Sunday, December 06, 2009

Artificial Light

Every morning I do it, careless, unthinking: a quick swipe of the hand, and the room springs into bright light. The cats wince and hunch their shoulders against the glare. There's no coming back from that first flood of artificial light: it breaks something, and the day is wounded, after that. It makes the dark outside total and alien. It crowds hearing, smell and touch to the corners of the stage, if not clean off. From now on, all day, I'll be a creature of the eye. Vision will dominate my day. The slightest dimness will render me impatient and groping for switches. I'll burn lights far into the night with not the faintest awareness. I won't even know when sunset and sunrise are.

It was worse when I drove a car instead of riding a bike. Sure, I have lights on my bike, but they're not the floodlights that cars have: they're lights for making me visible, not for lighting up the world. Though I need to see more than someone in a car does. Branches or mounds of wet leaves that cars can safely ignore will take my bicycle right down. I do ride in the dark, this time of year, but I am at least aware that it is dark, and I ride slower because of it.

I can't quite figure out, let alone express, why being aware of the light outside seems so precious to me. It's some antidote to human megalomania, a brake on the tendency to sink wholly into the artificial world, to drown in a mess of human intentions and interpretations, the obsession with ownership and status, the constant monkey-chatter, the unflagging efforts to seize my attention. I think if young people today could travel back in time a generation or two, what they'd be most struck by would be all the blank spaces and dull colors. Most of the built world was not branded, not written on. It didn't blink and flash. It wasn't brightly colored. Images of beautiful half-dressed woman were so rare that pubescent boys had to hunt them out in the back pages of Sears catalogs; images of violence were so rare that television fistfight in a saloon, all slow roundhouse punches, could capture your full attention, even if nothing blew up or burst into flames. Restaurants didn't have pornographic pictures of their own food blazing down at you as you ate. Taverns didn't have television sets, not even little ones. It was a very dull world.

It all begins with that first careless flick, that violent explosion of light on a winter morning. What if I were to refrain from that? To refrain from turning on the computer and checking my email first thing in the morning? To give my other senses a chance to work, to enter the artificial world slowly and with some attention? I have a feeling my balance might be better all day.

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