Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow

A friend recently sent me a text message: Where are you? You’ve disappeared. I answered: I found it necessary to scurry back inside of myself. With a sense of urgency as if I’m being chased by a tiger.

I’m not really being chased by a tiger, but something is chasing me. Have you ever felt as if something were there – in the dark? Something just on the edge of consciousness? You can’t see what it is, but you know it is there. Skulking. Now that is a good word. I could have used it in my novel. The central theme of my novel is the interplay between light and shadow. We often think of these as enemies or opposing forces, when in fact they are close allies, dependent on each other for their very existence. Without light, there is no shadow. And how would we ever define light without shadow? Light would simply be a blinding presence without form or function. No, light needs to cast its shadow. And its shadow smiles back.

As my friend asked me where I’d disappeared to, I smile back with gratitude. When I become aware of something, I am always thankful. Thankful for light but also thankful for the shadows to hide in. One can’t always stand the light.

I step out onto the balcony just in time to watch a young man inside a heavy coat, hood up, walk out of the shadows of the building across the street into the sunshine on this side of the street. Slung over his shoulder is a backpack and guitar, and I am reminded of my son, who was such a gifted musician. I wonder about this young man, where he slept last night, where he will sleep tonight? Huddled inside the doorway of some downtown building, shivering in the snow and cold. He is thankful for the sun, finally beating through the clouds to warm the earth. Does this mean there is always something for which to be thankful? Not at all. He will embrace the warmth for as long as he has it and then face the dark and cold once more.

I have never been homeless, although I have found myself in some pretty tough places before. One time, when I had grown weary of college, I took off for California and ended up living at the YMCA Hotel in San Francisco on Turk Street between Hyde and Leavenworth. A mean part of the city in 1976. I didn’t have much money, but I had enough for a few nights stay in the hotel. In my room were a bed, closet, desk, and lamp. I looked down on the dark street from my room on the twelfth floor.

I was hoping to hire on as a shipmate on a seagoing vessel leaving the country. I had adventure in my blood, along with the heartache from a recent breakup. Unfortunately, in order to hire on a ship, I had to belong to the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, and in order to join the union, I had to have logged so many hours at sea, along with having all the necessary certifications. How was I supposed to log hours at sea if hiring on a seagoing vessel required I belong to the union, and in order to join the union, I needed hours at sea? A catch-22. Or so it seemed to me. I did manage to get a job as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat working out of Fisherman’s Wharf.  The money wasn’t that good but I managed to make enough to pay my rent at the hotel and buy what food I needed from a small grocery store on the corner of Turk and Leavenworth.

In the predawn morning, I would walk to the Powell Street Station to catch a cable car that would get me within a few blocks of Pier 41 where I would board the ninety-foot fishing boat. We would leave the harbor heading west out of San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate and out into the endless Pacific Ocean. The days were long and backbreaking, but I found it exhilarating to leave the dirt of Turk Street far behind me. At the end of the day, we would offload the day’s catch and secure the boat. I would walk back to the cable car turnaround, catch the cable car back to the Powell Street Station, and walk the four blocks back to the hotel, stopping at the small grocery store for my dinner and next day’s breakfast and lunch. Since I didn’t have any way to keep food cold, I bought what I needed every day. It was expensive, but I felt fortunate to have the tiny grocery store so close to the hotel. I ended up spending almost two years in San Francisco, long enough to get over the heartache for the most part.

I learned that we never get over heartache. It recedes a little, but is always there, like a tiger stalking us from the periphery of our consciousness. We hear it there, the rustle of brush, but aren’t able to see it clearly. It is there though. And we know it but are never sure when it will attack. Each time, we are a little more prepared, a little stronger. If we have survived, that is. Some never survive the initial attack of heartache. It breaks them down, tears out their hearts, destroys them. But for those of us who survive the first attack, we get shiftier, more resilient, the scars thicker. We aren’t spared the pain, however. It is always there. We just tell ourselves that we are all right, we are tough, we are warriors. And we move on. For as long as we can.


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