Saturday, September 1, 2012

Staying Up Late

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

I got that from a book of Zen quotes--I forget where it is from originally, but I've always liked it. I've always found it comforting to think that our scars and limitations and broken places are normal, and can be gotten past. There is a crack in everything. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to do what you cannot do. That's how the light gets in. I once knew a man who called himself Mind Shatter. He was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and names like that were normal. He said something had made him break--he never told me what, and of course I never asked--but that when he broke, cracks formed in his mind, and through those cracks some light from inside him began to shine. He seemed perfectly sane, by the way, not "cracked" in the colloquial sense. He did, in fact, shine with a kind of relaxed friendliness. I never knew him well.

But the reason this quote, and by extension my one-time friend, Shatter, has been on my mind is that they rang the bells an campus yesterday. I never saw you at such a ceremony, but obviously you know about it. I missed it this year quite deliberately; it begins a semester I do not belong to.

A few months ago, I accidentally walked in on the bell ringing that ended the Spring semester, which I was not really part of, either. I've been hanging out on this campus I don't quite belong to all summer, using the internet and being available for people who know me--and some people who don't--to stop and chat. They seem to like me there. And I've hung around all summer, and now I'm watching the fall begin. I'm watching a new crop of first-year students come in, and I'm helping them sort out the printer and find their way to the Registrar's Office. They ask me; I don't know how they can tell that I know the answer, and of course sometimes I don't.

I've never spent the summer on campus before. I went away in the spring, and I returned in the fall, and one academic year turned into another while I was gone. Like how you go to sleep, and one day magically turns into another while you are sleeping. Staying here this summer has been like staying up all night, which I do very rarely, and did not do at all until I was ten or eleven years old. The way it works is you stay up, up, up up, and one, two, three in the morning, all of which are in the morning by a trick of language only, and then suddenly, around four or four-thirty, it just feels like morning. A new day has begun. A faint transparency to the night, a singing bird, confirm the issue some minutes or hours later, depending on the time of year, but after four in the morning it feels like morning, and if you wanted to go to bed that night, you know it's too late. You've stayed up all night, and seen the thing good children don't; the magic moment when one day becomes another.

There is no way to quite belong, when you see the thing bare that other people don't.

I have no idea if this is something you can identify with. I don't know how or when you sleep. I know you show up for dawn sometimes for the sake of birds, and I've seen you show up at work underslept, speaking of staying up late to work on this or that outline or assignment. I never knew whether you were up in order to work, or up for some other reason and working because you might as well. It's such a secret place, sleeplessness. That's why I stay up sometimes. That's why I won't ask whether you do, whether you like that magic moment when night turns into the next day.

I don't really belong on campus anymore, but I belong with some of the people who frequent campus, so I frequent it, too. I've heard that sometimes people ring the bells for occasions other than the beginning and end of semesters--to memorialize the fallen, for example. I've never done that, because I've never been part of the group that had lost. I entertained the possibility of ringing them at my wedding, and I might have asked if I could, if I'd gotten married anywhere near campus. If I had, would you have arrived to ring them? I think that though I'm clearly on the outside looking in, I am still on the inside of something else.


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