Like my father before me, it’s the rare morning when I’m not up by four o’clock. The dark hours before dawn, I find, are the most peaceful and productive of the day, the time I read and write or sometimes just sit and think and drink my coffee and try to make sense of the world.
In her brilliant new book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Taylor Brown sheds light on how vital the nighttime and darkness are to our physical and spiritual well-being, yet how most of us from childhood onward have been conditioned to fear the dark and associate our worst fears with it — boogeymen under the bed, burglars afoot, animals on the prowl, nightmares, insomnia, dark nights of the soul. The Bible speaks of the forces of light and darkness throughout, and the light of a new day is always preferable to the mysterious darkness.
Be home by dark, our parents warned us. We lock our doors at night just to be safe; put on the light. Evil is dark. Goodness is light — or so we are taught. It’s no accident that the flag of ISIS is menacingly black.
In a world where illuminated cities are increasingly blotting out the world’s natural darkness, blurring the lines between night and day, Brown laments the loss of darkness and notes how mistaken it is to curse the darkness.
“Darkness turns out to be as essential to our physical well-being as light,” she writes. “We not only need plenty of darkness to sleep well, we also need it to be well. The circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping matches the natural cycle of day and night, which affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships.”
Wednesday morning was no exception. I rose at my usual time — quarter till four — made coffee and stepped outside to my back garden to look at the moon.
The full moon of October is known as the Hunter’s Moon because in ancient times native people hunted by its light, especially because it’s typically up all night, rising at sunset and setting at dawn.
It’s also sometimes called the Blood Moon because in its setting phase an hour or so before dawn, eclipsed by the shadow of Earth as it passes directly between the sun and the moon, the sun’s returning light, refracted though earth’s atmosphere cast it in a ruddy red glow on the surface of the moon — hence the reference to blood.
Wednesday’s Blood Moon was the second one this year, the first having occurred last April around Passover and Easter. In a rare celestial event that has reportedly only happened three other times in the past 500 years, Blood Moons will come again next year in April and late October.
Much of the interest in these Blood Moons centers around Biblical prophecy that holds these rare celestial events — four blood moons in back-to-back years, also called a tetrad by astronomers — herald significant changes for the Jewish people, tragedy that leads to triumph.
In 1492-93, as part of a royal decree that ordered Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave, Spain expelled them from its borders. That same year, however, Columbus discovered America, which eventually became the world’s safe haven for the Jewish people.
In 1948, following the Holocaust, following 2,000 years of struggle, the state of Israel came into being under Blood Moons.
In 1967, Israel’s triumph in a brutal Six Day War with its Arab neighbors resulted in Jerusalem becoming part of Israel along with the Sinai, Golan Heights and West Bank of the Jordan River.
Coming on the heels of the so-called “Arab Spring” that has unleashed not democracy but unprecedented upheaval and violence in several Arab nations — underscored by the threat of Iran’s growing nuclear ambitions — those who hold with Biblical prophecy believe the Blood Moons of this year and next simply point to a major change in the fortunes of Israel and the world at large, tragedy that leads to triumph.
As I sat on my garden bench in the darkness drinking my coffee and enjoying the sound of the last crickets of the summer, waiting for the celestial moon show to start around 5:30, it was natural to remember something I learned back in my childhood Sunday School days. Whatever name you choose to give the divine force of love that shapes our universe, celestial “signs” are simply one way a loving God communicates with man cowering in the darkness.
Who can consider the unsettling events of late and not feel in their gut that something is shaking up the planet, urging us to wake up and shake off our indifference. As the Middle East unravels into chaos and the ISIS reign of terror expands with apparent impunity, Ebola is on the march out of Africa and America is paralyzed by a Congress that can’t act and a president who can’t lead.
After a string of scandals involving the VA and IRS, a deranged fellow jumping the fence and taking himself on a running tour of the White House with a knife sadly seems like just another “sign” of a broken government and once-powerful nation sleep-walking into the unknown. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that 40 percent of the world’s wildlife has vanished in the past forty years, but no one seems to notice. Another report I read says a third of the world’s songbirds have vanished.
As I sat thinking about these terrestrial signs of change and whatever they may portend, waiting for the rare lunar eclipse to start, old Rufus the cat came waddling back from his night time travels and the back door opened and my wife appeared in her bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee.
What a nice surprise to see her up so early, something that also happens roughly only four times every 500 years.
We sat on the bench, surrounded by the serenity of darkness and the music of the first stirring birds, talking about our children and watching through the pines as the moon slipped beautifully into the Earth’s shadow. The stars were out and we picked out the planet Uranus and the Little Dipper dumping light right over our house.
“There is one cure for me on nights like this,” writes Barbara Taylor Brown. “If I can summon the energy to put on my bathrobe and go outside , the night sky will heal me — not by reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe. Looking up at the same stars that human beings have been looking at for millennia, I find my place near the end of the long, long line of stargazers who stood here before me.”
As we watched, the moon vanished into the umbra, the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow, producing a reddish glow bloomed like a blushing Japanese lantern.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” Dame Wendy was moved to comment, at least as much to the heavens as to Old Rufus and me.
As the moon slipped lower in the pines and the first light of a new day smudged the east, we did something purely for the fun of it. Mama in her fuzzy bathrobe, Papa in his tattered Indian moccasins, we hopped in the car and chased the Blood Moon toward the western horizon.
Like children following an untethered balloon, we followed the vanishing moon from darkness to light, all the way out Highway 211 to Samarkand, at which point, somewhere over a peach orchard that has given up its fruit for another year, the Blood Moon melted into the light of dawn.
It was a lovely sunrise, I must say, driving home. We held hands with the car windows down, enjoying the cool morning air.
The moment made me wish — hope to believe — that the darkness before dawn is healing and America might also be waking up.