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Outside Light

It’s become a companion, or a symbol, or a talisman. The light changes but its light does not; the sun overwhelms it easily, but at night it reassures with pink-orange presence. It is part of the civic fabric of numbered cables and planned utility nobody notices but is always there, humming in the background.

Every day when I sit at this desk and write it is there, on the straight pole. The leaning, weathered one abandoned beside it anchors it with cables and proximity, but it’s clear where the action is. The straight pole has the power lines, the transformer, the conduit to houses; the phone lines that put these words in the ether. It is like all the other poles on all the other streets in all the other towns, but this one is here, in my window, for me.

Other lights in other places and other times shone out; they will always shine out, frozen in that then and there. As a young child I remember a fascination with them, each metal neck and metal pod head spaced just so, spilling out bluewhite mercury light. I looked out my Canadian window at summer’s deep green dark or winter Moon’s ghost luminescence on the snow, each pole marked by a light, cables, the little trash can transformers. So many, I thought, like stars. Stars you could touch.

Adolescence was defined by lights like these. They were exciting portals into night, now alive with cars to go places and do things, though most of the time was by yourself underneath one waiting for something, stuck somewhere. That pink one by the mulberry tree marked a house that welcomed hanging out, but that old mercury vapor one stood watch over somebody who was never let out. We showed solidarity by standing in the street, riding bikes in idle circles. I sent out good vibes, or thought I did, bouncing off the blacktop into the infinite sky.

Lights highlight fear, I have only recently understood. Cities and people put up lights to deter vandals and worse they are sure are out there, looming and waiting to pounce. People my parents’ age or many women turn lights on to beat back everything they have been taught is out there, all things that want to harm them.

I like outside lights: seeing them come on in their order, reading street signs by them, out walking in their quiet humming. They are useful and good in the way things are good. Like signposts they are comforting: you are here, they say. But they blot out the stars, use loads of electricity, and confuse us in a fundamental way. Night is supposed to be dark. Is this a reason why so many of us can’t sleep?

People talk about this or that neighborhood, what they have heard about where I live. Some eyes get wider if they see a certain block, pass by a building with the wrong kind of windows. Places are good and bad, they think. Some places require extra fear, or your absence.

The light outside that shines for me only shines on the outside for too many. Do we all need so many nightlights to scare away the underbed monsters? If there are monsters, this kind of light can’t shine on them. Monsters live in your head and light can’t get inside the skull.

Hawaii was chosen for telescopes because of the air’s clarity and darkness. Out in the middle of the Pacific there are no giant cities spilling out their wasted light so bright it can be seen from orbit. Isn’t such light profligacy the height of ostentation? The astronauts don’t need it–they have the Sun.

Out in Hawaii’s darkness I felt its totality, stars spilling out with desert brilliance. Ten thousand years ago everyone had that totality every night, the Milky Way’s great hazy wash behind the stars that told stories and time. The stars are still there but we need a different light to see them. We all need a different way to see a lot of things.


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