INTRO by Phil Cousineau: One of the biggest surprises of my son’s first year at Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco was attending a service with his first grade class at Grace Cathedral and hearing them sing the Cat Stevens 1960s hit “Morning is Broken.” I found it deeply moving to hear the boys singing a song that was considered a simple pop tune when I was in school, but was now enshrined as a hymn in the original sense of the word, a song of praise, to the beauty of daybreak. The soft-spun words help us cross the last threshold of our journey into the rays of the day.
That song’s irrepressibly optimistic tone is captured beautifully in the strangely beautiful cadence and alliteration of a single line by the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”
In his seventeenth-century play, La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is a Dream), Pedro Calderón de la Barca anticipated much of today’s magic realism and surrealistic literature. Writing as hypnotically as Jorge Borges or Isabelle Allende would two centuries later, Calderón revealed that when he slept…he saw…that he dreamt…when he was awake:
We live in a world so strange,
That to live is only to dream.
He who lives, dreams his life
Until he wakes. This much
Experience has taught me.
And now we can ask ourselves what we have brought back from our own elliptical night journey? “Is the rising light daybreak,” asks the Persian poet Bibi Hayati, “or the reflection of your face?” Is Coach in the long-running television comedy Cheers just crazy or madly inspired when he confides to Sam the bartender, “I think I had insomnia last night, but I don’t remember because I fell asleep.”
For those night writers in this final stretch of the night, “the morning hour has gold in its mouth,” as imagined in the German proverb. Night has been endured, outlasted, literally incorporated, taken into the body. The morning star flickers on the horizon. Slowly, bewilderedly, we emerge from the shadowlands. On the morning of his sacred vision, the Oglala Sioux shaman and missionary Black Elk heard the sun singing as it rose and felt it calling for a song from him. Strengthened by his lifted voice, he foresaw that by walking in a sacred manner as dawn was breaking he could say, “My day, I have made it holy.” As the Winnebago shaman Reuben Snake loved to say about uplifting thoughts like that, “Aho!”
The night journey is a flight of faith. Charles Lindbergh, in his memoir The Spirit of St Louis, reveals the mysteries of how time stopped and distance too, who “Set my mind on the sunrise — ‘desire for sleep’ never so badly.” A carousel of belief that what goes around comes around. The Kentucky priest and poet Father Gary Young encapsulates the bold optimism of this final turn of the book in his marvelous poem, “In My Own House I Am a Stranger at Midnight,” which concludes, “This midnight belongs to me — and I have the oil.” And as is appropriate the final word goes to the Bard in The Tempest, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”
Comes around, turning, rounded: these are not accidental verbs. They were chosen precisely to describe the slow ratcheting of the night back into the light. They signal the exaltation that comes from completing the long night’s journey into the day.
Many years ago, my father responded to a nervous letter I had sent to him about my woebegone efforts as a young writer by sending me a cartoon strip by Charles Schultz. Good ol’ Charlie Brown is lying in bed with a full moon rising outside his window. The first balloon dialogue above his bald-but-for-a-single-hair head reads: “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ ” The second panel shows him frowning in permanent disappointment and the dialogue reads: “Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.'”
As such, these night writers round out our collection of night writing and, as Sam Cooke once crooned, “Bring it on home.”
To what prayers and poetry, what cries from the heart and praise from the soul, will we listen, if not these, if not now, as dawn is breaking once more, and the flame from our lamp flutters and goes out, and encourages us to greet the new day?
“The Throat of Dawn”
American poet and philosopher
What if I’m the son of a 92-year-old man
who can hardly walk from the kitchen to
the couch in the home where I grew up,
which is flooded by a storm whose wet arms
covered a thousand miles. What if I can’t
reach him because the phone he can’t find
is wet and has no power. What if a month
later I travel to Cambodia on a trip that took
five years to save for, and out of breath I stare
for an hour at a thousand-year-old face carved
at Angkor Wat. What if that eyeless face makes
me question what I’ve done with my life. What
if I can’t stop thinking of my father struggling
to pick up a spoon. What if on the plane home
the woman next to me dreams of her mother’s
mother picking lemons in Sicily. What if the
thousand angels, who never rest, work in each
of us, the way immune cells rush to the site of
a wound. What if all this keeps me from sleeping.
What if I fear that I will never sleep again.
What if, as the plane slips through the throat
of dawn, it comes to me that we’re not supposed
to find something new all the time,
but weave each truth we find into a strong,
beautiful rope that the next generation can
climb. What if I admit that I found nothing
to bring home to my father, except the heart
of a son carved out by time. What if everything
we do and everywhere we go is for this end.
What if the heart carved out is what
can shelter us from the storm.
On the Mekong River, Viet Nam”
American psychotherapist and poet
The hazy morning sun washes everything in silhouette—
the craggy treeline across brown waters,
the early net draggers, the old woman chanting
“banh, nuoc, com,” — bread, water, rice — from her sampan,
school children on wobbly bicycles crossing the bank,
fruit sprouting like warts off their tree trunks.
All blend into one brown green gray shadow
pierced by lines and patches of white
where the awakening sun breaks through.
We are one in the Delta dark,
still one in this early dawn,
shouting xin chao and beaming smiles through the murk
until the fireball rises, burns off the clouds,
and melts us into ourselves again.
July 19, 2016