BLOG— Of fireflies, stars and time
- Published: July 12, 2016
Our house at night is strange, not like our daytime house at all. I struggle to place the lit window above me. Ah, my husband’s study. The light’s on. But my husband’s in bed. I’m the one in his study, writing after midnight. Except that at this moment I’m not; I’m here, two bare feet on the wet boards of our backyard deck, two arms hanging in air. One head thrown back. Two eyes that have been evolving for a billion years (too bad they need glasses, though; evolution, please explain!). Above, hundreds of stars whose light has been traveling for a billion years — is that possible? Maybe, when I return to my husband’s study, I’ll look it up. Maybe I won’t.
A billion years. Or: a very long time. Some of the stars I see no longer exist, I do know that much. Where I see light, there’s actually darkness. So am I always looking at a photograph of the universe — an extinguished reality preserved as image — rather than the real-time real thing?
The fireflies in the trees are the real-time real thing! And they’re doing their thing. Or their thang. A dance of light … and dark. Dark is half the dance, I wrote in a poem last month, when the fireflies were at their peak and the trees glittered madly with them. Now the detonations — for that’s what they are, silent fireworks — have dwindled. My eyes pick out the flashes readily enough, but in between and all around, there’s darkness. And it’s spreading.
I could stay out here all night, looking at the white stars, the golden fireflies, the dark shadows against the dark house. Everything I see prompts the question, Are you seeing this, are you really seeing this? I want to see; it feels like knowing, which feels like living. The days I forget to look are dark days, literally. The theater’s dark, nothing’s showing. I want to see, I want to see. Strangely, words help me best with this. I am satisfied I’ve seen something when I can describe it. This can be as simple as finding the words for a shape, a shadow. Or as subtle as finding the words for what a shape or shadow is, what it means.
Make me a word-picture, my grandmother would say to me when I was a child, and I’d do my best. I discovered pretty quickly that you can’t describe anything in this world in terms of itself; everything is understandable only in terms of something else, often its seeming opposite. Light, dark. Object, shadow. A shadow is a distortion, sure, but one that serves to reveal a true shape. The tiger lilies my grandma loved were longer than long in shadow form on the sidewalk. I loved their ladder of shadow stems; I loved how we walked up and down that ladder, yet never left the ground.
I loved how we observed the living flowers. See how shy they are, yet still open? she might have asked. (Did she ask this? Or did I insert it?) An eye, a mouth, a hand. The lilies looked like all these things. She took my hand in hers. Her mouth spoke what her eye saw. The image of us — I never saw it, for I was in it — is somehow preserved. How far did this light travel to reach me? Only the distance inside my mind.
Back on the deck. Only I’m not on the deck now, I’m in my husband’s study. The lamp excludes the night I just left, yet also makes it all the more real. I can’t see any stars from where I sit, and the fireflies — who knows if they’re still flashing? Memory adds layers of remove to an already receding night. And brings it close, so close, word-picture close, to this moment. Which is, of course, already gone.
Tonight’s stars were memories long before they reached me. Tonight’s fireflies are dying as they live.