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In Praise of Shadows (On the Precipice of Light)

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Note: This essay was originally written for my email subscribers. If you struggle (as I do) with reading very long essays on the internet, here is a pdf version you can read on a pdf viewer with less distractions. If you would like to receive emails from me (approximately) monthly, you can subscribe here.

Shadows: the shading of separation

A blueish late morning, snow-streaked windows. The perfect weather for settling my brain and deciding what to convey in this essay. All communications are words stretched anxiously over an abyss: what language will recreate in another my inner reality? What shades of speech or silence will right the wrong of separation? For this is the essence of language: a rebellion against space, a frantic re-creation of the ineffable isness of your own body.

Winter haunts my writing with separation (and death, of course, a shade of separation). Darkness demarcates boundaries between bodies, and shadows are the shading between distinct beings. If I deny darkness its power, if I close my ears to the truths of the season, then life begins to fade me, colors unstopped and leaked out from my body. And more than happiness or peace, I desire the vividity of a fully-lived life.

Only then is my peace unbreakable, is my happiness more than an ephemeral feeling. In a body that contains everything, even separation sucks from the dark roots of joy— the bittersweet feeling of “mine,” my thoughts and my body impenetrable even to myself, the dark cloud of unknowing that envelops with the intimate sensation of self-displacement. Death is also a peace— and a practice, a constant self-surrender to other darkly-growing things, the side-stepping of one who knows their limitations plainly, not allowing hope to inflate the brain with fantasies.

I remember the words of a recent essay: “The weight of this suffering [self] is the price of a fully-lived life. But suffering is no end point; all real pain points to its own abolition. Someday, you may feel the answer fracture your fragile concepts, crack open your forehead with the searing blue of truth: Nothing is bearable for a single self. The ego is born through exclusion, but reality is inclusion. Only the Self that includes everything can bear the weight of a self that excludes everything but itself.”

Pain leads to its own abolition, fear is the door to new kinds of freedom, shadows are the desolation of light. And on the other side of separation? There lies the dizzying sensation of multiplicity, new selves breathed forth in each shifting shade of light.

Light: illuminator of contingency

In spite of the cold, I tell Sophie (a false name used for daughter since my 100 days project) to get ready. We’ve been cramped in the apartment, so "let's walk to the park." She squeals and pulls on pants beneath her dress, slips into shoes and a pink coat. At the playground, the light has gone lemon-gold. I sit on a bench and watch her play, my fingers twisting air in small, unconscious movements, as if weaving light into a shawl for greyer days. I am reminded of the startling fact of my brain’s surrender: winter hasn’t touched me this year. Seasonal depression used to arrive with brute biological force, resisting light lamps, increased vitamin d, and positive thinking. This winter passed through me harmlessly, for many possible reasons (my excitement for graduate school, an increase in social opportunities, my acceptance of darkness as an instructive force), but no probable cause. All I can do is accept the grace of an unharmed brain, gratefully.

“Mommy!” Sophie is swinging by her arms from a web of ropes: “I’m a good climber, am I?” “The best,” I say, smooching her on the forehead before she shoos me away. I walk back to the bench and catch the glint of a smooth rock on the ground, bending to gather it in my palm, rub a finger over its surface. A shock of words line their syllables in my brain. Later, I will write them in Ousia, the book I am chipping away at, slowly:

“If language is lack, then incarnation is fullness. And incarnation is essentially blind. I place a dark stone in my palm, and the world re-revolves, sucked into the black center of Now. Inky lines stretch from the center of stone into my veins. Cold. Inner shadows rearrange, spaces expand and others contract, organs performing their muffled work. Ah— the sudden smell of a rain-soaked rock, the stone conveying memories. Petrichor.

Each object is simply the shading of one light. Each object is an icon that captures and enfulls the light. But no word can sum the cold imprint of the stone in my palm, the sensory messages inscribed through the fleshy manuscript of my body.”

Nature seemed so much duller last year, the year before. What has changed that every landscape seems to drop meaningful relics? They are the same objects as always: small pine cones, seeds, dried leaves or rocks. But no longer objects, now they catch my attention like a canvas in an art museum, pulling my eyes to their dark centers. I blame my daughter, who is not yet dulled to the earth. She approaches objects as if they were more-than-objects, and so I too must squint, wondering what a thing can say for itself. Pocketing the rock, we begin walking home. And the words in my brain spill into my body: I am lucky, I am grateful, I am lucky, I am grateful.

Language drifts open my brain, from an essay I wrote on Derrida, relational quantum mechanics, and the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising:

“Life is no necessary happening. And yet, MIRACLE! I am here. This gratuitous Now demands something of me. Not my work, not my goodness or productivity. Simply my realization that the world is leaping into being in each instant, defying possibility. I linger in this realization, feel the generosity of impossibility crash open my gatekeeping equations. No one is worthy of life. And yet—

Life proliferates—paining, joying, complexifying, decaying, birthing, vivifying, embracing, defying— leaping perpetually into the darkness of the now and feeling blindly into the inner pulsation of light. Still, life launches on. Still, the impossible transfigures into possibility in each microscopic moment. This moment blazes with a blessedness I cannot bear to see.”

Sometimes, I see it: the “I’m lucky” that hovers over a sea of contingency—this all could have been otherwise. However the world happens, the happening itself feels unbearably light from time to time. In the lemon-gold light, I feel the lightness like a weight hung over my bones.

Shadows: truths seen from the other side

Home again. After work, George takes Sophie to run some errands, giving me time to organize, a slow process of elimination of things that begun with my acceptance letter to a PhD program in New York. We plan to move in six months, but I find it hard to move forward with plans; it feels like another woman’s future, a possible but irrelevant reality.

As soon as they leave, I turn out all the lights in a nod to a book I’ve never read, In Praise of Shadows. The idea is that the Eastern aesthetic crafts spaces to capture and cradle shadows, an under-appreciated art in the light-biased West. This vague imprint of theme was all I needed to wonder: how does the sensibility of a space alter when shadows are welcomed rather than flooded into oblivion?

The glass door slid open so sounds & cold can come in, I sit on the living room floor. Lights out, welcoming. A smudge of light still hangs through the willow trees, watery purple, a struggle of pink. I breathe a few times, wondering how much longer the light—and then the sky is torn in two! Like a soggy sheet of paper: rip, rumble, rip. My brain pins the sound immediately: fighter jets from the nearby air force base, some flying to NATO countries around Ukraine.

And my forehead furrows with that ever-present remembering that is remembered strongest in the evenings: we have family in both countries. Comb through the previous paragraphs and you’ll find these fear-inklings: beneath the joy like an ephemeral contingency (how otherwise my life could be!), beneath a future that feels distant and unreal, even though we have no reason to believe it won’t happen. If war is possible, is there a reason for any happening?

“Contingency, emptiness, nothingness wholes open the heart of reality…Just like meaning, "existence" is a shared property. The roots of existence, the roots of life itself, flow into a single zero. This zero is a hum, the Nothing that binds our bodies onely. A great void beats through the atmosphere; a great void beats through your chest. And beneath all your doings and sayings and beings, a sea is frothing, disintegrating the possibility of doing and saying and being anything.

Over the disintegrating sea, you live and work and eat and see, blind to the unsteady ground beneath your feet. When you realize that your existence is a hovering and that you hover over a blind and impartial universe, then its silence is insufferable. This resounding silence is uncovered as the primal suffering. Emptiness empties itself into nihilism, and the weight of conjuring meaning from the nothing crushes the self like a tsunami.”

A shadow is merely a truth seen from the other side. The same truth that appears from one side as a gratuitous, miraculous Now appears from the other as a terrifying abyss. Grief: the other side of love. Betrayal: the other side of trust. Suffering: the other side of joy. So many waxing/ waning moons. Then where are the whole moons that hold both betrayal and trust, suffering and joy, grief and love, shadow and light, as if seen from above? I breathe in a whiff of smoke-tinged cold from the door, remembering the next lines:

“The problem is semantic (and the semantic shapes ontology). Captalize the "N" in Nothing and the "S" in "Self" and nihilism unveils itself as an absurdity. Nihilism is simply emptiness (sunyata) that does not yet know itself. This emptiness is a no thing (Nothing) but is not a category of non-existence. You are both the small and particular spacetime entity (self) and the consciousness that inhabits everything, the "I" at the core of each living entity (Self).”

The emptiness at the heart of reality points to the truth that no human or thing has meaning in itself. Not grief or joy, love or apathy, shadow or light. Meaning and existence alike arise only in relation to every other thing.

“What is the meaning of life? The meaning is everything. To isolate one property— joy, service, love— is to deny that the meaning of one arises only through entanglement in a web of opposition and sameness, synonym and antonym. Enlightenment or salvation may be the meaning only if you define these words as your gradual enlargement until you contain each green whispering of tree-wind, each dust particle floating coldly at the seams of the galaxy.”

Lights on and I finish organizing. Soon, Sophie is running through the front door exclaiming how much she missed me. I press her against my chest, her heartbeat thumping this terrifying/ miraculous contingency. When she could have been nothing, she is something (she is everything!). Together with the perpetually startled expression of my cat, the peace lily in the corner that I have (miraculously) not yet killed, the white barked trees flanking a black creek that still flows, the husband who has crafted this beautiful life with me. I live on the small bright tip of yes, surrounded by an ocean of otherwise.

Winter strips me bone-naked as a snow-stranded tree, attuned to the terror/ miracle of our mutual fragility. Lately, all my close friends are speaking of people they know who are dying. Young people diagnosed too late with rare cancers, leaving families and lives behind. And for no fault I can find to deflect an early death (this is why we seek causation, after all— to ward off tragedy by avoiding the mysterious mistakes of those who were struck). We can exercise, eat healthy, and mitigate risks, but anomalies abound: "just last year he was running marathons," says the bewildered widow.

After marrying George, I sometimes woke up in the night to place a hand over his chest, relieved and a little surprised to feel the reliable rise and fall of his breathing. The greater my love for him, the more fragile his existence seems, so easily un-seamed by a single rogue event. Perhaps love persists after death, but individuals are killed by trivialities all the time (and isn't it the individual—with their earth-bound fragility, body scents, and daily thereness—that we love?).

We take Sophie to her toddler bed, where she prays for Russia and Ukraine to stop burning things. She prays for the skies to be blue and the oceans to be rainbow-ey.

Lights out and we all fall down. To the dark waters of sleep, I surrender my bright speck of contingency, engulfed again in the blank buzz of possibility.

Light: the carrier of time

George is driving and I’m in the passenger seat, my gaze drifting out the window. A pale yellow light bounds from bare tree to bare tree as we pass, glinting off rooftops, catching its reflection in windows and mirrors. Light like a wild animal, in hot pursuit of the faint scent of spring.

“Do you ever feel…,” I begin, not sure what words will shade the contours of the experience, “On certain days…that the quality of light brings—”

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” he interrupts. “It brings back memories of other times—”

“As if the now and then were happening simultaneously,” I add.

“Yes. Once in New York City, I was walking down a street and was suddenly in Tbilisi. A different street, in the same light.”

I nod. “Today was one of those days.” As if light were the carrier of time.

Today, in this unnamed season between winter and spring, two energies pull from opposite poles. Sometimes white, sometimes green. Sometimes a scentless cold, other times the rain-damp smell of an awakening soil. In this same undesignated season, I once lived in South Korea. Was it nine years ago? Time blurs years, but delivers memories in their original clarity each time the light begins to shift, thawing into the pale yellow mantle that unmantles separation between objects. What is an object? A displacement of light, a transgression of time. The light performs a subtle knitting, weaving distant objects into a view called a landscape, weaving events into a quality of sight I call life.

And I’m again on the island of Geojedo, watching crowds of male engineers (all outfitted in grey, light-reflective uniforms) move in unison through intersections. The ever-present sea-scent envelops me— petroleum by the harbor, seaweed and squid by the markets. I taste the spicy, fish-laced kimchi served at each Korean meal, the sweet red bean pastries I used to eat as a morning treat. My legs move through the city, past bus stops, over hills, to a slow-moving river where I once sat to write about the sensation of eternity. All lightly illuminated in that yellow-white mantle, over and around and through things and yet not a thing itself.

Yes, light is a carrier of time. Each not-yet-spring, it’s Korea. In the rusty November light, it’s New York City in its glorious grime. Strangely, other places have not left so deep an imprint. I lived in Argentina for a full year when I served a mission for the Mormon church, but the memories feel abstract, not etched on my skin. Perhaps the memories never belonged to me, but rather to the corporation I served (with the required, unquestioning obedience). When I returned home, my body lit up with unused life. My schedule was no longer drafted for me by men “in authority." In the brief interim between the mission and college, I woke up at 4 am to write poems and nibble on dark chocolate laced with lemon zest. That memory is mine. I remember the specific bar of chocolate, the quality of Arizona light, typing on the bulky home computer on empty mornings before the chaos of noisy bodies commenced.

A must impresses itself upon me. I must remain whole-presenced in the pulse of time, so my happenings are fully mine. Then the subtle threads of shifting light will deliver self-scraps back to me, enriching the now with the sepia tint of memory.

Darkness quivers in the distance; I feel the light leaking out from my pores. Brain dims, inspiration cools. I prepare for sleep and the subtle extinguishment of light in my body.

Shadows: those dark, blinding truths

Beneath each particle, an infinite depth. Darkness sharpens the parameters of the body, magnifying muffled senses.

The swing of my turquoise earrings (vestibular), the vague whiff of fire smoke as I close the bedroom window (olfactory), the sound of my turmeric tea on the stove— a slow, bulbous boil (auditory). And the tactile joy of brushing fingers over my soil sprouts— heart-shaped broccoli, pale purple kohlrabi, lime green sunflowers. Their greenery offers a vaguely Bohemian vibe (visual). But the dining area— replete with brass and wood accents, spatters of red on framed words— is hot-blooded, pagan. It spills into the living area, which is uncluttered, zen. Atop a wide, horizontal bookshelf rests a large piece of mossy bark with a white quartz stone and a smooth black river stone balanced on opposite ends. The bark is flanked by two tall forest green candles, an intricately carved wooden box on one side and a blue painting on the other. Bohemian? Pagan? Zen? The space is a container of my contradictions.

I shape my spaces and my spaces shape me. In the Western United States, I am mountainous, spacious. When we move to New York, will the brutal winters tuck me deeper into my depths? Will the flat earth, tall buildings, and cold oceans shape my inner creature into new longings?

This essay is also a container. Of shadows and light and a particular rhythm of time. What spaces can be carved from these pages? How can this carving let light move unencumbered by the density of language, so living beings can pass into its meanings? Original reality is no worded thing, so a writer crafts spaces in order to fill them with the spaceless. A writer offers words as stepping stones, to be abandoned when the soundless syllable of carnal facticity is successfully resurrected in the reader.

Sometimes the day gets away from me, and I am left in the darkness, cold inner creature wondering: Can I eek out a little worded beauty? Can I let a little love flow through me? Not always does the day hold the answers; sometimes night alone can unveil what in light is too-seen to be sensed. Direct light obscures beauty; side-light reveals love. Only in the slantwise light of the shadow can the wild flash of reality be caught, be seduced into creation (creation an eye-act, a body-act, a word-act).

In that thin place between shadow and light, I live. Between the headings of this essay’s sections, between the silence and the syllable, between the white canvas and the first brushstroke of red, between the golden dusk and the first dark inklings of night.

Light: liberator of particularity

Strange how you can awake one morning and be bathed in new light like a fresh suit of skin, transported to other lives and foreign realities.

Sunday morning before dawn, I sit on the couch, writing. Stopping to feel the contours of darkness out the window, surprised by the images that people my brain: shadows flickering against the newly-painted red of a Shinto shrine, over the freshly-waxed cedar planks of a Buddhist monastery, light flashing through a mossy creek, dancing through thick groves of unspecified trees. Of course, “Japan” is only an abstraction, a name given to my limited set of cultural explorations: reading Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, Mishima’s Spring Snow. But whatever Japan is, in all its complexity, what I feel now is the distillation of a particular quality: calm, shadows, containment.

Sophie cries and I run to her toddler bed, bringing her to the couch, where she drifts back to sleep against my chest as the sun begins its ascent. I slide her carefully onto the couch and keep typing. As the sun rises, excessively bright against the snow-covered grass, I glimpse my red watering can on the windowsill and think: Scandinavian light. On the other windowsill, My Struggle Book 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author known for his autobiographical books and spare writing style. I pick up the book and flip to my bookmark, beginning to read as the sun continues to rise.

Sophie wakes up, for good. Sun glints on the cars across the street, and George comes around the corner, bleary eyed. He’s not a morning person, but he knows his Sunday morning duties. He makes waffles, which we top with vegan butter and maple syrup, a generous handful of fresh blueberries. I feel conflicted about the blueberries. They are packaged in plastic, which I’m trying to reduce. Again I’m reminded that I live and thrive in a system that is unavoidably harmful. Can I be brave enough to break free of these conveniences? Not yet, apparently. I defer to my husband and daughter, who adore fresh blueberries. I elevate their Sunday morning joy over the general good, even while remembering an uncomfortable line I wrote last week:

“If we are all born together in a single shout of creation, then we also thrive or die together. The radical realization dawns: true mourning mourns with the dying coral reefs as much as the dying economies of developing countries. True vicarious joy rejoices in a parasite-recovered grove of trees as much as a cancer-recovered child.”

The day busies itself with errands and activities. By 4pm, the crisp light has mellowed but not yet warmed. I have just placed a risen loaf of bread into the oven and set a timer on my phone. Sophie slides open the glass door: "I want to let the earth come in our home!" Slowly, the scent of goldening bread mingles with the promised green of damp roots, wafting from the earth-let-in. Snow drips loudly from the trees into the creek, beckoning my bare feet to stand on the concrete porch. The creek feasts on this unexpected moisture, gurgling in satisfaction, banks running over. Suns in each drop, cascading containers of light.

I remember that we are in the midst of a 22-year drought, and yet this momentary moisture feels recklessly much, an influx of unnecessary bounty. I think of a quote from poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "In spite of all the farmer's work and worry, he can't reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows." We can cultivate the quality of soil, but there is so much we cannot control. So much unearned cruelty or grace, bestowed upon us humans haplessly making our way through space.

Cruelty and grace alike are principles—two of many— rooted in nature. Some people pattern their lives on the predator principle: "crushing" competition at work, "killing it" at the gym, overcoming complexity of desire in the relentless pursuit of a goal—as if success were racing gazelle-like from their grasp. This state of being—encouraged by a veritable mountain of self-help books meant to "empower" and "inspire" one in this relentless pursuit—is psychic detritus from warrior days, exploited by capitalist competition. Some people pattern their lives on the artistic principle—an expansion of the primal experience of sex. Creativity is mental fertility, the heat of eroticism and inspiration undeniably linked, stories and music increasing tension until climax and then resolution, in the same pattern as the sexual act. This is why artists are so often accused of hedonism— sex, drugs, and other shenanigans. Our lives are not derived from these natural states, but they do mirror them— clusters of abstract ideas revolving around the suns of concrete things.

Even our loftiest theologies can find correspondence in nature. Now these natural elements seem ecstatically more-than-enough, the creek spilling over its banks in a reckless generosity. The sun shines on all, good and evil, I think. The rain falls on all, deserving or not. From this observation, a human once awed, "what if I called this muchness 'grace'? What if I embodied this state, palming out light as if it were the constant-running-recklessly-through-time, as if never-diminished, even in drought? What if I poured love into everything until love pours through me, giving what I'm not yet sure belongs to me?

As I smell the first rustlings of spring, as the aroma of baking bread follows me onto the porch, foreign memories opaque my perception like the frosted film of an antique glass. The wetted grass, overflowing creek, and warm exhalations of bread all conspire to birth in me a foreign reality: Christos Vaskres, the Russian Orthodox greeting on Easter Day. Today is not Easter, but that doesn't matter to the light, who has sniffed out the movements of greening things beneath the soil, who has resurrected earth in the light of the present moment, in the muchness of moisture capturing suns in the creek. Light is the liberator of particularity. In the multiplicitous selving of the many-shaded light, in the thousands creek-suns that shatter from one source, I remember how small is my self when turned inward.

How narrow is my particularity, how wide is the light. I am brash and boyish at times, because many of the women who surrounded me in childhood were soft-spoken and diminutive. This exclusivity has harmed my expansiveness. I must nurture my smallness beside my strength. There is a time and a place for everything (and the time is now, in the placeless space where all things are happening simultaneously). In the largeness of the Now-self, there is room for every god-shade. Nothing judged or set aside. Nothing driven into darkness.

I glove my hands in bright red oven mitts, sliding the bread onto the awaiting wooden cutting board. I sense, here, how Easter is in every fresh exhalation of light. Christ is not an object of belief, but a pattern to be embodied— the pattern of widening so large that two outstretched arms could contain everything: shadows, separation from God and self, sin, and death (and the joy! we always forget the joy). This widening is the movement of love. I hold the warm loaf in my hands, breaking a piece carefully. Tearing preserves the lightness of the crumb when it is too warm to be cut. I slather on some vegan butter and serve a piece to Sophie, who eats hungrily as I wander back to the porch.

Hours later, the light wanes, deepening into its dark center. I realize we have left the unnamed season between winter and spring. Darkness comes late in the evening. Some days, sun. With shadows receding, I become immune, again, to death, inured to the burden of separation. Beneath the shared light of sun, we are easily one, blithely immortal in the natural joy of heat.

This essay could stretch into long forevers, into wide swaths of life. Words wax and lines wane, and in their fine-threaded cocoon I live, awaiting the next whisper of shadow or shout of light. But words cannot right the wrong of separation. What flickers over my flesh is mine alone, embordered by impenetrable shadows. The light of language bumps from my en-shadowed is to your own blind carnality: what remains to be translated?

Simply this: Light does not conquer darkness, but is cradled by it. All visible beings veil a thousand dark beginnings. Can you decipher your own name in all things living? Can you sense the dark namelessness beneath all named things? Earth's body is a dark and rounded shadow that awaits your sight's penetration. Your consciousness bears the seed of the ten thousand things. Shaped by space, formed by time, perception divides shadows from light. Sculpting separation with each glance, objects lift from the dark formless, still steaming with the sea-scent of once-one. You now and again dip your toes into the sea, recalling yourself with the strange insight of relief.

Dark cloud of my self-knitting, strange light of my undoing. Shadows craft the world in my image and the light releases me from imaging.


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