Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Finger Pointing to the Moon: An Essay on Reflection, Water, Darkness and Light

            By Daniel Hagen

"對永恆的冥想 - Meditation on Eternity" (2001) by Paul Chiang (江賢二)
            The night is an interesting time to be out in the world—fearful and mysterious, exciting, and perhaps even a bit dangerous. It’s that element of the unknown—and the fact that we lose the faculty that most of us rely on to tell us what’s happening or to warn us of danger, namely our eyes—that either draws us into the night or makes us shy away from it. The night can also be quite beautiful, tranquil; when the moon is full, night takes on a whole new dimension, more alluring because of the full moon’s infrequency and the manner in which it gives light to darkness: a different kind of illumination. One may perceive a kind of wholeness in experiencing the light of the full moon—light that is shared by the sun and moon, symbols of man and woman interchangeably, and with all living things that would see it.

            I remember a night many years ago on Mackinac Island, nestled in the waters of Lake Huron between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, late in the month of September. Unlike my hometown of Dallas, very few human lights pollute the Northern Michigan sky, especially on an island surrounded by miles of water in every direction. The nights were usually quiet at that time of year, late in the season, when the weather would begin moving towards winter and most of the island’s visitors stuck to the restaurants and bars a half-mile or so down the road from where I was staying.  

            On restless nights, I would go walking on one of the dozens of trails that criss-crossed the island (it’s mostly parkland, after all), but on this particular moonlit night, the water called to me. Down the hill from my occasional home, the Mission House, was the Shoreline Trail, which meandered along the water’s edge, around the mini-golf course and large front lawn of the Mission Point Resort. The trail is a perfect place to walk when in a reflective mood, and the universe was in accord on this night.

            A small inlet of water sits in front of mini-golf course, where treaties still allow the native peoples to come and dock their vessels. Just beyond this little cove and off the trail, the tall grasses and bushes part just enough for one to walk comfortably to the island’s edge. Standing upon some of the larger rocks in the shallow water, I looked out across Lake Huron and up towards the sky, the moon a living presence despite being composed of lifeless rock and dust. Although many miles away, the moon felt near to me, close at hand—the smiling face of a loved one offering to anoint the sores of my soul. Like an outstretched hand, the moonlight reached down to the furthest edges of the lake. At a distance, the light on the water looked like television static, but as it moved towards me, the light became like a cascade of stars or the flashing of diamonds as it rolled across the lake’s surface, transforming into wide bands of light that broke up amongst the rocks at my feet. I bent down to accept the moon’s offering, and like an ablution of ancient times or the animist cultures of today, I washed my hands and face in gratitude. 

from the "銀湖 - Silver Lake" series by Paul Chiang (江賢二)
            The moonlight swam beside me as I returned to the trail, which continued along the island’s edge; reminiscing on it now, it was the kind of scene in which the Elizabethan English would likely have envisioned nymphs splashing, teasing and beckoning lonely travelers to join in their games, to follow them into the darker, unlit water. No nymphs called to me that night, though my eyes drank in the scene and my gaze searched the far horizon. South of Mackinac Island lies Round Island, uninhabited by people, though home to few things of note: a lighthouse, rattlesnakes and a mass cholera grave from earlier, less prosperous times. Beyond Round Island is Bois Blanc (or ‘White Pine’) Island—colloquially known as Boblo—where many people have built cabins; small on the edge of this island, I could see a few scattered bonfires, clear in the night despite the distance. Lights of various kinds dotted the horizon as well as they normally did—lights from the red and green buoys, more distant lighthouses, the glow of towns and cities both in the United States and Canada, and others too distant and indistinct to make out their source—indistinguishable light. 

            I followed the Shoreline Trail to its end, where it leads one around the island’s water filtration plant (the tap water on Mackinac Island is quite good), and rejoins the island’s main road, the M-185, probably the nation’s only highway without an auto fatality, which is hardly remarkable considering cars have been prohibited on the island since 1906. As I continued walking, my thoughts flew back to my own past. When I was six years of age, I traveled to Peru with my mother and older brother Dale; there, at the very end of our trip, an embarrassing incident led me to hide under a bed, and my mother had to come and find me as a cab was waiting to take us to the airport. As we drove to the airport, my imagination ran wild, thinking that I had not, in fact, been found by my mother, that I had not actually gotten into that cab, that I never boarded the plane that took us back to Dallas. For years after, a part of me wondered if the whole of my life was not simply my imagination making up my entire existence.

            I continued walking and I grew up as I went, thoughts of Peru—and the belief that I never left it—becoming a memory of a memory growing ever more distant. Only light came closer.  I thought about how I, the youngest of five boys, used to sit between my parents at the dinner table—a custom that had gone on for many years. I had become so habituated to the custom that I could not remember when I became old enough to exert my independence and decided not to continue it any longer. Though older and more independent—I thought as I walked past the imposing silhouette of the cliff, Lover’s Leap—I was not satisfied with how far I had come. Even now—as I have continued to grow—I have desired to never be afraid of telling the truth of who I am and the things I have done, but have I fallen short of this goal? Can the light ever reach the darker places within me if I don’t expose them myself? 

The Wheel of Life
            A quote from The Shawshank Redemptioncame to mind: “The Pacific has no memory.” Andy Dufresne says these words while speaking to his fellow prison inmate, Red, about settling down in a village on the coast of Mexico, a place where his past could be left behind. The theme of the ocean and memory was part of my own work as a composer in college and has revealed itself to me in a variety of places and permutations since then. The title of a book by a deceased Buddhist lama is Make Your Mind an Ocean. In the physical world, the ocean is deep, dark and impenetrable. Is my mind any different?  Am I afraid of what I might find if I look down into its depths? Or worse, am I afraid of what I won’t find? No one can answer these questions for me. No one can walk the path for me. No matter what sage or sign may present itself as I walk upon my path, it’s just a finger pointing to the moon.

            Nearing the Mission House, I could hear music coming from the Round Island Bar; a band was playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”  The night is as dark as we make it out to be, and our lives, as luminous as the waxing and the waning of the moon.  Let me be the full moon and you be the sun, so that we may dance together in the light that we share. 

Thanks to MD and LG for feedback and editing.

The art featured here is by Taiwanese painter, Paul Chiang, whose work has been used without permission; the photos were taken by myself. His website can be visited here.