A Voice in the Dark

In 2018 I wrote a piece inspired by “The Longest Night,” which is a multidisciplinary celebration of the winter solstice that takes place annually at OZ Arts Nashville. (I wrote it as a part of Art Wire, a partnership between The Porch Writers’ Collective and OZ Arts in which 10 writers attend OZ’s 2019-2020 performance season and respond to the works “in writing that is deeply engaged, personal, playful, questioning, and curious.”)

When Art Wire finished, last spring, I read the following piece out loud to an audience of 50 or so people. It’s maybe not the deepest, most probing thing I’ve ever written, but it got some laughs and it ends on a nicely poignant note, if I do say so, so I thought I’d share it here.

“The Longest Night,” a multicultural, multidisciplinary celebration of the Winter Solstice at Oz Arts Nashville, was reportedly curated by Rev. Jason Shelton, but it’s hard to imagine what he left out. From gospel choir rejoicing to modern dance, poetry recitations to shaggy-dog stories, marimba interludes to electric bass renditions of Christmas carols, the show had an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel that at first was charming, then exhausting, and now, in hindsight, kind of inspiring.

Naming the show “The Longest Night” was, I thought, a bold choice. Inviting people to join you in this type of exploration can be a tough sell, since everyone has lived through his or her own “longest night,” and rarely does he or she want to relive the experience. It often requires a long night to face some horrible, life-altering truth: It’s no use, I’m going to fail this exam. I think we should see other people. He doesn’t have much time.

I haven’t had a “longest night” in a long time, thank God, but sleeping through any given night is a tall order anymore. The worst part about waking up in the middle of the night—2:52, say, or 3:31, 4:19—is that the wakefulness sends me to a place of zero productive thinking. I am a forty-plus year old man with a wife and two kids; I should be utilizing this time to figure out how to lower my mortgage payment or mentally rearrange the living room furniture for improved flow. And there are plenty of things to worry about: forever wars, climate change, this fledgling post-truth society, my cholesterol. And yet issues that don’t receive a passing glance from my mind’s eye by day take on a terrible import in the dark.

The following are my top three most recurring concerns after waking up in the middle of the night:

– The status of the Doors as an important rock band has been in decline over the last 20 years.

– My beloved Washington Redskins have been a reliable embarrassment since the late 1990s, and there is likely no hope of turning things around until they get with the times and change that racist name.

– There existed somewhere between three and a dozen perfectly wonderful girls I knew in college who probably—no, definitely—would have said yes if I had thought to ask them out.

My wife is also prone to these late-night long nights, though her worries are more of the “Oh my God I can’t believe I used the word ‘tongue-tied’ in front of Judy when everyone knows her little brother lost his tongue in a water-skiing accident last summer” variety.

What’s weird is she and I almost never fall awake at the same time. I’d like to think this speaks to our complimentary personalities. Or maybe it’s the fact that as long as one parent is up worrying—doesn’t matter what about, so long as it keeps him or her awake—the other one feels free to relax and get some shut-eye. Family is complicated.

Still, every so often—once a year, maybe—I’ll be lying there in bed, alone with my dumb thoughts, and I’ll detect some sign of wakefulness by my wife—an especially alert-sounding sniff, say, or the kind of forlorn sigh that comes after checking the clock. It is at these times that I venture to say something, my own voice foreign-sounding in my ears. What usually follows is a quick exchange, the shared-bed equivalent of a nod in a workplace hallway. There’s novelty in it, though, because in these quiet hours the usual daytime chatter regarding after-school pickups and workplace drama seems pointless, a million miles away. The important thing is the voice, friendly in the dark, making the long night richer, and shorter.