the right hand of darkness

This ‘Heavy” time, which is ours, is nothing more than the long while in which nothing speaks to us . . .
—Martin Heidegger

Advent IV: One of Donne’s Holy Sonnets begins, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” It’s a thought that can be entertained without the heavy overlay of Donne’s piety. I have great respect for that piety, though there is much piety I have to admit to myself I have no grounds to respect. And this year, especially this year, I need to think past Donne’s images of the crucified Christ to ask this question: as the late year empties itself into darkness, what if the darkness proves all-encompassing?

I have no real doubt that I shall write again about the political issues that have moved me since last August, but when that time comes I think I shall face a moral emptiness that will shape my thinking in uncomfortable and strange ways, strange to me at least. That a majority of my fellow citizens apparently approve agents of their government torturing alleged enemies so darkens my moral horizon that I fear the light may never return. And adding to that concern is the growing pushback from police all over the country against the possibility of any constraint upon their behavior.

And what if there is no dimension to my question that reaches beyond this historical moment? This is not to ask what if there is nothing beyond history. That question remains unmeaningful to me. The fact that I don’t understand what I sometimes think of as the world, sometimes the cosmos, sometimes the system of the heavens, sometimes a great economy like Wendell Berry’s doesn’t mean that these metaphors signify an absence. They are rather ways of imaging something that is constantly present.

Or maybe not.

Recently, I found myself in a discussion of hiraeth, a Welsh word for a kind of ontological homesickness, at Facebook. The discussion devolved into thoughts about homeland landscapes. I didn’t contribute much because I was almost immediately cast into my own nostalgic mood, a mood whose objectifications vary, have varied, in my life; and with which I have been familiar since I was pretty young. This year, a year in which I have surprised and been surprised by the antique character of many of my habitual resorts, I not only ponder the growing darkness around me, but also search the emerging future for some source of light whose vitality I haven’t used up.

Donne will not serve. Perhaps no antique eloquence will serve. “Work for the night is coming,” says an old hymn—a night in which no one can work—thoughts attributed to Jesus in John’s gospel. But if the coming night is a moral nothingness in which work and other human actions lose all meaning, then what? What if the darkness is total? That’s the awful possibility that my country’s present flirtation with totalitarianism opens up for me. Or to put it another way around, what if the darkness of our present American history so obscures the cosmic that contains me that I become blind to it and desensitized to its mystery. Then too, at my time of life there is another concern.

I know that one day, rather sooner than later, the world will wink out and be gone from me. Advent has always asked me to look into that darkness. This year my response to facing it is a certain apprehension, partly because I am aware of being closer to it than ever before. I have no confidence in my religion’s myths of eternity. They remain metaphorical for me, ways of imaging an ontological awareness in an epistemological void. For many years, however, I have been confident of the essential goodness of life, what Reynolds Price has called the unaccountable worth of the world—but that confidence is historical. The thought of losing it is what troubles me this year.

Last night my beloved and I trimmed our Christmas tree as we have for all the years we have been together. Afterwards we sat in our living room, whose front window is always open to the street outside, with all the lights out except those on the tree. I thought that even if my confidence in the unaccountable worth of the world were to shrink to the size of this room and the small warmth of my own hearth, that would still be something. But I am more blessed than that. When I was senior warden of my church we built a new set of rooms for our growing multitude of children. It was the windows of those rooms that were broken the night my church served as a protest sanctuary not long ago.

Now those windows are being repaired, and on Christmas Eve we shall celebrate the return of light as an extended family large enough to include even my atheist beloved, who will endure joking admonitions from friends that it really wouldn’t hurt her to take communion. We are all blessed, singly and severally, and though I approach the altar alone, as I will one day approach that final darkness, a hand will be in mine that I trust will one day close my eyes.

along south grand

I’ve already broken my promise to post photos each week, but maybe I can get back on track today. Things are returning to normal along South Grand. I took a walk through the neighborhood again yesterday and found some things I had not seen before and some I had. I’ll be posting photos from South Grand for a while until I turn to something else. There’s lots of good material around me.

The plywood window that carried the image I’m using as a heading has come down, but plywood grafitti is providing some businesses with permanent advertising and the opportunity to commit citizenship, or that’s how I’m presently thinking of it. Rooster has cleared some of its windows but kept significant signage. Note the critter saying, “Break eggs, not windows.”


The city flag cum peace sign appears up and down the street still. Here it is in the window of LemmonGrass, our favorite Vietnamese eatery across the street. We had dinner at Lemmongrass not long after the plywood went up and saw no broken windows. Our server told us that the plywood had been installed prophylactically, but we suspect solidarity.


Solidarity may also be behind the window covering at Jay International Groceery, where I bought some Basmati rice yesterday and chatted with folks in the checkout line. No broken windows there, either.


Jay’s also sports a St. Louis 250th birthday cake. These little pieces of public art are all over the Metro East this year in honor of the 250th anniversary of the city’s “founding.” The celebration has not been the big PR success that the chamber of commerce types hoped, but the birthday cakes are sort of cute, I guess.


And speaking of public art, here’s an electrical junction box that’s covered with permanent public art, the fruit of a grant a few years back. From time to time these boxes (which appear all along South Grand) get vandalized, but they always get repaired.


An area of South Grand from I-44 south almost to Gravois has been the subject of various “improvements” over the past good many years. I was very disturbed when wowsers cut down the beautiful old trees that had shaded the main business section for many years, but the new trees they planted are growing apace. Here’s another improvement, a litle concrete park that used to be a parking lot.


I may have liked it better as a parking lot, but we attended its opening back in August, another opportunity to have dinner at LemmonGrass and meet friends serendipitously. As we were walking past The King and I, another wonderful venue for foodies (you can see just the corner of its buillding in the photo above) Ann Aurbach came rushing out the door and threw her arms around me—this was the first time I had been out for an evening since I got out of the hospital. Ann is a prize-winning photographer who has recently had a very successful one-person show here in town. You can see her work at her blog, Biscuits with Honey.

I commented last week that it will be interesting to watch the plywood art along South Grand as it develops and changes. I’m now thinking that much of it will be up for a while. Here’s the front of Salon St. Louis decked out with seasonal cheer and some images that have been added since I took the photo I posted ten days ago. For comparison that’s here. And here’s my photo from yesterday.


I’ll close with this image from the door of Commerce Bank, whose good citizenship can be seen in the spacious parking lot at Arkansas and Hartford that the bank maintains as a public service. I’ll post a photo of it one of these days. It’s refreshing to see the messages of solidarity and hope along South Grand right now. Perhaps it’s an atidote to my general pessimism, which I haven’t forgotten. More about that soon, but meanwhile,