Tell the truth but tell it slant.—Emily Dickinson
A few weeks ago, about an hour after sunrise, I took a walk through the woods. The air was crisp and the only sounds were of my footsteps crushing the occasional acorn and the breeze blowing the leaves of the trees. Ethereal light ribboned the trunks of the elms, maples, and birches.
Ever the old literature teacher, a line from an Emily Dickinson popped into my head: “There’s a certain slant of light.” When I got home and looked up the poem, however, I found that she was describing light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes—”
For me, the September slant of light lifts, like the lightness of a Celtic harp.
Why Celtic? Probably because I hear one when I think of the Scottish island of Iona, the most spiritual place I’ve ever visited— in large part because the light there seems to shimmer, casting heather-covered rocks in an unearthly glow. I’m also uplifted by sunlight through trees, whether it’s here in the woods behind my house, or through towering redwoods in California or the gnarled maple trees over my family’s cemetery plot. And ever since I was a kid going to church with my parents, light shining through stained glass has always lifted me into another reality.
Light figures heavily in my Christian faith. “Let there be light,” God says in the first chapter of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Praise the Lord, I saw the light,” sings Hank Williams.
But the light I love, I realize, is indirect or diffused light. Direct light, whether it’s the sun beating down overhead in Israel or the Arizona desert or overhead lights—especially those damned florescent things—is both physically and emotionally painful, especially after my cataract surgery.
I can’t think about light without thinking about the work of Edward Hopper. For me, his slants of light are what turn his paintings into stained glass windows into another—deeper— reality. One of my favorites is “Rooms by the Sea.”
Hopper once wrote: “All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a wall.” In this painting, trapezoids of sunlight on two of these walls illuminate what I see as liminal space between the sea and what appears to me to be a living room. I note that this space takes up more area in the painting than either the sea or the furnished room. I chuckle at the irony of a light switch highlighted by sunlight. Seeing no visible steps between the doorway and the ocean, I feel both linked to and separated from the natural world and the domestic world, with these two shafts of light as my connection. Perhaps because there are no people in this painting, I find myself pulled into the little rooms of my mind, with those two slants of light becoming my moments of occasional insight into a larger world.
You may have a different slant on the painting, which gets me to the secondary meaning of the word: “to have or be influenced by a subjective point of view, bias, personal feeling or inclination, etc. (usually followed by toward).” The word “bias” sounds negative, but for me, whether it’s in painting or music or writing, it’s the slant that produces shafts of illumination what I need to light my way on my pilgrimage. Otherwise, just as direct sunlight can give me a headache, too much information can be overwhelming. In both cases, I can’t distinguish between blemishes and blossoms, imperfections and purity.
Which is why I prefer essays and memoirs to journalism and biography: the writer’s slant is more important than the writer’s subject. I’m learning about the author, his or her encounters with memory, not about the subject or what the author did. I know people who don’t like memoir because they feel the authors are solipsistic, self-absorbed. For me, the less successful writers of memoir are not self-absorbed—or I would say, self-aware—enough. They focus on the writer’s accomplishments or their suffering without going into who their accomplishments or suffering have made them to be. One of the paradoxes of art, it seems to me, is that the more deeply artists explore themselves—their slants, if you will—the more universal their work becomes.
Of course, slants of light change. The trees I’m looking at outside my window as I write this in October are different from the trees I saw on my walk a few weeks ago: the ribbons of light are gone; the tree trunks are entirely in shadow.
I think of how my own slants on things have changed over time. Up until a year or two ago, I used to spend hours watching sports on television. While I can still root for my New England teams, I can no longer watch them on TV. My slant on the games themselves (especially basketball), the politics of sports (especially football), and the commercialism of sports (especially all of them) have driven me—literally—to minor league, college, or high school sports events.
My slant on God changes daily, even hourly.
My twelve-step programs are helping me change my emotional slant on life from anxiety to curiosity, from judgmentalism to acceptance, from pontificating to listening. My Feldenkrais exercises help me change my slant on my back pain, so that I no longer awfulize about every twinge, accept the discomfort, and try to be curious about ways in which I can adapt the exercises to my crooked, aging bones.
Pointing out to me that just as direct sunlight can be too much information; the same slant will eventually become old. Yes, the ribbons of September light on the tree trunks are gone, but now I get to see the October light on the leaves as they change color.
I even enjoy that slant of winter light Emily Dickinson found oppressive: to me, the long shadows of the trees on the snow look like Japanese calligraphy.
So whether it’s the writer’s slant on memories, or the visual artist’s slant of light on the canvas, the slant of sunrise on the Saguaro cactus in Arizona promising new possibilities, the slant of sunset off the Florida Gulf offering peace at the last, or the slant of autumn sunlight through the trees outside my window, I am—excuse the pun—both lightened and enlightened by these slants of reality.
One thought on “September Slant”
I really love this reflective piece, Rick. You let us walk in those woods with you, see the light, sit by your window, watch the trees change, soak in the atmosphere of Hopper’s rooms, ponder the realities and changes with you….
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