Light Exercise (by Scott Banks)

I test the waters of my day by first testing the light.  After I swing my legs from the bed, I walk two steps and pull a corner back on the drapes.  Is the light dancing bright like Baryshnikov in Swan Lake or is it sitting on the shoulders of the Chugach Range, ready to drag its blanket of snow back to bed?  I hope for the dance, the lightness of light, setting the tone of my day.

I drive the long way to work because it is one of the few times I can think without interruption.  After dodging through rush hour traffic, I cross Chester Creek with its rafts of mallards, and ascend three lanes toward downtown.  All winter, the mountains to the east lie flat, one-dimensional, bereft of color, cut from gray construction paper and pasted on a darker sky.  In late March I notice a change; a modicum of intense light strays above the peaks, almost hesitant to appear.  Until one day the sun rises like Lazarus, light so blinding that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir should gather its holy voices as one and sing AAAAHHHH.  And spring is here, elevating my mood to nothing short of glorious.

It is not just the book when I’m reading.  It’s the coal‑black cat on the table, gazing at me through a slow blink, following the shadow creeping across the page’s margin.  It’s the hot Earl Grey tea in my mug, the Christmas mug that I like, that reminds me of the holidays.  It’s the sublime quiet that comes, not from an empty house, but from a house filled with family whom I love, sleeping warm under the covers tucked to their chins.  And it’s the potential of the empty pages of the commonplace book that I write in now.  That I realize there is much I want to add to those pages, fill in the lines with lazy loops from my pen, to capture an idea before it escapes on a zephyr, beyond my mind’s reach.  And it’s the light, blue‑black, that creeps in, that I hardly notice until it reaches a balance where it is now lighter than it was dark and the day has begun.

The light seemed shackled to the snow, never able to rise above any shades other than  white and gray.  I lost my sense of place in that shroud knowing only I was firmly in the midst of winter.  Flocks of redpolls winged their rounds between neighborhood feeders, but I don’t understand what triggers their flight to the next stop.   They flew by instinct as sometimes I fly when dealing with my own world.  Even though it is my daily life, what most people take for granted, it presents new challenges every day.  Anton Chekhov wrote, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”  The light and its play gives me strength

When I see the winter light moving between day and night, a faint blue glow, the light’s depth forces me to pay attention.  It’s not only a color, but a time, a short time, maybe minutes, and if I witness one moment, it is luck more than anything else.  The light wields the most power when I don’t expect it.  It frees me from the shackles of everyday obligations and lifts me to contentment.  Even when its most perfect moment has passed, the memory is there to revisit if I am mindful of it.

At quiet times in the early morning light, my mind strays, usually when I’m writing.  Half the time I am living a life and half the time I am witnessing a life.  It’s confusing because the witness can intrude on the life that I’m living, stealing the authenticity of that moment.  When that happens I want to leave my writing, pad silently downstairs to the family room and switch on the television, as if it will erase the moment and whisk me to a simple place, free from care.  Routine complication and compromise compete for my time.  Knowing that I’m not alone in this feeling does not ease my restlessness, even when I articulate it.  The stress comes from knowing that the inner quiet must end and I must transform from the witness to participant.

It is not easy to give myself up to the day.  On a Saturday I thought I would do nothing, let my consciousness guide me, lead me to a book or a walk or baking a batch of cookies.  I hadn’t settled on anything.  It’s the idea I think about before anyone else is up and out of bed.  My only distraction is Oscar, who begs me to throw his John Deere squeaky toy across the kitchen floor.  I settle into a book then shuffle to the fridge to root around for last night’s ribs. While pondering the profound aimlessness of the day, the letter I need to deliver enters my mind.  I want to give blood before the end of the year and I have to pick up a prescription.  In a month these decisions will mean nothing.  How would I be different if I had chosen another route for another day?  So is it how we use the time between our obligations that make the difference?  I cannot ignore those shackles, but the light can make them disappear in its moments.

Clouds with a film noir patina crowd the sky, light streaming through a filter that strips out every color.  I can describe only every color that it is not.  The temperature has risen forty degrees in the past four days.  I drop the zipper of my fleece jacket and shed my wool hat.  I enjoy walks with the dog because of the quiet.  His only interest is what lies ahead on the trail.  No questions or idle chat.  Like the moon shadows on snow, he’s just there.

In the fading fall light, I’ll sit outside my back door on the cedar bench and read poetry, occasionally looking across three backyards where families have clear cut 50‑year old birch, aspen and spruce.  My eight‑ounce flask sits at my side, wrapped in burgundy leather ending at the top with a hinged knurled cap.

Beyond the crewcut yards, the forest continues and the pending evening sky bestows its peace upon me.  Past 10 p.m., the grating sounds and everyday routine recedes.  The waning light buffs my frazzled edges and for a while the pieces of the day gather at a perfect moment.  A chill or darkness chases me upstairs to bed.  I might have lingered on my bench for five minutes, but in my room the moment doesn’t leave me.  I might read a few more stanzas before my breathing takes on the poetry’s same measured rhythm.  The book aside, I snap off the light and close my eyes.

In the morning light, a gentle rain scrubbed the air to usher in the scent of spring.  Who hasn’t written about this scent and the feelings it triggers?  It reminds me of Gene Kelly dancing down the street, singing in the rain.

The morning appeared dressed in black and white, a dalmatian landscape after three days of intermittent snow on a ragged breeze.  I haven’t seen any birds, as if they are still hiding, unsure that the danger is gone and it’s safe to fly.  It’s quiet, maybe people are resting for New Years’ celebration ahead.

With only a new moon to light the sky, the cloud cover reflected the ambient city light to illuminate the bog, enough so that it’s possible to read a book.  Every tree stands out in relief.      For the past five nights I’ve observed the moon which began as nothing more than a trivial splinter of light spiked on the Milky Way.  Each succeeding night the light grew just a mite, the brightness trading places with the dark.

The birch branches slapped at the clouds as they passed the three‑quarter moon.

The moon backlit the clouds like the frosted pane of a nightlight.

Clouds passed in front of the moon, a light switching on and off, illuminating the spare spruce trees, throwing scraggly shadows across the field.

My daughter and I plodded along the skijoring trail at dusk, our feet occasionally breaking through the early spring crust of snow.  Hand in hand we talked about dogs and coyotes and her ambitious plans, riding bikes with a friend once summer drop-kicked the snow for another year.  We wanted to hear the hoot of great gray owls, shedding their shyness, driven by the mating season; but, we heard nothing.  As we walked the light dimmed and I pondered how God could create blue light from a mix of black and white.  It reminded me of fire, such a lively and animated entity, created from a few dead sticks.  As we approached the parking lot, two beams of light dodged through the forest.  As they neared, two mountain bikers emerged from the dark, gliding along the trail, ensconced in cones of light thrown from their headlamps.  Once the bikers passed, the dark blue returned to envelop us completing a perfect evening walk.

Today, the first bug of spring’s light bit me.  I walked the dog at the botanical garden along the nature trail, the sun high, temperatures at 20 degrees, snow bright and clean.  We walked, me with a cigar clamped in my teeth, Oscar snuffling at small animal tracks and places dogs had paused.  I stopped to listen, to take a puff, while a short, stiff breeze jostled treetops and drowned background noise from the highway a half mile away.  Oscar ran ahead, back feet splayed behind him, ears straight back.  At twenty yards he paused to turn around and check on me, our eyes meeting.  I walked back home full of enterprise, slightly buzzed from the cigar and the light, in love with it all.

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


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