[Originally published Apr. 12, 2013.]

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations — just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

— Rilke

Melanie McGrath:

For me, insomnia’s greatest gift is the uninterrupted time and mental space it allows for reading and thinking. There’s a freedom to the night, an unconstrained permissiveness. Under cover of darkness, anything goes. Being awake in the night feels like stealing a march on time. Senses sharpen, so does the memory. The air stills and it is as though you have passed into some other, more magical dimension in which earthly rules no longer apply. There’s an exploratory feeling to the night, a special magic, as anyone who regularly stays awake through it knows. The night’s sounds, smells and sights are exclusive. The quiet lends itself to brooding, even to epiphany, at the very least to an intense focus, what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the trance’ which can be both alluring and, for creativity, highly fruitful.

And so I think and I read.

That’s a beautiful little passage, and she’s right. I always loved that about working at night. For me, I think it was an extension of my extreme introversion more than anything else; being awake and active at night was a chance to be free from the prying eyes and intrusive approaches of other people. But yes, assuming you’re not awake due to being delirious with illness or caught in the grip of the night terrors, it does engender a certain psychological shift, a slight difference in perspective that I’ve always found beneficial for imagination. Much of the writing I’ve done here, up until a couple years ago, was actually done in my head while working at night.

When I was a kid, I used to be allowed to go to work with my dad on weekends or over summer vacation if I could be awake and ready to go on time (and I quickly learned that reading in order to avoid getting sleepy was a terrible strategy). I was always fascinated to see evidence of other people being awake at all hours, especially those who weren’t working like we were — why were they still up? What was different about their lives? As in most things, I’m sure the reality was far less interesting than the fantasy, but still, I sensed something attractive and intriguing about what it would mean to consciously choose to set yourself against the traditions and habits of everyone else. Overnight travelers, drunks looking for a place to sleep, or people working the graveyard shift for lack of any better options were transformed in my childish imagination into what I would later conceptualize as philosopher-poet-hermits, gently resisting the gravitational pull of normalcy and respectability.

Even as I got older, I’d still feel a fleeting sense of kinship at the sight of a lit bedroom window out in the suburbs, or a silhouette moving through the kitchen, or even the occasional person walking through a parking lot or alongside the road; not hitchhiking, not furtively sneaking around, just purposefully heading somewhere for their own reasons on their own schedule. We shadow people flitting about on the fringe. Eyes of awareness keeping solitary vigil.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

—Wendell Berry