When the Light Disappears

Today, multitudes of Americans converged on a long swath of land stretching from the Oregon coast to Charleston. After a great deal of hype and expenditure, they took turns sitting in the dark together for a few minutes per group. Then they turned to go home.

It’s funny, historically speaking, to see everyone so thrilled and eager about a solar eclipse—an event that used to be a harbinger of doom. Solar eclipses have brought rulers to their knees, armies to armistice, and if you believe Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a timely end to a series of beheadings. They also offer a representation of the word syzygy, which earns at least twenty-five Scrabble points. The moon passes before the sun, occulting its light and revealing the wild-hair halo of the sun’s corona.

In the fallout from the disheartening events in Charlottesville, it is a blessing to have such a grandiose celestial reminder of the centuries-old motto of John Calvin’s followers: Post tenebras lux—after darkness, light. Watching and reading the news, I have found myself depressed and less certain of the years to come—like a lot of folks, I presume. We now live with all-new echoes of the unrest of the sixties and seventies. My wife, Katrina, reminds me that we were spoiled for a while by the sort of Pax Romana of the nineties and the new millennium. Not to say horrible things didn’t happen then, but it certainly felt as though we were taking small steps forward regarding racism. Racial hatred was never a new problem, and it was never limited to the United States, but it seemed for a time that our national hackles were lowering across certain boundaries.

Then, Michael Brown and Ferguson—a tragedy which put the spotlight squarely on police violence. From that point onward, we heard a steady stream of national conversation—a lot of it healthy—about what it’s like to be black and to engage with white officers. To a degree, I felt like good things came of it all. I looked on once as a few cops sent a crowd of teenagers away from a park downtown. It was night, and the kids were milling about in a somewhat unruly mass. It was hard to see what was going on in the middle. Three officers stood and watched for a few moments before one of them walked into the group and told them all to move on. The other officers had phones out, videoing the instance. A number of the kids had phones out, doing the same. Nobody raised a voice. It seemed all were held in check, perhaps in part by fear of looking like instigators of violence on YouTube. It was a tense, shaky peace, but it was peaceful nonetheless.

Now Charlottesville is deeply rooted in the American consciousness—the flags, the slogans, the riot gear, and the violence. Even more than that, the Knoxville news reports that white supremacist groups are coming to this area to protest the potential removal of a monument. A friend and I went on a run last night and jogged out to see the marker. It’s a squarish menhir of a thing, sparsely ornate and placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. I had passed it a million times without reading it. It always felt, to me, like just another relic of Knoxville’s once-times as a tract of contested land in the Civil War. The names are strewn about town: Fort Sanders Medical Center, Fort Dickerson Park, Union Avenue, Brownlow School Lofts, Farragut. Our South is strung with battlefields like a necklace of broken teeth. Now the potential for widespread anger—some of it surely justified—looms up again like Longstreet’s ghost. It makes me wonder for my children and their future. Darkness rumbles at the edges. The light starts to dim. Where do we go from here?

I heard a preacher and professor say on a recent podcast that the idea of a single day beginning and ending in darkness—how we reckon days in our time—is pagan in origin. I don’t know enough to agree or disagree, but the notion makes sense to me. Greek mythology begins literally with Chaos and blunders through a soap opera of murder and adultery. Norse mythology ends in Ragnarok. The Ouroboros—the circular symbol of a serpent eating its own tail—is an ancient, cross-cultural representation of birth, death, and rebirth. It is self-destructive in nature, a nihilistic iconography that does not lead to light. A different historical way of reckoning the days was by measuring them from either sunrise or sunset—times marked by light. Judaism does this, for example, and so does Islam. Christians in Medieval Europe also thought in this way, using terms like Christmas Eve and All Hallows Eve to indicate when the Holy Days actually began.

Now, from coast to coast, American gathered to watch this darkness come and go. At our house, we stood in the yard and looked through our glasses as the light disappeared from the world. The air grew tangibly cooler. A treeful of katydids tuned up their evening fiddles, paused, and then began in earnest. Strange waves of shadow rippled across the grass like frequency bands from an unheard signal. All our education did not prepare us for what we saw and heard. We spoke in whispers.

What is it that makes humanity gasp at darkness and reach for light when other creatures merely accept the change? Some lie down in their dens, some rise to stalk the halls of night; flowers furl their sails, and birds hush their songs. Yet people are different. I’ve walked the downtown pavements as the revelry of bars dies down. Until eleven o’clock or so, a bon vivant spirit prevails; people are loud and smile in every direction. After that, the noise takes on a more muted character, and former merrymakers size each other up with dubious looks as they pass on the sidewalk. It is as if we expect the dark to make us different people.

Katrina sent me out for butter shortly after the eclipse passed. I half expected the van not to crank to life. It seemed odd that stoplights should function and that the man down the road should start mowing again. I felt like the world ought to shiver and hold its breath in the wake of such a thing. Once upon a time, the Cherokee would beat drums and fire guns during eclipses to frighten away the giant frog they supposed had swallowed the sun. It wouldn’t have surprised me if my neighbors had poured into the street making all kinds of doomsday racket. The sun had vanished, after all.

This is often our response to tragedy and horror. We feel almost offended that the world should continue spinning after that friend or family member has died, after that cataclysmic shift in oceans or planets that heralded doom for someone, after that march in which people said and did such terrible things. We feel like everything and everyone ought to screech to a halt to rue unthinkable woes.

Yet, the light will return, piercing the gloaming with a strength that cannot be met by the naked eye. All things are not reckoned from dark to dark, but from light to light. If we turn on the television or scan the internet and find endless mires of unnatural darkness, it is not wrong to mourn, or to expect that the world should pause and consider, but we can recall that it is not the end. We can remember that there is a Kingdom, a final Kingdom, of Light. Post tenebras lux.

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