Last week, I got up early to go for a bicycle ride before heading into work. I tricked myself out in the appropriate number of insulating layers; it’s cold enough now that the wind chill provided by nature combined with the one I create myself can quickly become discouraging. I am generally quite sensible (about cycling) so also had my trusty blinking front and back lights; riding in the dark is not for the faint of heart or camouflaged of clothing.
I made my way towards my usual weekday route, which involves heading into the Beach(es) and back, going along the Martin Goodman Trail for a short while, and then winding back up Logan and home. I think it’s about 12-14 km; all told—just the right amount to invigorate me before I go begin the daily process of melting into my office chair.
I rode down regular city streets and crossed the Lakeshore, all of which were already filled with the sad ultra-bright car lights of 6-7 am commuters brought to a standstill. Illuminated by sleepily creeping cars, street lamps, and mute lightning flashes off towards the northeast, I got to the edge of the Beaches…and shakily braked to a halt. I had somehow never noticed there are no lights along its busy paths and it was more than encased in darkness—it was as though it was simply gone. I paused to let my eyes adjust but the invisibility of my surroundings didn’t budge.
Live in a big city long enough and you forget what real darkness looks like.
My headlamp didn’t give me even a foot of visibility; all I could see were the small, sharp drops of rain that had begun to fall; and those I saw only a moment and then they too were lost in the anonymous, depthless dark. I had no choice but to turn around. Riding in the mornings has always made me feel as though my world were expanding with my sturdily working lungs; but that morning, as I rode back and forth along Dundas until I ran out of time, I felt like a hamster in a wheel: content enough physically but kept firmly in check dream-, hope-, and ambition-wise by my suddenly smaller cage.
I used to be quite comfortably familiar with real darkness; it didn’t used to scare me. Maybe it wouldn’t have frightened me that morning if it hadn’t become so terribly alien to my everyday experience. I don’t even really sleep in the dark now because a streetlamp shines dependably through our cheaply stylish IKEA curtains all night long. Country roads are, generally, a minimum 2-hour drive on a packed highway. We don’t have a car; long weekends, we enjoy Toronto even more as everyone else flees together, inch by frustrated inch.
I grew up in Halifax, a city big enough to provide both unbroken circuits of well-lit streets for those that want them and gropingly dark stretches of dirt road and forestlets inhabited by small animals. Darkness waits comfortably nearby for those who want it (at least, it did when I lived there; perhaps it too is falling for the sad promise of nights illuminated not by fires burning out millions of light years away, but by the quotidian and unromantic realities of the wired urban world.)
I spent many hours of my youth picking my way through the dark over exposed branches, rocks, mulch, moss, discarded beer cans. Point Pleasant Park, before nature itself tore the place to pieces and exposed it to the bright skies of development, was the site of many nocturnal wanderings; it, and places like it, provided good excuses for grasping the hands of my various fellow wanderers as we tripped and whispered and flung ourselves to the earth as the cops drove slowly by looking for loiterers. The darkness invited me to hold on to those boys’ hands longer than was really necessary; it encouraged them not to let go either.
I’m happily married, so I don’t imagine trying to woo and be wooed will come up for me again anytime soon (hopefully ever). But the mere thought of having to play the tentative, nauseating, wonderful game of deciding whether or not I want someone to want me under the bright lights of a city that sleeps only with the help of pharmaceuticals, eye guards, and ear plugs makes me terribly sad.
And yet, there really would be no other choice. The ability to walk trustfully in complete darkness with another person is for adults, I think, something that only happens after years of careful mutual scrutiny. “You are safe,” we may finally say to one another and then think about ways to step outside the narrow emotional paths we’ve taken to get there. The very young can walk together without paths and without light precisely because the darkness that envelops us all eventually, all the traps we fall into, all the broken bones that result—they can’t conceive of those things, don’t believe they’re real, don’t believe in the many ways we can be killed.
The very young are wrong to be so trusting, of course, as the news loves to tell us every day. I certainly didn’t escape unscathed from my own youthful naiveté, no matter how nostalgic I may sometimes become about it now. But I do miss having the confidence needed to walk straight into those dark avenues, even if I wouldn’t do so under any circumstances now.