Saturday, January 08, 2011

Dark night of the soul

This morning at 5:45 A.M. in total darkness, the island garbage truck came lumbering loudly down our dead-end road, a hulking behemoth ablaze with eerie red lights. My wife woke me with a start, frightened and bewildered. It seemed as if an alien space ship was about to lift the house off its foundations.

Ours is a dark little corner of the world, lit only by the feeble light of stars. Sleep is lulled by the whisper of the surf, but I am prone to the hoo-has too, the oppressing, helpless worries that come at 2 A.M., what Loren Eiseley called "midnight examinations." Sleep is bedeviled by some part of the brain that chooses to replay the darkest tapes of daylight

From one of Phil Cousineau's anthologies, I remember this traditional English blessing:
Saint Francis and Saint Benedight
Blesse this house from wicked wight,
From the night-mare and the goblin,
That is hight Good-fellow Robin;
Keep it from all evil spirits,
Fairies, weezels, rats and ferrets,
From curfew time
To the next prime.
In the folk imagination nightmares and goblins, fairies and ferrets are all the same. For most of human history our ancestors lived in what Carl Sagan called a "demon-haunted world," a world of semi-human spirits, sprites, poltergeists, incubi, succubi, and other disturbers of the night. Science has chased those nocturnal terrors into murky corners of our brains, where neurons process the past days' events in dreams and wakeful worries. What is astonishing now in the 21st century is how many of us still choose to live with anthropomorphic apparitions.

My nocturnal goblins are no less real as tangles of flickering neurons programmed by natural selection to do whatever it is that neurons do at night. Meanwhile, I have my own blessing: Saint Francis and Saint Benedight protect me from wicked wights and garbage trucks.