That quality doesn’t exist in small rooms lit by bulbs turned on with a flick of a switch.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was the darkness that ghosts and monsters were active. He writes of a large room lit by candles and tries to describe the color of that particular sort of darkness. For many, that hour-earlier sunset is an abrupt reminder that winter is on top of us, that time is only ever running out. Turning the clock back an hour sounds like a shoe dropped on a rug, a thud, abrupt, echoless, and then back to silence. In the long evenings, embrace the pause, the fertile quiet. On Sunday, unless you live in Arizona, you bumped back the clocks, which means an hour of light that belonged to the evening now belongs to the morning. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling—their inner lives. Jeanette Winterson writes of the relationship between light and conversation:
I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing—their outer lives. The Japanese character consists of the graphic for door and for moon, suggesting “a door through the crevice of which the moonshine peeps in,” as the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren defines it in his Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese. The stamp of an expiration date on her forehead annihilated all other thought. “When death is right here,” said Francesca, her index fingers held up together, side by side and touching, “it eliminates everything else.” She kept her fingers pressed together. The smoke rises in silence, the flame’s ghost on its way elsewhere, and suddenly, sooner than you think, it gets dark. “Here, though. It sounds like a candle being blown out, that quick canvas thwap of flame extinguished off a wick. Here,” she said, and paused, and quiet filled the room. “When you are thinking too much about death, you are not experiencing the ma.”
She spread her arms wide again. An upped intimacy results. He calls it “a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.” The particles collect in a way that’s all potential, into a
“visible darkness,” where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering, a darkness that on occasion held greater terrors than darkness out of doors. Ma is the crack that lets the light in. Never thought about it.” Then she brought her index fingers together so they touched in front of her chest. The sharp edges of fact give way to the blur of the question mark, the uncertainty, the quiet. It’s a space ripe with an atmosphere of uncertainty, suspension, and possibility. They speak subjectively, they argue less. “Ma makes nothingness palpable and tangible,” writes Ando. And the dark—the hollows and corners behind the curtains, above the rafters, the places where dimness pools—helps one better know the light. That’s in large part due to daylight saving time. It’s the gap where the moonlight sifts through; it’s the space between two slate stones that guide your steps along a path; it’s the hollow where ghosts gather; it’s the pause in conversation, the ripe silence of the unspoken. It is a pause, in time, space, music, conversation. In time, and with titanic mental effort, the initial all-consuming horror gave way. “This was the diagnosis.” Death was on top of her. In his slim book In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki writes of seeing light in darkness. “This is a wonderful time of my life,” Francesca said. There are longer pauses. Two years ago, she was told she had two-and-a-half years to live. But the dark feels different in November. “It means incorporating less sharp edges, more smoke.”
Which is maybe to say more mystery, more potential. At two in the morning on a Sunday in November, the slow creep of shifting minutes of light across the year accelerates all at once. “There’s a perfect distance where empty space allows both to be alive in a different way,” she said. Godfried Schalcken, Young Girl with a Candle (detail), 1670–1675. The candlelight makes one better know the dark, the shadows, the spaces unseen. We can quiet down in November. “Every inch mattered,” she said. “The space of nothingness is where one struggles to reach a deeper layer of self,” writes Ando. September and October get darker by far, each losing about eighty-three minutes of light. November opens a path to those deeper layers unavailable to us during the rest of the year. “And when it’s right here,” she said, fingers apart again at full wingspan, “when you’re not thinking at all about death, you are also not experiencing the ma, and you take everything for granted.”
She moved her fingers back together, keeping them four and a half inches apart. Likewise, ma makes one aware of the presence of absence. For those who prefer the lengthened twilights of summer, the afternoon dark carries with it a sense of gloom, a lethargy, a melancholy, a despair. Night grows in November. Tanizaki laments the extinction of a darkness that helps the mind see ghosts, that edges one up against the vast, the frightening, the nonunderstandable. It’s an approximation of the expiration date stamped on our foreheads. Certain kinds of dark allow us to be more at home with silence. This is the second installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which will run every Wednesday this month. “In November, you’re winding down,” she said. It’s not the month that loses the most light though. Francesca talked of her career as a curator, and the importance of “the space of nothingness,” how the gap between the works of art was as important to her as the works themselves. Between warmth and cold, between light and dark, between living and dying. From the first of the month to the thirtieth, in a small city in the northeast, night extends by fifty-nine minutes. The eleventh month, getting darker, getting colder, echoes our own eventual winding down and gives chance to live in the richest, deepest way. There’s a power to it: it’s the one day a year you can pick an hour to relive. “The space of nothingness is where one finds his or her own self and life’s richness,” writes the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. It gets dark in November. November holds the in-between. Read earlier installments of Novemberance here. “This was my relationship with death before,” she said, holding her arms apart at full wingspan.
“I’m in the November of my life,” said Francesca, a fifty-eight-year-old curator with good shoulders and dark lively eyes and dark wavy hair and a laugh that came from deep in her gut. She spoke of the sweet spot, a placement wherein two objects are in tension, in conversation, put at a distance that allows one to see the most of both at once. “Do you know the Japanese concept of ma?”
Ma loosely translates to negative space, to emptiness, vacancy, blankness. “Knew it would happen. Even August, when the fireflies throb by the bushes at the edge of the yard and you still don’t need sleeves or shoes, loses more light than November by more than fifteen minutes.