

“Have a great trip!” she calls over her shoulder, and she wanders off down the street.

With the turning back of the clocks, the gloaming has slipped behind workday hours until February. I’ll sneak out when the atmosphere creates a violet veil. I’ll do more than that, I tell myself when I’m feeling brave. I’d like to spend some time where they leave night well enough alone. Maybe out there in all that quiet, in all that dark, I could get up for the sunrise.

The gloaming is a blink of in-between, a few stolen moments to have bothlight and dark, beginning and endand despite its almost eerie peacefulness (even, sometimes, in the city), it is alive: each minute is different. Having pictures proves this. When you’re waiting wistfulwatchingI decided, it’s the part of the day that feels most like home.

The picture of me and my lamppost is out of focus, the result of an old camera and my failure to instruct the photographer in how to use it properly. But I like the stupid, blurry grin and the beautifulfor it isnew-old city behind, playing dress-up, just like me. It reminds me how little it takes to change everything.

Maybe the lady in the shawl was one of the “angels everywhere in our midst.”

I haven’t decided. But I’m looking. Even upI still pray. And I’m trying to make peace with that one steadfast star. I’m thinking I’m going to need it, once I’m sure of my wish.

. .

. .

Gloaming III

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The past an address

Seattle was lovely—the coffee rich and hot, the sky blue, water water everywhere, and the library a bonefide future glass building that gave both inspiration and vertigo. The Seattle Art Museum is revived and very recently re-opened; I think the wine glasses we drank from came straight out of the box. Josh came along to the SAM, where I stood in front of a Native American piece that referenced Three Sisters, and, smiling just a little bit, I thought of this line from Thin Blue Flame:

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land

It comes in that earthly-ethereal, Elysian final verse . . . and for months now I’ve been luxuriating in the imagery, thinking, “All that . . . and Chekhov too?”** I suppose heaven is what we make it—surely one message in Thin Blue Flame—and I’d gone and pulled out a chair for that fine writer. Oh well, he can come anyway. Something tells me Josh won’t mind.* And, yes, I’m ignorant about Native American agricultural history. It won’t be the last thing I get wrong about these songs; they’re complicated and weird (high praise in my book), and that’s part of the reason we’re here.

So now I’m home and packing to move. On Saturday I had an impromptu meeting and shaking-of-hands with the gentleman and father of four who paid $3.2M for this gorgeous building that was home to around fourteen people and ten apartments. He was showing his shy, smiling parents the boiler room, speaking in Italian. I introduced myself and asked whether they’d like to step into my humble place (surely destined to become the wine cellar, the maid’s quarters, or the laundry room).

He was gracious and humble, with kind eyes, and despite my ambivalence about moving away I could muster no animosity. Instead I burbled about how my years here had been so special, how I had considered writing a letter to the new owner and leaving it in the Ernest Hemingway fold-down desk. It felt a bit silly to congratulate someone on the cash purchase of a $3.2M home in possibly the most beautiful part of the city, and certainly I did not calm any fears by giving my assurances of how much they would enjoy the neighborhood, but congratulate and assure I did. He seemed genuinely grateful, and, as I said, kind. He said goodbye, I shut the door behind him, and I gave the wall a little pat. Phew.

One inevitably thinks about the coming in the planning for the leaving, and I will be forever mindful that I arrived here with a broken—no, a mangled heart. And now I leave with a mended one, even if there are some scars. It took just shy of two years. This little place under the sidewalk was here waiting on the nights I felt so bereft and so betrayed by the still-turning world—so low—that my homeward footsteps slowed and I, feeling unequal to one more, considered lying down on the sidewalk’s cold concrete. This home and its fickle oven hosted last summer’s baking school, when Sunday afternoons were reserved for the playing of classical music and the mastering of quickbreads, muffins, pies, cobblers, cookies, and cakes.

It cooperated when learning to cook took over in the fall, and my father and I spent a weekend hunting studs in the wall—him, drill pulsing, cursing old buildings’ basements and the things that lurk in their walls—in order to mount a pot rack. Those same walls did not sigh when I repeatedly reconfigured the furniture and moved decorations, learning to listen to its space and successfully making it my home, and one—my first—that I loved. Its inlaid bookcases handsomely supported my acres of books.

It opened its hobbit-sized door to Grief and we sat and gazed at it together, turning it round, memorizing all sides, and I cried, and cried and cried into its silence, determined to put in my time, hoping each honest encounter would be the last. It welcomed me home late at night during the harried months when I socialized and volunteered like a hamster on a wheel, booking some engagement nearly every night so I’d fall into bed too tired to think. It stayed up while I learned about investing </yawn> so I could invest the money I’d saved and exile anxiety about financial independence. It was screening theatre to Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which I watched each time it aired last autumn, the sight of a young brilliant Bob Dylan staring blankly out making me weep for reasons that weren’t clear. Yet. It was concert hall for Dylan and Josh Ritter, whose music I played incessantly through the winter and spring. It was sounding board for those first strange, spontaneous laughs—at the TV, at Josh’s lyrics—and later, the hilarity that sometimes ensued when visiting with friends.

This “studio plus” didn’t judge when I scrawled the sad and bitterly triumphant last verse of Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind on my whiteboard (changing letters to emails), even if my brother did, after beholding it with furrowed brow, laughingly suggest I take it down before inviting anyone else inside. It was reading room to numerous books that kept me company and led me back to warm wonder at the world. It witnessed the deepening of my most cherished friendships and put in motion a resolution to be a fine hostess, one whose home says Drop-Ins Welcome. It kept the light on and nudged me, like a mother bird, out the door when I ventured out on a first date that might as well have been the first ever.

It was a portal of prayer.

Lest I sleep too soundly its radiators clanged in the small hours of the winter nights. Its wonky windows swelled in the rain and even then couldn’t keep out the city’s dirt. The hot water failed on the mornings of some very important meetings, and the drains served up absolutely monstrous centipedes every once in awhile. And its charms shrunk away with the rest during some very lonesome times. But it gave me the space and the silence in which to write in a way I hadn’t before—and writing began teaching me all kinds of things that I hope will never stop.

There’s a line in Thin Blue Flame that goes

The future glass buildings and the past an address

There are, of course, numberless ways to talk about Thin Blue Flame, numerous things to explore. There are tiny phrases of precious gem that give way to panoramic themes. Lately I’ve been thinking about The past an address, thinking how much it says in how little, and how it captures a courageous approach to and respect for history—political and personal. (The politics in Thin Blue Flame can’t be denied: one gets the idea Josh will rejoice when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one folksy frat boy’s past address.)

The past an address says sometimes it’s time to pack the U-Haul and set out for new beginnings. It says, don’t worry, it will still be be there—no bull dozers, please—and you’re welcome to drop in when you need to, to sit in the garden and remember when, to wiggle your toes in the fountain, to tear up the floorboards for time capsules and corpses, to resurrect and reinterpret heroes and villains. To revisit and rethink or even revise.

The past an address says But we don’t live there anymore. It was splendid for awhile, but we never quite fixed the electrical problem; we didn’t think the new boiler was worth the expense. We made some lovely memories. We healed some wounds. We made some terrible mistakes. It was time, so we’ve gone down to the post office and arranged for the forwarding of mail. You’ll find us striking out somewhere new, somewhere with space enough for all our new ideas.

And for the future.

Next: River days




**I’ve just remembered (vaguely) that the notion of going to Moscow (Russia) as escape from the family’s stagnation and failure in the country figures largely in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Moscow, Idaho, you may know, is Josh Ritter’s hometown and perhaps the setting of that final verse of Thin Blue Flame.

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land