Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Share the gratitude #4

I love the warm, tropical sun. I am a son of the sun. No matter what name he goes by - Re, Helios, Apollo - he is eternally Father Fusion, endlessly ejaculating his life-giving photons onto the fertile ovum of our earth. Well, technically he's only got another 5 billion years or so during which he'll still be useful to us and then an additional 5 or so in a prolonged senescence before he fades into death as a black dwarf; but that's close enough to "endless" in human terms, as far as I'm concerned. I do so love Phoebus and the bright day he brings.

However, I am also a child of Selene, Artemis, Diana. Luna is my lambent mother, empress of the night, torn from Gaia by Theia's assault and flung into the void. Of Gaia but no longer with Gaia, she circles us endlessly, one face forever fixed on ours in desperate longing, her desire to reunite unfulfilled despite the mutual maternal attraction, doomed to increasing separation as she constantly recedes, propelled by Theia's collision, inching farther from us with each passing year even as Terra herself slows the frantic pace of her simulation of a sidereal driedel. Sometimes even Big G, one of Science's premier gods, is insufficiently powerful to resolve a separation problem. The Moon's average orbital distance currently increases by about 1-1/2 inches per year but that figure isn't static, it will ameliorate with large values of delta-T; and Earth's angular acceleration (rotation speed, if you insist) decreases by about 20 millionths of a second every year. Selene sails dolorous and alone in her Science-imposed orbit, comforted by the enfolding embrace of Ur-mother Nyx. Much as I love the realm of Re, I also crave the respite of the beatific calm when Nyx is sovereign, from Erebus' first shadows to the lengthening rosy fingers of Eos. Night, day's perfect complement.

Therefore, my theme for this gratitude post is night and here are five specific instances of night for which I'm grateful, each introduced by an appropriate [hopefully!] line from various poets you might wanna check out if you're interested in that sorta thing. One instance is on foot, one is in the car, one is under the ocean, one is on the ocean, and one is in the sky. I'll begin and end with the ocean, not one of the arbitrary, multiple, individual, discrete oceans created and restrained by our modern, highly-accurate, technologically-derived cartography, but the One True Ocean, the world-girdling pool of heaven's tears, which is singular - Panthalassa.

I'm grateful for:

1. Night light
Nox mihi prima venit! Primae da tempora nocti! - Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid)
(My first night has arrived! Give me more time on this first night!)

For our honeymoon, Ronnie and I chartered a sailboat out of St. Martin, French West Indies. One night we were anchored off the uninhabited island of Tintamarre where, after a lovely dinner, the two of us sat in the cockpit, alone with the universe, the shimmering black-velvet bowl of the sky inverted above us, coruscating with stellar luminescence and the bold swath of the Milky Way. That was beautiful enough in and of itself but as the night progressed we were treated to a spectacular demonstration by Iupiter Elicius who filled the full 360-degree horizon with towering thunderheads until we were surrounded by a 40,000-foot wall of roiling caliginosity while there remained above us a small, central opening through which the stars still shone.

We watched for hours, seeing frequent, random lighting bolts and sheets illuminate the umbra encircling us. Single, brilliant spears which briefly spotlighted but a few degrees of our horizon from sea to stars. Magnificent immense sheets of discharge which lit layers thousands of feet in altitude and tens of degrees of horizontal arc. It was an incredible display of power and beauty. I half expected to see Cthulhu appear above us in the rift; but we weren't in a horror story, it was (and still is!) a love story, so we reclined in our cockpit, dry, comfortable, and awe-struck (but not attacked by mythical monstrosities), as nature's theater-in-the-round put on a lightshow just for us while Panthalassa gently rocked us into the succoring embrace of Hypnos and his son Morpheus.

As wonderful as that was, I'm grateful that it was Aphrodite and Eros who reigned in our cockpit that night rather than Iupiter Pluvius raining in it.

2. Night flight
O come with me into this moonlight world. - Lloyd Frankenberg

Flying is a recurring theme in my life. I love to fly, to be alone in the middle of the sky, like an ancient god, soaring above the plebian world. And night flying… well, it's just the palate-pleasing frosting (in the context of flying, I try to avoid the word "icing") on the already-sublime gateau au marrons of flying. On this particular night, I was winging back from Port Angeles on Washington's Olympic Peninsula for a landing at Paine Field in Everett, feeling like the embodiment of Beryl Markham's West with the Night. For those of you who are inclined to be prosaically precise, I was technically heading East but work with me here, ok? It's a literary conceit.

I flew along the coast at 8,000 feet and conditions were the night version of CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited), the silky dark cloak of the sky tattered by stars and lighted by a brilliant full moon. On my right, the glaciers of the Olympic range glowed and undulated in the silver moonlight, in stark contrast to the profound, stygian depths of the shadowed valleys, the purity of the scene scarcely disturbed by sparse clusters of artificial, manmade light. On my left, the Strait of Juan de Fuca glimmered and glittered, heaving in constant motion under Selene's glow, seeming to me a living beast, breathing deeply and slowly, rolling restlessly, biding its time, gathering its strength for the morning's waking. Hungry.

Then, there's crackle of the radio in my headphones and a remote voice is asking my intentions. There ahead is the bluff on which sits Paine Field. Geometric. Brave with plentiful artificial light. So thoroughly lighted in fact, that it even features a centerline strip of lights on the runway, making night landings child's play. Darkness banished. Humanity triumphant over the old gods who lurk at the edges of shadows, faded but not wholly gone. And I'm reducing power, descending, and returning to the world of Man. Straight lines, logic, engineering, and grandiose imitations of daylight imposed on the amorphous, organic messiness of unconstrained Nature and her dark span. Soon I'm pulling the yoke back into my belly and my wheels are squeaking their protest as unforgiving gravity and friction have their way, grabbing at us, reclaiming us, as that glowing centerline light strip, initially speeding beneath my wheels, slows, then stops. We're back. Grounded. My metal Pegasus and I brought down by my own volition. For now.

I'm grateful for the time I had with the night, the sky, and Mother Luna and long to return again to their company.

3. Night showers for hours
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Bob, mon vieux, sometimes known as the dread Cap'n Blacktoes, is my age. For his, and my, 40th birthday, he came to Seattle to visit me for an adventure vacation as a common birthday celebration. This was August 1988. One of our planned activities was a climb of Mount Rainier with some friends who'd been on the 1984 Ultima Thule Everest expedition. It's always good to do dangerous things with highly skilled people. We chose an approach from the Sunrise area.

After a long day of uphill work, we camped for the night at altitude. It was a fine, clear night and we were on the side of the mountain opposite any potential city light pollution so the night sky was really lovely. We unrolled our Therm-a-Rests, fitted our sleepingbags into our bivisacks, and crawled in, hoping for some restful sleep to energize ourselves for the summit assault the next day at oh-dark-thirty.

Unfortunately, we'd forgotten that it was the time of the Perseid meteor shower. Well, only "unfortunately" in the sense of trying to get some solid, consistent sleep. We lay there in our bags, staring up at the sky as firetrail after firetrail burned across the heavens. Dim, short, brief ones. Lightning-bright, long, lingering ones. Every kind inbetween. Physical exhaustion and the high-altitude thin air conspired to make us sleepy but the sky was so magnificent that we tried desperately to stay awake in order to enjoy the ethereal beauty, time and again finding ourselves startling back to wakefulness after nodding off.

It was the most exquisite display the night sky has ever shown me.

4. Night drive
I have been one acquainted with the night. - Robert Frost

I love driving at night, the knowable world reduced to the coverage of my headlights. I especially love zooming along on a deserted desert freeway, feeling like my speed could be measure in warp factors rather than mere mph, the undiscovered highway ahead suddenly appearing in the leading edge of the headlights as if I were playing a videogame on the windshield, the starkly beautiful landscape floating past on the periphery as if it were moving and I were standing still in my own personal pocket of spacetime as the quintessential observer creating the scene by the act of observing it, and that delicious, tingly fantasy of being the star of my very own post-apocalyptic reality/movie.

Zombies optional. (But, yeah, I want 'em in mine! With a drum-fed 8 gauge shotgun on the rack beside me and a couple of my favorite katanas to hand! Heads up and heads off! We're gonna party all night! Of course I'm wearing my body armor; I never go anywhere without it.)

I am a tachyon in and of the dark, nestled snugly in my climate-controlled bubble, both isolated from and, simultaneously, congruent with the external obsidian world, summoning Hecate from her chthonic realm to open the gate between my individuality and the vast, all-encompassing ebony surrounding me. Achieving oneness, I soar.

It's even better on a motorcycle.

5. Night dive
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear. - William Shakespeare

Before we were married-with-children SITCOMs, Ronnie and I were Microsoft DINKs and one of our earliest adventures together was a SCUBA vacation to Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. It was an idyllic time. Every morning the dive boat would pick us up on our condo's beach, take us out for two dives, and return us for a dilatory dejeuner. Fabuleux! In the afternoons we were free to dive more or go exploring/sightseeing or maybe just sit around the pool or beach relaxing. It was a completely delightful time but the apogee of that adventure was our night dive.

Some people fear the dark. Some fear the ocean. I love both; but for those who fear both, what follows probably seems more like a horror story than one of the most beautiful scenes one could possibly experience. For us, it was incomparable.

A handful of us boarded the dive boat after dark and we headed out into the night. We departed from the West side of Grand Cayman, a seven-mile-long beach crowded cheek-by-jowl with hotels and condos but when you turned your back to the bustle of the shore you saw the endless, empty ocean above the Cayman Trench, the deepest spot in the Caribbean Sea dropping precipitously more than 25,000 feet. Above us in the night sky, the full moon did indeed sit like a lustrous pearl suspended from the ear and resting on the cheek of a child of Cepheus, her light seeming to run straight to the boat from the place beneath her on the horizon, a phosphorescent highway to the stars.

We arrived at the dive site and busied ourselves with donning SCUBA gear plus a flashlight or two each and Cyalumes per individual taste. Some timorous souls carried Monk-approved redundant backups to their primary backup divelights and festooned themselves with Cyalumes like chemoluminescent Christmas trees. Ronnie and I each snugged our flashlight's wrist lanyard and tied a sole Cyalume to our tanks. Preparations done, we stepped to the edge of the boat and dropped in.

The surface of the ocean, which had seemed viscous when viewed from the diveboat deck, parted gently, welcoming us into its amniotic embrace. The reef lay about fifty feet below us and was visible in the ambient moonlight as was the dim silhouette of an 80ish–foot shipwreck resting nearby on the sand. We descended, eschewing the artificial brilliance of our flashlights. Looking up from near the bottom, the moon was clearly visible, if somewhat distorted and wiggly, evoking for me thoughts of wiggly spacetime and my place in a 10-dimensional universe. Sigh! Note to self: Once in a while, close down your brain and open up your heart. Ok, now I'm ready to experience this experience.

We spent a congenial hour exploring this submarine world. The reef's diurnal denizens were absent, hiding in crevices, wrapped in mucous cocoons, etc. and the night crew were about their shadowy business. Life in its myriad forms, evolutionarily abundant. Inside the nocturnal shipwreck we drifted among half-seen piscatorial presences and communed with a ghost moray eel who emerged to welcome us.

All too soon it was time to ascend to the surface and return to our condo to wrap up in our own air-conditioned cocoon of sheets and dreams, and in my dreams I could hear Panthalassa's lullaby. Through the eons she has continuously crooned a canticle of endless enticement. She abides, eternal. She is patient. So is the night.

And I'm grateful.

And the poem made from the headings… ok, more doggerel than genuine poem, nonetheless, here 'tis:

Grateful for the Night

Night light,
Night flight.
Night showers for hours.
Night drive,
Night dive.


  1. I am again humbled by the eloquence of a brilliant mind. I eagerly await your posts each week Frank. Thanks for the perspective on the wonder of the night.

  2. It's seldom I meet people who aren't afraid of the dark or the water. Or maybe people just don't mention it.

    This mention is really a gorgeous poetic one. Thanks. :) Worth re-reading.

    You demurred when people said you should write a book. Not telling you to because that's a tremendous commitment. Yet you sound like Greg Bear to me with a good bit of Ursula LeGuin. The stuff you say puts me in the mind of the stuff they say.

    Love it!

  3. Thank you, Clint, for inspiring me to gratitude.

    Katherine, thank you so much for your kind words. To be mentioned with authors like Bear and LeGuin is high praise indeed.