Four in the Morning

4 am

A while back at 4 in the morning, I posted to Facebook “If in the dark night of the soul it’s always 3 am (FSF), then what is 4 am? Asking for a friend.”

One reply was from Darren Cambridge who gave me the link to this TED talk about “the 4 a.m. mystery.”

That F. Scott Fitzgerald line I referenced has stuck with me ever since I read it during some dark nights when I was in college. “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” (from “The Crack-Up”)

I was typing this around 4 a.m. today on this Leap Day. I think my body clock somehow sensed the calendar needed adjusting and woke me up way too early.

There is humor in that TED talk about the synchronicity or coincidence or code or plot or meme about that late-early morning hour which seems to come in in many contexts.

Though most of us who don’t have to get up are still asleep at 4 a.m., some people find it to be a quiet, peaceful and productive time to work. I don’t.  If I’m awake at that time (or the deadlier 3 a.m. when the soul has its darkest night), it’s because I can’t sleep and I am not in my best mood or at my top brainpower. Today I worked on this post because it just seemed like it was handed to me by some unseen power of the universe.

I’m more likely that if I am awake at that time I would put on the TV and go online with my phone bumping into other North American insomniacs and other-side-of-the-world folks going about their day oblivious to my sleeplessness.

One or two in the morning is really still last night and you might be out having a good time.  Three in the morning really is the soul’s dark hour. 5 a.m. is close enough to sunrise to give one hope.

Four in the morning seems to be something else. Much too late to be partying. Too early to start the day. What the hell are you doing awake at that hour?

The TED Talk speaker really got into this topic. He even created a”museum of four in the morning.”

In a poem by Wislawa Szymborska that the video references, the poet says about “Four in the Morning”:

…The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.
The hour when earth betrays us.
The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.
The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.
Blank, empty.
The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning
–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come
if we’re to go on living.

The sun is up in Paradelle now. I reread this post and it looks ready to go out in the world. I am less prepared for the world. I need some coffee. And I’ll probably need a nap this afternoon.


The TED speaker, simply called Rives, does 8 minutes of lyrical origami, folding history into a series of coincidences (Are they?) surrounding that most surreal of hours. Poet, performance artist and storyteller Rives has been called “the first 2.0 poet,” using images, video and technology to bring his words to life.

Dark Days and Nights of the Soul

Last week, I wrote about attempts to prove the existence of a soul by proving that the soul has weight. Writing that led me to return to “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem I was assigned to read in college. It was a title that appealed to me then because that was a time when I had many nights that I thought of as “dark nights” due to depression.

The poem was written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross. St. John didn’t give the poem a title. He also wrote two commentaries on the poem that are much longer than the poem itself. Those commentaries are called Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

The new year 2020 has been a month of dark nights and dark days for me. I can’t say that my dark days are really “of the soul.” St. John of the Cross was describing the journey of the soul to a mystical union with God. If anything, my journey has been away from God.

I’m not sure I can really define what I mean when I use the word “soul” though I have thought about it for years. St. John of the Cross was certainly thinking about God and religious belief. He wasn’t thinking about how life-in-general can have dark nights, but in the 600+ years since he was writing the phrase “dark night of the soul” has been used many times to mean the hardships of everyday life.

It means to me and others a kind of spiritual depression that someone has to go through in order to be reawakened into the world. If you’re experiencing that it can be very frightening and dangerous.

Eckhart Tolle says the dark night of the soul is used to describe “what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level… the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”

The nights St. John describes are purgations on the path. The first purging is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul.  The second purge is the spiritual part. Both are stages of the mystical journey.

St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul”, but only “dark night” (“noche oscura“). His guidance comes from the only light in this dark night burns in the soul.

When I studied and wrote about the poem as a student, I dug deeper into the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love which had been earlier described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.

This old poem is not easy to read. What might I find to identify with in a poem written around 1578 while the poet was probably was imprisoned in Spain?

What I found was the idea that a crisis of the spirit and soul might be the start of a journey to something better. I find it hopeful. I found it hopeful many years ago. I still find some hope in its intention now.

The crisis is hopefully temporary, but it may not be brief. I pity those who suffer for a long time. The examples in religious history are not comforting. St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured dark nights for 45 years. According to her letters, the dark “night” of St. Teresa of Calcutta lasted from 1948 almost until her death in 1997.

These are heavy and not entertaining thoughts. I once had a conversation with a close friend about this topic and he suggested (only partly jokingly) that the soul is energy and that it leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.

He is not alone in that belief in a force that is a kind of global soul or energy field that can be used by all of us – if we know how to tap into it.  there’s the rub.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

Energy cannot be destroyed, so if the soul is energy, where does it go when we die?

Another scientifically-minded friend answers that the energy simply gets “grounded” in the Earth.

You won’t find scientific interest in soul research. I doubt that any researchers are looking at the dark night of the soul either.

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured. maybe we can’t tap into any larger energy other than our own.

I wrote my own dark night of the soul poem this past week (read it here) and I do feel lighter today than I did the past month.

Maybe I need to lighten up when it’s possible to do so. Perhaps, I will reread humorist Douglas Adams’ novel about the shallowness of modern spirituality, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, whose title sets up where he is headed. And I’ll make a nice cup of tea.

Just a Few Coincidences

I have been fascinated for a long time by coincidences and the meaning sometimes attached to them. Some people see coincidences as simply what the dictionary says: a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. But some people do see a causal connection. On the more extreme end of that are those who believe there are no coincidences, and perhaps related are those who believe in synchronicity. On the very far end of all this is a belief in fate or destiny, which is a predetermined course of events.

You break up with a longtime mate and the next day while visiting a city you have never been to you run into someone you were briefly in love with ten years ago who has also never been to that city. Coincidence? Fate? Kismet? Destiny?

A few coincidences popped up in my reading of an almanac post for December 11. That is the birthday of novelists Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. That’s not much of a coincidence, but there are more.

McGuane went to the University of Michigan and his birthday brother Jim Harrison was a classmate. they were both aspiring writers and they became lifelong friends.

Eventually, both writers moved to Montana.

An event in Harrison’s life when he was 25 years old might be described as a coincidence or fate. He was supposed to go on a hunting trip with his father and sister, but for whatever reason, he decided not to go with them. A few hours later, his father and sister were killed when they were hit by a drunk driver.

He originally wanted to be a poet and his first publications were three collections of poetry. But then Fate stepped in. Maybe.

While he was out hunting, he fell off a cliff and hurt his back badly enough that he was bedridden for months. Thomas McGuane told him to try writing a novel while he was lying in bed. Harrison wrote Wolf: A False Memoir and next published the novella he is probably best known for, Legends of the Fall. The book got more attention because of the film version of this story about three brothers and their father living in Montana (played by Brad Pitt, Henry Thomas, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn) who struggle to stay together when a woman comes between them.

Harrison published a dozen novels and two dozen novellas before his death in 2016.

McGuane moved to Montana in 1969. His first novel, The Sporting Club, was published that year and from the sale of the film rights, he bought a Montana ranch. The novel also was adapted into a 1971 movie.

McGuane’s first three novels—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) are all stories of men living in a kind of isolation. Many of his ten novels are set in Montana.

In 2019, he published Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories.

Both men were very much outdoorsmen. When McGuane wasn’t writing, he was probably fly fishing or riding horses.

Thomas McGuane Remembers His Friend, Jim Harrison

Tomato: Fruit and Vegetable

tomato seedling

I’m tending my young tomato plants today in preparation for them going into the ground. It is still cool in Paradelle – frost-free but still some 40 and 50 degrees nights and days. I’m a jersey boy and I grew up growing tomatoes in that Garden State in every year I can remember.

My father showed me how to plant seeds in flats the month before the last predicted frost. I didn’t like plucking out tiny seedlings in order to keep the best ones. I wanted every seedling to produce tomatoes, but that isn’t the way it works in a backyard garden.

I learned to dig big holes, add composted manure, plant the seedling deep. I didn’t like putting them in so deep that they looked like such tiny plants. they went in all the way to the first main leaves so they would send out deep roots and not shallow roots that could easily burn in the hots days of Juky and August. We left a bowl-like depression to catch the water. We covered them with modified milk cartons to keep away cutworms, discourage invaders and protect for those first cool nights.

Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Almanac  (which is primarily about writers and literature but often takes little diversions – as many writers do when they should be writing) coincidentally had a segment about tomatoes.

It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Tariff Act of 1883 said that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The importers argued that according to the dictionary definition of fruit — the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds — a tomato was a fruit. The government read the definitions of “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are considered vegetables.

Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, but in the common language of the people, they are vegetables which are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

sliced red tomatoes

I knew most of that, but it struck me that the real problem was that “vegetable” has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.

Tomatoes have always been for me a vegetable because that was the way we treated them in our home. But there is one exception to that.  When I am in the garden in summer, weeding, staking, looking for pests and watering, I can’t help but pick a very red and ripe tomato and biting into it in the same way I would eat an apple, peach or plum from the trees in my childhood backyard.  No tomato tastes better than those. And some are “grape cherry tomatoes” their shape and size suggesting that other fruit.

As I am typing this, I can see my seedlings outside in their tray with a net cover. I also see two squirrels running around the yard and a rabbit snooping by the deck wondering about when my plants will be set into the ground. And that reminds me of a poem by a teacher I once had in a summer workshop. here is an excerpt from “Blue with Collapse” by Thomas Lux.

It’s spring, the blooming branches
nearly hide the many dead ones.
A squirrel, digging for a nut, upends my frail
tomato plant and fails
to replant it, even though he has the tools.
I find this kind of squirrely oblivion everywhere.

There Will Come Soft Rains

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

What I’m Listening To: Self-Promotional Edition

I post here occasionally about what I am listening to in the podcast/online/radio world.  I still listen to many podcasts (too many, my wife would say) and I will update the list at some point, but this brief edition certainly falls under the category of self-promotion.

I have listened to the daily podcast of The Writer’s Almanac since 1993. It began as a public radio show that was harder for me to catch every day. I was glad when it became a podcasts that I could subscribe to and have waiting on my phone. It ran on public radio through 2017 and episodes are archived online. Now, the show is available as a podcast and online on the host’s, Garrison Keillor, website.

I had listened to Garrison Keillor starting in 1974 on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I loved that voice and his ad-libbed weekly stories of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I went on to read his short stories and novels. You can label him as author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality. He hosted that show through 2016 when he retired and passed the reins over to others.

I was lucky to have three of my poems featured on the Almanac this month. I really enjoy hearing other people read my poems and that is not something I get to experience very often. The links are below and you can read the poems there online, but I strongly recommend that you listen to him read the poems. The poems are at the end of the program, so you could fast-forward through the news, but I enjoy the news of the day every morning as much, sometimes even more, as the poem.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. This Gothic beauty was the original setting of my poem, “Shame.”
“Shame” is a serious poem that came from an experience I had as a young man in a beautiful cathedral.
The other two are less serious, though not totally meant to be funny.
“Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” portrays the kinds of people I actually have had show up at readings. The poem often gets laughs when I read it, though fellow poets may be more likely to just nod in recognition.
My poem, “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes,” came from reading an actual horoscope column online. The short-form horoscopes tend to be pretty positive, though you might get a warning prediction once in a while. What I thought was missing was ones that were somewhere in-between.