In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
Harald Sohlberg. Månesskinn (Moonlight), 1907. Photo © O. Vaering, Norway
The birds have gone. Off to pull worms from softer earth, drawn by the magnetic force alerting them each year to leave. Their shadows slid across the fields, reflections shivered over the dark surfaces of rivers and ponds. Each month has flown away, leaving a year’s worth of shadows and reflections on the surface of the mind. We’ve landed in December. Night is at its longest now.
During one of these cold, endless nights not long ago, I woke up in the threes. What had roused me from sleep, I don’t know. A car alarm, a thud from the apartment above, whatever nameless summoner draws us on certain nights from dreams into the waking dark. The edges of the bureau dissolved into the wall, the mirror angled back the streetlamp’s light entering through the window, a serpent-tongue plant on the desk looked like an octopus diving in the deep. A hunchback appeared where there’d been a jacket on the chair; the spines of all the books were blank. Then the monsters arrived. In Japanese folklore, a menacing creature called umibōzu rises suddenly from calm, fair-weather seas, smashing ships and drowning sailors. No high wind precedes it, no foreboding churn or thunder in the distance. It erupts, this deadly spirit made of shadow, tentacled, smooth-headed, saucer-eyed.
Is that vague pain on my right side an organ rotting? Will I never be good at the one thing I want to be good at? Are we teetering toward our own extinction? On and deeper, darker, worse. You’ve had nights like this, too, when in the still and shadowed room the clawed parts stir, rise, give reminders of your every flaw and fear. Cringing in the dim, with hours left till sunrise. The scalding flash of tasks undone, the punch of regret, the swallowing void of opportunities missed, the yellow sour-tongued lick of guilt, the quarrels unresolved despite so many one-sided rehearsals. On certain licoricey nights, a signal is ignited that begins the parade of our malignancies. They torment us, bash their pots and pans, blow their mournful horns, stomp and thrash, or worse, in silence, drag us down into their pits. Lurking even lower, feeding these smaller nighttime demons, lives dense-shadowed shame. “Night is their kingdom,” Novica Tadić writes in a poem called “Dark Parts.” “They stay where they are / in our chests, / murmuring in our hearts.” There’s a night inside us, in the heart’s synchronized pulses, and now and then we’re offered entry to the pooling place where it lives.
Then the morning came, as mornings do. The dark saturated into a deep blue that right-side-outed to a gray the moon retreated into. Out the window, leaves still clung to branches of the sycamore, a ragged few. Inside, the desk regained its edges. Forms reformed. Red jacket on the chair. Titles on spines. The dark clawed creatures slunk back in their holes, as I looked around, scrape-eyed, relieved to be delivered into day.
I have felt, on mornings after sleepless hours aggressed by failures, fears, perversities, depravities, that my perspective had been skewed in the night. The sun rises, the world reassembles, and I curse the twisting dark. But it’s the sun’s light, insistent, interrogatory, that tricks us into believing in the knowable and solid. In those long nights, perspective is not skewed, but opened wider. The moon’s silver quiet light allows for these encounters with the parts of ourselves that hide in caves, the banished parts. The moon knows: we need to see.
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writes in his essay “In Praise of Shadows.” What cannot be fully seen offers “a moment of mystery … of trance,” stepping out of the world of jackets and chairs and dropping into a duskier range of possibility. Frightening, sure, and uncomfortable—as most worthwhile things are—to be reawakened to shame. It’s seeded in us when we’re small, before language, and nestles in the same deep snarl as fear. Near shame’s tangled root lies the fear that our true monstrosity will be found out, and we’ll be flung from the human scene into some iced and all-dark realm without love or comfort. “Shame on you” goes the phrase, the fecal smearing, stinking and repugnant. More: shame in you, in me, in all of us, and the moon can coax it out with its magnetic light, gentle and enveloping. Otherwise that shadow eats you from the inside out.
In one telling of the umibōzu story, the spirit rises from the waves, towers over a sailor and asks, “Am I terrifying?” The sailor replies, “I find nothing as terrifying as trying to make my way in this world.” The umibōzu vanishes. It’s a savvy answer. The sailor acknowledges the creature, does not deny its horror, and states that there are greater fears. Know the frightening thing, look it in the eye. It’s not gone but reabsorbed, less inclined to swallow you whole. Your shadows are as much a part of you as your jawbone or your laugh. Like the moon itself, we’re half lit, the other side in darkness. As the poet Alejandra Pizarnik writes, “It’s night inside of you. Soon you’ll witness the rearing up of the brave animal that you are. Heart of night: I ask you to speak.”
What does the heart of night have to say? It dares you to enter its perilous uncertainty. I used to fear that below the shadows were more shadows, a dark so dense its gravity, at some point, would grow inescapable. (It was for Pizarnik, who swallowed a handful of Seconal, a pill to treat insomnia, and went to sleep forever.) But the moon opens the night jar of the heart and inside, beneath the layers of fear and shame, lives another form of light. It does not glow like moonlight and it does not shine like sunlight. It is like no light any of us have seen with our eyes, a light like bells. When the moon draws out the shadows it can guide us to this light in the darkest center, in every heart pulse and in every pause that breaks the eternity of a sleepless night. There it is, this light, and it is—can I say it? Why this shame? This light, brave animal, can I say it? It’s love.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.
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