The Middle Distance, 4.6.12: “I Saw the Light”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

In fourth grade, our elementary school class from Bowling Green, Kentucky, made a field trip to Mammoth Cave, the national park located beneath quiet Kentucky forests and farms, winding underground for hundred of twisting miles. We rode in a bus to Cave City, then took the standard guided tour of the most visited and accessible sections of the cave, down damp steps into lighted caverns with slick stone walls where everyone shivered and huddled close together. I remember dripping sounds and the marvelous sight of sparkling stalagtites and stalagmites, but more than anything I remember the moment our guide turned out the lights so that we could experience pure darkness, complete absence of light beneath the earth’s surface. Some of the kids shrieked. I held tight to my best friend Lynn Fly with one hand and put the other hand up close to my face, trying to see it. Nothing, just blackness. Then the lights came back on and a cheer of relief went up.

This memory comes back to me on Easter week, when darkness and light duke it out for dominance. That haunting line from Mark’s gospel: “At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land.” On church lawns and altars, crosses draped in black. Good Friday, the day the lights went out and Jesus cried out in pure loss and abandonment.

Many years after the Mammoth Cave field trip, I read a pamphlet about the early explorers of the cave, many of the most important ones slaves or descendants of slaves. Some of the cave’s best known features — the Bottomless Pit, Fat Man’s Misery, and Mammoth Dome — were discovered by Stephen Bishop, a young African American slave brought to the area as a teenager in the late 1830s. It’s mind boggling to imagine going down into those massive caves with nothing but a grease oil lamp to light the way. I wonder if Bishop, who was known for his singing voice, and others like him might have experienced liberation in those black caves where they were free to walk in pure darkness to unknown places.

I remember Easter Sunday at the Glendale Baptist Church, the spectacle and the drama. “Hallelulah! He arose!” shouted Brother Richard and the congregation shouted “Amen!” And I remember the thrilling hymn that began with a rumbling bass line: Low in the grave he lay … I heard those words and the legend of the tomb and the rolling back of the stone, and I imagined Mammoth Cave, the only stone tomb I could fathom.

Last week, my son and I excavated a dusty storage space at a friend’s house where, for about eleven years, a truckload of boxes and bags have sat in the dark. These were my daughter’s things, packed hastily in her teenage bedroom, when I moved from a large house to a smaller one. She had already graduated college and lived far away, but wanted to save everything and here it all was — her Cabbage Patch doll, her stuffed panda, her Sassy magazine collection, school notebooks from second grade on, notes from girlfriends in sixth grade, love letters from high school boyfriends. My son pulled the crumbling boxes from deep inside the storage closet and I dusted and inspected them in the blinding, hot sun. We loaded them in our cars and cleared a storage area for them in our crowded basement, grumbling all the way.

“Does she really want to keep all this stuff?” my son complained. I said we’d just keep it until she could come home and look through it, to see what she wanted to save. She has lived in small apartments in New York City for a decade and has no room for any of it. But my daughter and all of us have become somewhat vigilant about what we keep and what we throw away after losing four loved ones — a brother, a cousin, an aunt, a father — over the last five years.

On our front porch, repacking some of the boxes, I came across a packet of letters my sons had sent their sister when she was abroad in India, Nepal and Tibet her junior year of college, 1997. She had written her brothers the month before about her adventure deep inside one of Nepal’s bat caves.

I unfold the crisp pages with their sweet messages of how much they miss her.

In a lumpy envelope, a note from her brother who died in a very dark place nearly five years ago, written in elegantly slanted sixth grade script. P.S., it says, here is a glow stick in case you get lost.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

7 Responses to The Middle Distance 4/6/12: “I Saw the Light”

  1. Nana Chavez says:

    Oh, Katherine… poignant, elegant and breath-takingly beautiful! Thank you.

  2. Rose Enyeart says:

    Thanks for the look into the dark and light spots that we share of the past.

  3. Libby says:

    Thank you, again, Kathryn, for this beautiful and most touching contribution!

  4. julia says:

    As Janis Joplin says, “take it, take another little piece of my heart.” Love your columns but know I will be sharing your heartbreak. Thank you.

  5. Mark Noble says:

    Thanks Kathryn for reminding me of my own dark places and the light that surrounds them.

  6. HJWithers says:

    Thanks, Kathryn, I can relate to cleaning out. I am a recent empty-nester and sometimes the emotions connected with sorting what to save/keep from over the years makes one feel like they are in a dark cave. I will hold onto the idea of your son’s gift for his sister. Blessings for all that you do for us<3

  7. Tish says:

    Speaking of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’, could you do a Middle Distance on the passing of Thomas Kinkade (i.e. “The Painter of ‘Light’”)? The ‘darkness’, in his case, would be getting buried in the ground, maybe?

News

UPI/Landov
March 4, 2015 | NPR · No telling yet which side will win. But did Justice Kennedy’s mixed signals Wednesday hint that he was leaning toward the administration’s view of federal subsidies for health insurance?
 

AFP/Getty Images
March 4, 2015 | NPR · Despite a minority suspected of holding extremist views, the vast majority of French Muslims say they feel fully integrated into society. France has the largest number of Muslims in Western Europe.
 

March 4, 2015 | NPR · State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the motivation for the attack on Mark Lippert is unknown. The injuries, Harf said, are not life-threatening.
 

Arts & Life

March 4, 2015 | NPR · Tina Fey co-created the quirky comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for Netflix; John Ridley made the emotionally raw drama American Crime for ABC. TV critic David Bianculli says they’re both good.
 

Matt Doyle
March 4, 2015 | NPR · The Web series centers on a pot dealer who bikes around Brooklyn delivering to clients. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair say they drew on their experiences and friends’ generosity to make the show.
 

Fox
March 4, 2015 | NPR · There are certain stories that very few shows can tell without falling on their faces. The Mindy Project may be able to beat those lousy odds.
 

Music

Courtesy of SFJAZZ
March 4, 2015 | WBGO+JAZZ.org · This year, the octet has chosen to salute a tenor sax titan and a long-time San Francisco resident. It plays re-arrangements of Henderson classics along with new original pieces live in concert.
 

March 4, 2015 | SCPR · The district has made progress, but many students are stuck with broken strings, squeaky horns and out-of-tune pianos.
 

Courtesy of the artist
March 4, 2015 | NPR · Ancient tribal techno meets The Blair Witch Project in the eeriest music video of 2015 so far.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab