Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Dark Thoughts

"It was a dark and stormy night...."
Dark Thoughts: what a dreadful title! Who among you would choose to read about dark thoughts? I can hear the sounds of rapidly clicking mice as readers flee in droves without pausing to investigate, since even someone in the grip of “dark thoughts” would hardly need more, would — if thinking clearly — seek out instead bright thoughts, light, messages of hope and optimism, no?

Darkness, though, comes with varying intensity and in different moods. The dark of a star-pricked sky is nothing like that of a cave or the bottom of an old well, and the quiet of natural darkness can bring reassuring comfort when its welcome, repetitious coming follows the relentless clamor of days filled with loud, angry voices of a world too much with us. My usage of the phrase today, however, is neither a metaphorical reference to despair nor literally intended to evoke nighttime darkness enveloping a country farmhouse. My first thought for today’s title would have named its subject directly: Going Dark

Let me start somewhere else, though. Please keep in mind that where I begin is not my subject but only the background for my subject.

Let me begin with the “darkness of the soul” that comes often in the dark of night but can linger through a series of days, especially rainy days when the very heavens seem to cry unceasingly. A parent’s death, followed closely by that of a friend. Most awful, painful revelations  of personal experiences from dear ones. Political horrors invading the privacy of sleep. When a household crisis as mundane as the breakdown of a clothes dryer strikes, it only seems fitting. “What next?” one asks, and there is always a next, it seems, in a season when no one we know and no corner of the globe seems at peace. Oh, there are small bright spots, and there are the brave, sweet souls who share joy and encourage others to hope, but is there anything approaching balance in the world’s moods encroaching on our personal lives from one day to the next?

Okay, that's the background. And then, one gloomy, wet morning “What next?” is answered by another unexpected breakdown. A voice announcing “malicious malware,” followed by a dark and unresponsive screen. As we all were reminded by Monty Python, no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, and yet sometimes it arrives!

The Artist and I were at a coffee shop not too many miles from home, taking a morning errand break, and I was still dressed for floor scrubbing, not having planned to go very far in my home county that morning, much less to “town” for anything, but now a visit to the gurus suddenly becomes Priority #1. On our way into town, more and more worries crowd in. Losing stored files would not be the end of the world, but what of business transactions? Thankful for the many online possibilities I had always eschewed with stubborn determination, I nevertheless thought of half a dozen causes for concern. Not the end of the world, by a long shot, but a big mess. 

“Here’s my prediction,” announced the Artist, doing all he could by driving me to the gurus’ lair and entertaining me along the way. “Someday the invention of the Internet will be seen as the apple in the Garden of Eden, and no one will want to do anything online any more. They'll look back on the Digital Age with horror.” (We love to concoct believable futures we will never live to see tested. One of my own favorite predictions -- "You heard it here first!" we tell one another -- is the eventual future merging of the historical persons of Jesus and Elvis.) The Artist elaborated, we discussed, and then we imagined a “disconnected” world of the future — which is to say, a world similar to the one we had known in years past, a world where “long distance” calls were rare and used only on special occasions, with ordinary correspondence conducted on paper and sent through the postal service. A world of manuscripts literally that, pages covered with handwriting — or, for those with racing minds, sheets of individual paper impressed with typed letters. A world with fifteen minutes of evening television news.

I was reminded of a long-ago evening on our porch with friends who had lived very adventurous lives before settling down to raise their children. Over dinner the wife recounted their return one year from a family vacation. Nearing home at the end of a long journey, they had heard sirens and seen smoke, and her first reaction was one of panic: What if it were their house on fire? But she and her husband and their children were all together, safe in their car, she realized instantly, and so her next surprising response — it surprised her at the time and sent us all into gales of laughter there on the porch as she told the tale — was one of relief, thinking of all their accumulated stuff gone up in smoke, no longer weighing them down. “We could start all over with nothing!” she realized happily, and the thought of having nothing again thrilled her!

Without e-mail, without my blogs, without Facebook, without an electronic keyboard, I thought, I could go dark, and it would not be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I could disappear from the world online. Perhaps no one would even notice. I could liberate myself!

I'm still here
In former times, disappearance had to be physical. One left one’s country or hid out in the countryside or simply stopped answering one’s telephone and door. I would need to do nothing that drastic. I could continue to open my bookstore for business hours, continue to shop locally for groceries and write letters to friends. I would still have conversations with friends and customers in my bookstore. The Artist and I would not need to alter our winter travel plans. The stack of yellow legal pads we bought last winter and then never filled, perfect for quiet mornings and evenings in the high desert (exactly what we had in mind when buying them), would accompany us again to the West, this time to be filled. And we would still have our books … books on paper, a book tucked into a bag, books beside us on tables … books whose text was fixed when printed, not to be subsequently altered by some evil genius at a distance. 

Going dark, I realized, if that were what lay ahead in my future, might be returning into light, into a slower, saner, more personal way of existence, one to which I am much more suited, anyway. 

Well, the crisis was quickly resolved by the first guru approached. They are amazing, those young techies! So competent, so confident and reassuring. And so now, for the foreseeable future (which, in truth, is always moment-to-moment for any of us, though we so easily forget the contingent nature of our technological reality), my screen and online life continue. Also, we had a sunny afternoon yesterday and are having a sunny morning today, a reminder that even days with 50% chance of precipitation can bring brightly colored hours. 

One value of envisioning a worst-case scenario is seeing how one might cope with it, but another value in yesterday's imagined scenario of darkness was equally important to me. In recent weeks, you see, I had allowed myself to be wound tighter and tighter, “keeping up” with events I could little hope to influence and with many “friends” who find no time to drop by in person or put a note in the mail. Way too much ineffectual “reaching out”! If my blog were to go dark, I realized, there would be few to mourn its passing, so what have I been trying to do with all these years of online “self-expression”? And why do we all fondly imagine we might change each other's opinions by broadcasting our own on a daily basis?

Better -- for me, anyway -- to concentrate here on books, and, as for Facebook, to return to checking in there no oftener than once a day, with frequent holidays from checking in at all. To reading a newspaper maybe three times a week and listening to evening radio news but keeping the radio silent in my car. Because when Sarah and I leave the house in the morning and again when we return home at the end of the day (as well as the time at the bookstore in between), I need to be where I am -- and with her -- and to see the beauty and complexity of the world in front of my eyes. And when our little family threesome is together, we need to focus on each other.

In closing, in the spirit of refocusing on books, here are some sketchy thoughts (no more) about a novel I read this past weekend, Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, set in Kashmir, where the author lived for three years, and published by Viking in 1953, and since I hardly expect to set off a stampede of readers eager for this book from over half a century ago, what I say will be in essence, though not in detail, in the nature of a “spoiler.” As a reader, you think you know early on the outlines of what will happen as a result of Sophia’s many blundering cultural faux pas. She does not belong. She is in the wrong place. She does not and never will fit in, and it was a mistake for her to have come. You foresee devastation ahead for many. You foresee her return to conventional English life, settling down to a safe, conventional marriage. All this seems obvious for most of the novel, the course of the story accelerating in later chapters until the metaphorical train wreck and Sophia’s chastening and repentance seem all but inevitable in the pages remaining. And yet — your expectations are overturned! No one dies! The main character leaves Kashmir, but the dénouement is hardly conventional. What relief! What delight! To reach the last page and be given such a gift, to see that even in the 1950s America a writer of fiction published by a major house could imagine something more for a female character than to have her “saved” by a retreat from adventure!

Old books! I find new books to love, as well, but I could never give up the world of old books. Bill Mauldin’s A Sort of Saga — how my late friend Chris would have delighted in that book! How many happy, book-filled hours we shared in Northport! And I am still here for my loyal customer-friends, as well as for anyone wandering up to Leelanau Township for a first visit. "I'm a lucky man," the Artist said to me not long ago. "Sarah's a lucky dog!" And I'm a lucky woman!

No comments: