I never see the dark except in sleep, and then only when my eyes quiet and the world really has to make do without me. Eventually, at two or four or five forty-five, my daughter cries, and I rise and make my way to where she is tangled and disoriented. I lay her down on the concave plastic mattress on the dresser that serves as a changing table and turn the night light on though there is already light coming in through the closed blinds. We live on a main artery in Lubbock, Texas, and there is a streetlamp outside our apartment that sometimes blinks as if to let you know there is plenty more where that came from.
I know we do not need light in order for her to eat, only her accuracy of smell and taste, but the light filtering in lets me look at her when she burrows into my chest, when she pulls lazily on the milk she only half-wants. Sometimes I lay my head back and do not look, and guilt grips me, guilt towards my future self who will never hold her like this again, alone in what passes for darkness. Our great, self-important cat jumps onto the wide arm of the chair to preside over this routine. My daughter turns her head sharply into his fur to size him up, then makes her way back. I feel for how close or far away sleep is during this time, assessing how much my rest will be disturbed, with a vague hope of getting back to bed soon and slipping easily again to sleep. But I also want it to last, am glad when there is a whole breast left, and this the larger, fuller one. I hope that she will fall asleep and also that she will not fall asleep.
It was around month four when I began to take our endlessly interrupted nights for suffering, when I thought, and many thought, it was time for her to not wake up until day. It was months after I started telling her doctor she only woke once a night that she actually began to, and I realized then that when she sleeps that long, I feel that time apart accumulated and hardening on my chest.
I had a boyfriend I thought was beautiful who had some family money. A senior in college and six years my junior, he owned an apartment in the complex where I rented with two roommates. His tastes ran to the ridiculous, but spare. He had in his living room, for instance, a bottle of Patrón he liked to sip, a pipe and pipe tobacco, and a painting of a rainbow he eventually explained to me represented coal, from which his family’s money had come. “Coal’s treated us well,” he concluded this intimate revelation.
Sometimes we went together to West Virginia to see his rich grandfather and the not rich grandmother from whom his grandfather was divorced. I found it hard to fail to observe how coal had treated West Virginia. I didn’t know what it was like to be faithful to one man for as long as West Virginia had been faithful to coal, but for a while I’ve known there are certain lovers you can never win with faith. I could see in the mountains of West Virginia the agony you wear when your man, whatever he was like when he was home, slams your door behind him for the last time. And yet somewhere I still have a picture we took of ourselves drinking champagne naked in a hot tub under the magnificent stars you can see in West Virginia, looking like two drunk angels.
I never knew all the things a person could need until I started to know rich people. He needed down pillows, for example, but a firm mattress. He also needed absolute dark at night, and had custom blinds to achieve this. These ideas were so surprising to me at the time that I even failed, at first, to scrutinize them, and the blinds did work better than any I’ve used. We lived in a well-lit condo complex on Jefferson Park Avenue, a street full of lights and bright buildings, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a city bursting with human occupation; but he needed darkness in that room where a tasteful nude hung over the bed. I think back on those blinds sometimes and wonder how dark it really was. He believed the darkness was perfect, but I remember seeing him at night, glowing, how that was the thing, every time we broke up, that I couldn’t get over.
In the course of doing some editing work for a friend’s hippie parents, I learned what light pollution was. Before that, I had always had an innate aversion to everything unnecessary, a conviction that the world was enough without us, that it was our curse to crowd.
I am sympathetic to the Jains, who are tormented by imagining how their existence harms invisible creatures. In sixth century India, certain Hindus dreamed that they could live in such a way as to free themselves from the cycle of birth and death: the first Jains. Instead of believing we must wait obediently through thousands of incarnations until we are eventually born on the cusp of enlightenment, Jains believe that we can each summon on our own the freeing light of wisdom. They court that light by living ascetically, avoiding harm to living creatures. First, a good Jain gives up potatoes and onions, which microbes love too well, in favor of plain lentils. Then they wear a mask so their lungs may do less harm to the airborne. Eventually, they can’t bear to let their feet fall again on the teeming life beneath us. I admire the clear logic of this spiritual progression that requires no clever theology: we are departing or we aren’t, we are loosening our grip on the world or not. Born to no religion, I am nevertheless a bad Hindu, a failed Jain, because I cling to trappings, and strive, and get angry about inequality. Still, I try to live accountably with the conviction that we are born to harm, to recognize the human capacity to be an enemy to everything we cherish.
I hadn’t realized what light was doing. Nocturnal species rely on darkness to hunt and as cover from predators; baby sea turtles can confuse human light for the moon and travel away from, or parallel to, the water, so that they have no chance to survive that first hard hour of life; and insects drawn to artificial lights often perish, diminishing their numbers and the food source they provide to the many species who eat them. To me, birds are most distressing. Birds die in huge numbers colliding with artificially illuminated buildings, and the artificial distortion of seasonal light can cause them to miss the strict windows of time when they need to migrate or build nests. I had not known that migratory birds use the stars to navigate. They can no more see the night sky than we can in bright areas, and can fly the wrong way. All these mistakes result in birds dying and failing to mate successfully. I am haunted by the thought of a bird who has memorized the stars and, unable to see them, flies away from her life.
Light pollution is less about artificial light than it is about its profligacy: light that travels up instead of down, out instead of forward, on when it should be off. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, excess light wastes energy and interrupts human circadian rhythms, aggravating fatigue and aggressive behavior. A study in Chicago found that the most brightly lit alleys had the most crime, and people exposed to artificial light at night produce less melatonin, which increases our risk for obesity, diabetes, depression, breast cancer, and sleep disorders. But it’s the baby turtles crawling away from the sea, the Arctic tern flying west, I can’t get over.
It is never actually perfectly dark because of the universe, whose light is constant. The first problem with artificial light is that it brightens the dark, but the problem underlying that is that without dark, we cannot see the light beyond. Day, for all that it illumines, is the original blindness to space. Growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I remember seeing the smear of Hale-Bopp over the couch on the front porch of my neighbor Chano’s house and thinking that space, making this rare appearance, was not as elegant as I expected. I thought falling stars were far too rare for how frequently they are mentioned. It was not until I went on a trip to rural Virginia when I was eleven that I got my first glimpse of a real night sky. I couldn’t believe how crowded it was, more white than black, how the Milky Way looked alive, as if it were snaking through the astral sand. I have never been good at spotting constellations, and rarely see any apart from Orion. I sometimes hate Orion for standing around in the sky reminding us of what we’ve lost.
In her book, How Paris Became Paris, Joan DeJean writes about how, in 1667, Paris became the first city to be publicly lit at night, a service provided by the crown, which installed three thousand street lamps. This is how Paris came to be known as the City of Lights: visitors were dazzled by the new experience of enjoying a city after dark. The undertaking was bold, progressive, expensive, and required the collaboration of the whole city to work. Regular people were assigned lanterns to light on a yearly basis, given keys, sent deliveries of candles, and reminded to do their work by a bell that sounded each evening. Before that, only the rich travelled with light at night, if they hired and paid for it in the form of private lamp bearers. The story of this public project is one of many stories of Paris in the seventeenth century that makes your chest feel that it’s expanding with the breath of human potential, the way it feels when you step onto the platform of the Gare du Nord, when already you can smell baguettes and hear the rattling of an accordion; when, if someone mentioned death, it would take you a moment to remember what that means.
But the story of Paris’s streetlamps disputes the International Dark-Sky Association’s contention that artificial light at night enables crime, or at least it complicates the narrative. The initial justification for Paris’s streetlamps was its soaring crime rate, particularly the problem of stolen cloaks. Cloaks were costly, ornate, and not well-fastened to the victim, and Paris, the Pont Neuf especially, became notorious for cloak-snatching. I find the story irresistible, and yet it mainly serves to make me wonder: if seventeenth century Paris was dangerous for wealthy men after dark, how dangerous must it have been for poor women?
The connection between public lighting and women’s safety is so well-established that building lighting infrastructure is one of the main tenets of the UN Women’s Safer Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls Initiative. Knowing that so many women living in underdeveloped places are at risk for rape and murder because of the absence of artificial light makes it worse that in urban and suburban and exurban America we live in places with so much wasted and misdirected light that we can’t sleep, and drive our cars dangerously, and kill every kind of organism that hasn’t adapted to our excess.
It is poetic to love staying up late, but I am an animal, and at night I want to sleep. There have been times when night presented the problem of being my only hours of freedom, and to sleep would mean to miss them. At the boarding school where I taught Spanish and went steadily insane, it was only a half hour after study hall was over that was I able to go home and be undisturbed for several hours. I would go up to my little bedroom in the roof of the house, get under the covers of my mattress on the floor, turn on a lamp that was the only light in the soy field surrounding me, and read Moby Dick for hours. I would feel that to be a broke nineteenth century New Englander who had to ship off with a bunch of cannibals to hunt whales and suffer boredom and scurvy and danger and death and the spiritual damage of killing kingly animals was not very bad at all, especially because it sometimes involved very compelling clam chowder, and the cannibals were wonderful once you got to know them. I felt I understood how you could end up like Ahab if you spent long enough alone with your grievances and no satisfactory enemy to blame. I would finally put out my light regretfully, needing sleep but still clinging to the illusion that the next day was not about to begin.
Another time I lived with a man I thought was my fate, although he was really a boy and our paths were soon to disentangle. It’s amazing how permanent things can seem not long before they end, the way the last month that I was pregnant I stopped believing my daughter would ever be born, the way that moments before she was born, it seemed that the vice of pain that gripped us would never loosen.
He and I had been happy together for a time while we were sharing the same unhappiness, waiting tables six nights a week and never having any money, never getting to eat dinner. We moved when I got a decent job and when our unhappiness became unequal, we seemed to scatter, as if in pieces, away from each other. We lived our longest summer together, sweltering without air conditioning, growing too attached to our cat. At some hour we hoped would seem respectable, one of us would ask the other about a drink, as if we hadn’t been waiting all day to drink, as if this wasn’t the only thing that gave us relief. Aching to be drunk, to return for an hour to our old lightheartedness, we were each embarrassed by how much we wanted it, by how little we wanted one another. The days stretched out until we couldn’t wait any longer for the dark, and sleep, that real or hoped-for release from one another, also meant the last breath before another gaping day. I remember lying in our bed in that empty bedroom looking at the light filtering through the shadeless window and wondering what to do about sleep, what to do.
That summer, we took a walk to the end of the road and found the meadow next to a dilapidated house filled with fireflies who, in the thousands, looked like lace hung to dry in a breeze, making of their love a ballet against the darkness. I remember almost resenting this, wishing I were seeing it happy.
Sometimes I worry that I will live long enough that the only nature left will be plants and animals that flourish on the trash of man—grass that loves arsenic, birds illiterate in stars. When the Asiatic bittersweet vine has killed the last trees, then finds that it has nothing else to climb, what will be the barrier between me and the next person I want to forget? Will there be any birds at all to memorize? Will we keep our flowers in vases of sand? When the last coral dies, what will girdle Australia’s great stomach?
My daughter was born at night, and one good thing about the hospital is that the room was fairly dark. With thick, fireproof walls and no windows, the only light came from the glow of the many monitors graphing, on the one hand, my pain, showing how intense it was, how unremitting, and showing, on the other hand, absolutely nothing. For eleven hours I listened to a machine beeping, chafed against the plastic cuff I wasn’t allowed to remove. But I accepted things, realizing how out of proportion my misery was to the adjustments that could be made, at last a temporary sage. I remember my hair sweat-plastered to my neck, and thinking of asking someone to lift it, but knowing that would not make me cooler, and it was too difficult to talk, almost impossible to breathe.
Before I went into labor I imagined I would pass it in a meditative state, a place of deep privacy, where I would experience the pain as an outsider looking down on myself. I had some expectation of ecstatic transportation. I had read something along these lines in the testimonies of women who had had their babies on a hippie farm in Tennessee and wrote about it many years later when much of what they remembered was the tofu salad sandwiches and the sweetness of the milk.
Time is ruinously slow during labor, but there is also so much of it that in memory it moves fast. How many hours was it my husband slept after the doula arrived? One and a half? Three? I remember thinking, There is no amount I can suffer that will make him share this suffering—not sure in what proportions I was grateful for this or resentful. I wanted the suffering of giving birth to make me better, to bring me closer to wisdom, but it left me facing again the awful fact of aloneness. Stupidly, as if for the first time. When the doula told me that I was choking the baby by not breathing, I didn’t really care. In fact, I was a little angry she was worrying about the baby. My child so alone already in her terrible hour.
If being alive didn’t present such intractable problems, enlightenment would be easier to come by. The crowded world is proof that it is not. The ascetic dreams that, with enough excruciating time, the siren voice of the body will quiet, and the soul will float out of the blinding light of this world into that other, abiding light of the universe.
I want to save the world my waste, my expense, but I live thick in the mesh of cost, and everything I look at dims something else. My soul is so young I don’t even want to be free of attachments, I only want to be free of the rules that govern our ending, each in solitary confinement.
I think of India and imagine that it is where human questions can begin to be answered. There, our worst problems, there, our striving. In India, jaguars come into the cities at night to hunt pigs but they will settle for babies. I get stuck on the pigs who live in cities, and am unable to make sense of the rest, but I feel the jaguar’s smooth dexterity in the night, and I know it must be dark enough to hide her if she’s to make a kill and live—or merely live. In rural India, young girls have been gang raped at the unlit latrines at night, so many choose to hold their waste in their lower bodies until dawn. In India, even the poor hold back a little milk and dal for the gods, perhaps because the gods have power, perhaps because they think it must be terrible to never be delivered from hunger by death.
In 1985, my mother brought me, then two, to India, where she saw men gathered behind stores fight over refrigerator boxes. We went to Pune where I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. It may be a false memory, but I remember her carrying me through the blistering heat while I slept fitfully through seizures of itching, my little sari soaked with sweat. I remember us crossing a bridge, feeling that, as it held her above the Earth, she held me, tireless in the face of my need. The sun was so bright that my shut eyelids were a screen of bright red, the color women wear when they marry, the color women are wrapped in when they die.
We went to a Hindu wedding, my mother’s sari purple, mine red, a child’s version, just the midriff top and long skirt, my belly button exposed. When my daughter finally came free of my body, this was my first view of her: her wrinkled back, someone else holding her. I listened to her agony at the air we breathe, saw her squint at our unbearable light. In my birth plan, I asked for a delayed cord clamping, but my doctor didn’t see the point. We do it right away, she said to my husband, not even looking at me.
They lay her on my chest where she grew quiet as all the brochures had promised she would. When a child is born, she smells on her mother the place she had always been until then, the first world we mistake for everything. Her head beneath my chin, I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t have made her out if I had. The room was still dark, the universe or some part of it temporarily our own. And yet her small journey from inside of me to outside, her sudden presence in my arms, highlighted the foolishness of an illusion I had treasured of our deep intimacy. She was a person I did not know, her eyes shut tightly as if burned by the air and light. Newborns, they say, miss the presence of their mother all around them, but I recognized in my daughter an ache for lost privacy.
In our brief walks around our apartment complex or in one of Lubbock’s dusty parks, Freya loves to point out birds. She points with the great authority of a child pointing and declares with her new lungs, “Wow!” Then she goes towards them and they fly away, even if they were not close to begin with. She runs until she finds more birds and clears them from our little orbit with her enthusiasm. Once a hawk perched on the telephone line across 50th St. from our balcony, and I tried to point him out to her, but he was too well-camouflaged against the dry grass and too far away. Even when he swooped into the cedar next to us to try to catch a dove, she couldn’t quite make him out.
Along with great-tailed grackles, mourning doves are mostly what we see. One afternoon five were sitting in the grass next to the rental office as Freya and I walked by, and I let her pass without noticing them because, in my experience, doves on the ground do not live long. The lifespan of mourning doves is less than two years, and, observing them, it’s clear to me how easily they meet with death. They are slow, stupid, and fragile and seem an unlikely species to thrive alongside humans, but they can raise six broods in one breeding season, and this easily offsets their high mortality. When we passed the same spot the next day, the ground was carpeted with gray feathers.
I don’t know if reincarnation is true. I suspect that our lives have the poignancy of truly ending because everything I’ve ever observed has ended. Even the men I loved once have receded into places I’ll probably never go, like Chicago, and there is nowhere high enough to see them waving. The doves, who part with six sets of chicks in one summer and die by winter, are the sages in West Texas. For Keats, the unoriginality of birds’ songs meant that one was like another, and bird after bird was like one long bird, while the life of man was finite and tragic and each song unique, some superior.
There is a kind of blindness that has been written about that I’m not sure we ever achieve—where you forget every ugly thing you ever stepped in, every wince at some mortal sharpness, because the beloved has eclipsed everything. What troubles me is how, for all our excess light, our charging gadgets, when confronted with that light so temporary and rare, I sometimes look away.
Yesterday we left the apartment just to breathe what passes for clean air on a warm winter day. Toting a bag of garbage, on our way to pick up a package, I steered Freya the wrong way because there, in the middle of the road and our path, lay a dead dove. Its body was the color of soil, its wings tucked at its sides and its beak touching the ground as if it had folded itself for prayer. I couldn’t take Freya past it because I don’t know what it means.