Magic in the dark

We went down to the south side to meet him for dinner. Curried potatoes, peas, and paneer formed miniature mountains on our disposable plates. An army of little plastic cups huddled nearby, all filled with green chutney and tamarind sauce that was never quite spicy enough. After eating and talking, the three of us walked west and turned into Nichols Park where the crickets’ song outplayed the honking horns on 53rd Street. I marveled at how tall the trees has grown, and smiled when he told us he could never imagine living anywhere else in the city, that Hyde Park’s glut of green had set an unmatchable standard. The heavy curtain of dusk began to fall as I pointed out familiar plants in raised beds – the day’s light draining faster and faster, until in some corners, it got too dark to even tell the leaves apart. He stood back a ways, gazing out past the warm streetlights and the cool glow of the early evening moon. He stared directly into the densest part of the park, where the darkest greens had turned all the way to black.

Twilight through silhouetted trees, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Those that know me personally know that magic is one of my core values. I believe in it. Not necessarily because I’ve experienced it first hand (though I have), but because I don’t want to live in a world where magic isn’t possible. So I choose to believe. Some days the tricks feel clumsy and poorly executed, begging to be picked apart. Some days the leap of faith is impossible to clear, and I feel firmly tethered to the ground, by the weight of realism, pessimism, the gravitational pull. But even still, even knowing how challenging believing is, I work hard to rekindle the magic, to cut the ties that hold me down, and lift off.

At the end of last month, in an instant, I lost magic completely. The unexpected news: a good friend had suddenly died. A friend whose wit and generosity were unmatched. A friend who was gentle and sweet and weird and wonderful. A friend who shared love and was loved, fiercely, by so many. The shock of the news threw me outside of myself in a way I never could have imagined. The swirling cyclone of regular deadlines, errands, and need-to-do’s, slowed and eventually withered away. None of it mattered. My body felt stretched to its limit, bulging with the bulk of this new reality, struggling to contain the questions, and the tears.

The grief that followed — the psychological, emotional, and physical pain — was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It followed me everywhere and rushed over me in fickle intervals, flattening me without warning, wrapping me up in guilt and regret. Memories that would have made me smile days before now felt sharp or shapeless. My deep yearning for understanding pooled in my throat. But the answers never came.

As adults, we’re groomed to believe that facts are what matter and that everything has an explanation. So when we’re faced with a situation that is truly inexplicable, we prod and push at it, pounding it down into a more recognizable form. I thought about how often I’ve demanded answers, proof – how often I’ve felt entitled to clarity and certainty. How often I’ve focused on these bits of data instead of remembering that sometimes, often, there simply are no answers. In magic, it’s easy to shriek, “How’d you do that!?” or push aside the curtain and research the secret behind a trick. It’s not as easy to witness a mystery, and accept it just as it is. And I don’t know of any mystery more opaque, more complete, than death.

I have lost a friend. His partner has lost hers. His sister has lost her brother. His parents, their son. Magic can’t begin to ease that kind of pain. But over the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that learning to accept the unknown is its own sort of magic trick. Uncertainty bears a jagged edge, but on the other side, there’s a softness not felt or witnessed by many. There’s comfort in the darkness. There, we can let ourselves wonder wildly – our belief in what’s possible, ever-expanding. There, we can catch glimpses of what used to be, and who used to be there. Or who may be there still, floating among the shadows.

That night in Nichols Park, I foolishly thought I knew what the future held. Even as the evening grew dim, I fixated on the coming of the next day and the return of the sun. But now, I anticipate the arrival of that murky gradient on the horizon. I lean back and look up as the clouds retreat into deeper and deeper shadow, until finally, twilight drifts away, and I can wrap myself in the magic of the black night sky.

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