Things that go bump


Photo by John Fulmer

I was never left home alone as a child. My parents always made certain someone older was with me – usually Opal, our babysitter. Opal would come to our house when long stays were required, which wasn’t very often. My younger brother and I would go to Opal and Ray’s house for a shorter span of oversight – a morning, an afternoon, a day, an evening. Then we would be retrieved and taken home.

So I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my parents left me home alone for the first time. Well, home alone with my little brother. I had done a little babysitting by that time for other people, and by “little” I mean that literally, and those two or three times were about all the babysitting I did my entire life; I never felt equipped to take care of tiny ones and my mom never taught me to be so.

This particular momentous occasion of being left at home and without adult supervision was for just an evening. And I was relishing the opportunity to have the run of the house. I felt really grown up.

But I hadn’t contemplated the dark. It might have been better to make my first foray into adulthood during the daytime. I was a lot more comfortable when I could see what was going on outside and knew the rhythms of the day. Night had always been different for me and even with my parents firmly in charge of the house, the darkness was disconcerting to me. The poet Eugene Field wrote about “Seein’ things at night” and those verses confirmed my worst fears of being without light.

So, as the darkness settled in around the house, I could feel a panic settling into my heart and chest. Our house was built around 1912 and it must have been a real showplace for that time and neighborhood. It was a two story brick edifice that Dad had restored from a very deteriorated state. And while that restoration continued through the almost 40 years they lived there, the upkeep and maintenance of the old home was always ongoing. The neighbor kids seemed to love our house and I did too – during the day. But at night, every little creak in the old structure brought increasing terror. It seems I have always been afraid of the dark,

This first time alone (whether the kid brother was present or not was truly irrelevant), that fear of the darkness multiplied. I recall checking and double checking locks to make certain they were secure and when I could no longer avoid seeing imaginary faces peeking through or under the slits in the blinds and shades, I retreated to my room on the second floor, ready for bed and yet sitting in the dark by the window squinting into the quiet darkness outside, the terror rising inside me, certain that I could see shapes of men lurking in the shadows of the large yard beyond and surrounding the house. It was awful. The evening was interminable even though it might have lasted but four or five hours which can be an eternity for a frightened kid. It didn’t help when my eight-year-old brother who I thought was sound asleep came to find me to say he was sure he heard someone outside.

The darkness and aloneness continued to terrify me, to follow me through my life. But at some point – and I connect that moment to a point in time when I began to come to terms with the waxing and waning of life itself, the highs and lows, life and death – I began to treasure my aloneness. It isn’t and wasn’t loneliness. It is aloneness. Now I wrap my arms around the quiet, the solitude, the peace and calm. Anxiety of being alone does not threaten me. In times of my aloneness I feel completely safe, calm, at peace.

It still isn’t as easy in the middle of the night. When I awake from a restless sleep I again hear the bumps in the night and imagine dark figures creeping in, through and around our modern-day house. Much less often than as a child, I feel the panic move into my heart and chest. But I can easily allay those fears now by just getting up, walking through the place, settling into an easy chair and, more often than not, falling to sleep right there.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:1-5, NRSV)

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor has observed in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark that God doesn’t say anything about the darkness being bad. All God observes here is that God’s creation of light is good. What that means to me is that the light spices things up a bit. Light allows for so much more of God’s creativity.

But the darkness, even though it is not stated as much in the Creation Story, has its place too. God could have done away with the darkness but that didn’t happen and God declared that entire first day good. Dependingsunflower on where we live on the earth, we have varying degrees of both light and dark at the beginning and end of each day and adjusted according to the seasons. I think of fields of sunflowers after they have burst into bloom. Their faces follow the light through the day, turning their necks always in the direction of the sun. But when the sun goes down, they bow their heads as though in prayer or at least in rest so they are prepared to follow the sun when it awakes them in the morning.

Darkness can mean so much more than just night and day to us and at different times in our lives. We use it as a synonym for loneliness, grief, despair and enslavement to the noisiness of the world. Perhaps we can choose to see the darkness as good, just as the light is good. For it is in darkness however we define it that we are strengthened for the day and days ahead. In terms of Creation, we can embrace the darkness knowing that God intentionally left it there – not so we would always have to endure it, but that we might know for a time that in our aloneness, in our darkness, God has not left us unaided and on our own.

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