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 more—set 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 year—135 days by my count—when the sun is continuously above or below the horizon..
“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 stranger—an alien—amidst 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 star—the only star—that ever shows its face around here. And I took some pictures.
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.
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 both—light and dark, beginning and end—and 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 wistful—watching—I 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 beautiful—for it is—new-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 up—I 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.