Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Days of Dark and Porridge

Today was dark.

These banal words took on a tangible, palpable meaning today. But ‘darkness’ is not a close enough word for what I mean. Here I need ‘dark’ to be the noun, not describing but denoting the thing itself. Dark incarnate. I don’t mean to be dramatic. I don’t even mean to personify darkness, or night, or even darkness in an Arctic morning that looks like night. I mean that dark, the being, was outside when I stepped out of the house and started on my walk to school. It was 7:30 a.m., but no, I don’t mean the dark was outside; I mean it was the outside.

But that sounds like I mean everything outside was dark, and that’s not it either. In fact, I mean the opposite: the dark was everything. I walked down the steps, the drive, across the road, down the footpath onto the ski trail then along the road past the elementary school and I was not alone. It was there, the dark, a presence as sentient as a taste or smell or breeze would have been. But they were absent. There was nothing but dark and it was sensed with none of these senses. Some other awareness I have not known I owned awakened to it, acknowledged it accompanying me. That’s not right either, if it accompanied me then it was a definable limited entity, like myself, and the two of us moved through the world. That’s not how it was. I was the definable limited entity and there was no world, only dark.

I was amazed by streetlights. They were on, showing their bulbs, but the dark was also there. The gray school building was visible, lights on it and in the windows, but it was engulfed in dark. No, I don’t mean a school building standing in darkness. This is impossible to explain. It was a startling new reality. I got close to my school and a bus passed. A lit interior, lights on the bus, but it was different. It was a lit bus that was one dimensional in a multidimensional dark. In the distance I saw figures moving in a line down the slope toward my school. These would be students, but they looked like a line of shadow puppets or wrought iron silhouettes, Halloween trick-or-treaters minus all the lights, all the colour, all the shine. They showed up as pure dull black against the pure black dark. I didn’t know there could be so many shades of black. The dark, this new world, this visceral gel we moved through had its own spectrum. Dark was the sound of everything too. A type of silence, but nothing like silence. It was darkness incarnated into silence.

This is the week of the solstice. On Friday the sun turns as they say here. Sola snur. She turns this way again. Towards us. On Friday the sun will remember us and decide to turn back.

Inside my school there is a glass roof and five stories of red brick walls. It is like being inside a greenhouse and outside an old fashioned small town library at the same time. The center of the building is a wide foyer stretching the length of the main building. This area is called “The Street” and today it was lined with small votive candles, dozens of little flickering flames placed about ten inches from each other for what would be a good couple of city blocks. Today added to the greenhouse-brick library-effect was that of monastery-interior. Most of the other lights were off. The first thing Norwegians do when the winter darkness comes is turn off the lights and light candles. It still strikes me as counter intuitive, but I understand it has to do with appreciating, acknowledging, paying homage to the dark.

The monastery effect only went as far as the candles. The Street was alive with activity. One thousand students go to this school, average age 19. It seemed most of them this morning were passing through The Street balancing paper bowls in various stages of collapse due to the weight and heat of their contents: rice porridge. Grøt. The grøt was being ladled into the bowls from great vats of it on long tables. The tables lined the length of the street outside the glass walls of the library, which gave the scene an illuminated backdrop. The people doing the ladling were, perhaps, librarians. It wasn’t easy to tell due to the low lighting and the fact that they were wearing red elfish stocking caps. Some of the students were wearing these too, what are called nisseluer, or elf-caps.

You see, in Norway at Christmas time the elf who sleeps in your barn and is always full of the dickens expects to be served grøt, lots of it, and if you’re remiss you can expect all kinds of mischief like your tools missing and the horse’s tail tied in knots. This lore seemed at the heart of the scene I was witnessing. The week of the solstice there is naught to do but retreat indoors, dim the lights and set out candles so as not to disturb the dark in its necessity, and then feast on grøt. My office mate, observing the scene below our third floor window overlooking The Street, laughed and said, “I thought these kids just ate pizza.” She’s right. Frozen pizza has been declared Norway’s new national dish, but here was a return to the heart of things. Maybe not a return, but an awakening of what never left, a vestige of Jul, the original mid-winter festival to make amends with the dark.

I looked out the glassed roof. It was night. I was due in a classroom to teach literature, modernist short stories, Hemingway and the Lost Generation. I got the idea I’d walk home after class. I’d leave school at daybreak. Yes, about noon it would be dimly light outside and I’d go bask in it.

Sure enough, after class I returned to my office and saw that beyond the glassed roof of the school was a dark gray matter similar to what the depth of the ocean looks like on deep sea documentaries where they go so low the water is thick and dark and empty of fish. It was getting to be day. I’d just tidy a few things on my desk and leave. Walk home in the daylight. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It opened and a man’s bald head popped in, then his enormous body. A giant stood before us, a man neither of us had ever seen before. He had a huge round belly and dark stovepipe trousers that right now I couldn’t say for sure were not stuck into tall black boots. He was bald, but had a massive gray beard. I seem to recall suspenders, but that’s not likely. He had the air of suspenders about him. What I know for sure is that he raised his humongous hand in which was nestled a tiny silver digital camera and asked, “Would it be all right if I borrow your window to take a picture?”

The hullabaloo was still going on below in The Street. The vats of grøt seemed bottomless, the ladling elves tireless, the votive candles immutable and the mass of grøt consuming students growing. But who was this man? Did he work at our school? I don’t know all the staff members by name, and there can well be many I’ve never met at all, the ones who work in departments like navigation or media or health and food science, far removed from my little province of liberal arts. But there was something outsiderish about this man. Could he be a journalist? No, a journalist would be, well, different somehow. Dressed differently, smaller, more… well, average. This man seemed to only belong to this moment, as if blown in from unknown parts ready to snap a shot, and before we could say a word he was gone.

I thought to myself that he had the right idea to capture this scene in print. Photograph these gangling teenagers, budding adults, this new generation of ancient viking breed feasting on porridge on midwinter’s eve. I had wanted to ask him where the picture was going to appear, but he was gone. I looked up at the glass roof; it was dark again. I had been planning to go out into the daylight, walk home at the noontime break of dawn, but it was no longer there. Had it been there at all? I think it had. I think I had seen it, but it had not lingered. It had been there and moments later it was gone. Sort of like this… I almost said Santa with his camera getting a snapshot of his elves.

God Jul
Happy Solstice

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This entry was posted on 17/12/2007 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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