Journal Archive

In Search of Night

"Night Mood" - excerpt from watercolor © Michael Gambino 2007Where I grew up, there was no real nightfall. Towering overhead, ten thousand street lights stood watch over the urban population. They were silent and steadfast guardians holding back the darkness, dissolving it wherever their noble gas and sodium oxide-generated light touched it. As the sun sank behind blocky, man-made horizons, and the wash of indigo flowed across the twilight sky, the guardians blinked to attention to meet approaching night. Should one of these blazing sentinels die a flickering death, darkness pressed its advantage there. This was an urban warfare of sorts, waged block by block, night after night.

When I was very young, my understanding of night and darkness was limited. Night was simply a waiting period before getting on with the business of the day once again. I could see only a few of the brightest stars or planets, and the impact of the full Moon’s brilliance was rendered inconsequential. Losing the potency of night – its magic and mystery – was the price we paid for living inside the great protective dome of electric light. 

Years later, as a teenager still essentially cut off from an experience of true night, I began to feel a strong desire to hunt for its secrets, to experience its hidden qualities. It wasn’t long after that realization that I was compelled to embark on the first of many nighttime quests. I slipped out of the house after midnight and began moving through empty streets. I soon began to see the urban landscape as if it were only composed of shadow and light. Various shadow shapes were cast about in abstract patterns, some long, some blocky, and I used these paths to cloak my presence.

To my surprise, I discovered that I was not alone on these alternative pathways through the night. I encountered cats, mice, roosting birds, crickets and other insects, rats, and a host of hidden objects to trip over. When my mind conjured up frightful interpretations of unfamiliar shapes, my heart thundered so loudly that I thought someone would surely hear it. Fortunately, most of the time I just savored the thrill of exploring the fragmented spaces and empty lots where night held its ground. 

"Urban Night Light" © Michael GambinoOn successive quests, I was drawn beyond the boundary of the light shield. I headed for the peace and darkness of the cemetery across the expressway in front of my house. It seemed an ideal place to find the dark of night, since there were no lamp posts, and the ambient light of the urban landscape did not penetrate as much. I climbed a tree that reached over the iron fence and dropped to the ground inside the cemetery. As I moved silently along the cemetery pathways, I discovered that after a short while my eyes adjusted to the dark and I could see better. 

Inscriptions on the grave stones were faint, but still legible, and the occasional owl or skunk sighting was a grand event. Being in the cemetery did not feel creepy or weird. I was there to seek wisdom and solitude, and so this –  the final resting place of  many who had departed the physical world for new adventures in spirit – seemed a fitting place for me to contemplate my own spiritual nature.

When I would retrace parts of my nighttime journey through the neighborhood by the light of day, I was surprised at how unremarkable the urban terrain really was without the stillness, shadows, and mystery. By day people went about their appointed tasks, oblivious to the night world that existed on these very same streets, sidewalks, and patches of lawn. Traffic filled the roads, and the night creatures I had encountered had seemingly vanished along with the mists of dawn. The difference between the worlds of night and day astounded me. I felt confined by the routine of an ordinary reality – that choreographed interplay of people, places, and things. Nature as a living mosaic of primal  energy seemed largely ignored, subjugated by the metal mind of society with its heavy investment in the mostly predictable acts of daily living. 

While in my early twenties, I still longed for an experience of true night without the seemingly inescapable light pollution from cities and towns, and so I boarded a Greyhound bus heading north. My destination was a ten-acre piece of land in upstate New York that my brother-in-law’s family owned. The rural, undeveloped property ensured that I would not have to contend with ambient light, sirens, the constant hum of transformers on utility poles, and the headlights of cars and trucks. I would find the night sky once and for all, and discover what creatures owned the night.

Arriving by late afternoon, I shouldered my over-stuffed backpack and hiked a few miles from the bus depot to the ten-acre woods. Finding a suitable location, I set up my campsite and briefly explored the area. After cooking a simple meal, I simply sat quietly and awaited the sunset, watching and feeling the natural world transition from day to night. Amazingly, when the sun went down, it began to get dark – really dark. I was excited and a bit nervous now, since I was not in familiar territory. Still, I resisted the temptation to build a fire against the growing darkness. Instead, I just sat still for a long time, expanding my senses out into the surrounding landscape, witnessing it come alive. There were many insect sounds and rhythms surrounding me now, and the snapping of twigs and scuffling of crunchy dry leaves told of other lives out there in the dark, searching, meeting. . . and eating.

Walking to the open field, I looked up into the star-filled sky and smiled in awe. I tried to find the Big Dipper, or Orion – the only constellations I could recognize in my old neighborhood sky, but they were lost to me in the spray of celestial diamonds. A shooting star caught my eye, and I made a wish. A short while later, I found myself stealing glances over my shoulder at the absolutely dark wall of trees that marked the edge of the clearing. Part of me hesitated because, well, it was just so dark in there. When suddenly, a pair of leathery wings beat past my face, I took that to mean I’d better get going, and so without further delay I entered the night world of the forest.

Moving slowly and without a flashlight, I began to explore the dark and unfamiliar landscape. It was not long before my body realized it had to move differently than in daylight. It was easy to lose my balance unless I crouched with knees bent. Often I crawled along the ground, learning to see with my hands and knees. I felt myself become like a fox, moving carefully and quietly, pausing often to expand my awareness out into the forest. I found that by very gradually compressing the debris on the forest floor with hands and knees, I could minimize or eliminate the typical crunching, snapping, thudding sounds that would alert animals to my presence. 

After a while of doing this, I began to notice a shift in my perception, and a feeling that I had passed some unseen threshold and was now becoming part of the woods. Deeper I sank into this quality of awareness, until I began to sense the presence of a separate reality that seemed connected to the physical world around me, yet was more than simply a reflection of it. As this feeling grew more palpable, it was as though I could reach out into the dark of night and touch the veil that marked the boundary between the physical world and the world of spirit. Something was drawing me closer to that veil, and while I was nervous, I wanted to be closer still. I hungered for adventure and to touch that mystery so near, and yet so far away.

At one point during my wandering, I heard very faint drumming and what sounded like Native American voices that confounded my logical mind. I caught glimpses of what seemed like small pale glowing blobs of light scampering or walking through the woods ahead of me. These events caused me to be hyper-aware, and my senses reached out as far as I could push them into the dark.  I sensed no danger, so I continued on slowly and silently. Moving intuitively with no schedule to keep, I obeyed simple commands: turn here, pause there, smell this, touch that. This was pure freedom.

Textures and shapes of the rocky outcroppings spoke to my mind through my fingertips, telling tales of the staggering power of glaciation some 13,000 years earlier. Moist areas of soil and the gently rolling topography created in my mind a picture of the of the flow of rainwater over the landscape. Placement of spider webs that I found (often with my face) indicated subtle air currents that might be used by insects. Owl calls originating from various directions told me that there were enough rodents in the field and forest to provide good hunting for several owls. Rodents would be abundant because of the wealth of seeds and nuts produced by the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees and shrubs. The accumulated heat of the summer day captured by rock and soil now radiated back up into the starry sky. Pockets of warm and cool air that changed with variation in topography and vegetation added to the three-dimensional map taking shape in my mind.

Deep into the night, crawling silently forward along a fern and moss covered ledge, I was suddenly struck by an urgent, silent command to STOP. I obeyed instantly, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. After a few moments without further evidence or warning, I began to think the command was a false alarm. I was about to resume my travel when there came a very loud and incredulous snorting and stomping from the ledge just a few inches above my head. I froze, my face to the ground as a large deer leapt over me and crashed through the forest, shattering the silence as it thundered away. As you might imagine, it was a while before I composed myself enough to continue, making my way back to camp and to a well-earned, dream-filled slumber.

The magical quality of the night had revealed itself to me, and at last I experienced what I had been yearning for during my youth as a prisoner of the urban light shield: the night, as it was meant to be.

It has been many years since that night quest, and I have since learned much about the workings of nature and spirit. My search for night was really the beginning of a search for something deeper. The experience of night away from the heavy influence of humankind can lead to a greater sense of self and a sense of our place in the world. The biggest obstacle standing between us and a deeper relationship with nature exists in our minds. The powerful distractions generated by society deceive our senses and alter our perception. Such distractions create the illusion that we are somehow apart and exempt from the laws and processes of nature that govern life on earth. What waits for us in the primal night is truth. Our illusions and delusions about reality are challenged, and therein lies a reason many fear the darkness. More than any wild creature moving unseen in the night, it is perhaps our own self that we are afraid to encounter.


Author’s Note:

I do my best to pick and choose my words extremely carefully when crafting a story. The vibration of each word, the colors, tones, and mood, whether singly or as part of a sentence, is critical for conveying experience. There is a deliberate often lyrical quality created when the words are put together this way. Changing even one word, especially one on which a climactic moment pivots, is like smashing pottery. Modern publishing tools such as auto-correct, auto-fill, spell-check and so on can sometimes muck things up for the writer – or the editor if they are not fully attentive. 

This is the original and correct version of the story as it was submitted for publishing. A very slightly (but mistakenly and critically flawed) version was previously published in the Spring 2013 edition of “Balanced Rock: The North Salem Review of Art, Photography, and Literature”, a publication of the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, North Salem, New York.” 


Addendum No. 1 to “In Search of Night”

In spring, the rich fragrances from wildflowers, fresh green foliage, and thawed soil dance on ribbons of night mists that curl slowly, floating throughout the forest. Insects become active again and follow these fragrances to find sustenance. Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers sing in the distance, revealing the location of vernal ponds hidden in the dark. It is a glorious awakening of the land, free now from winter’s frozen embrace. New life springs forth from cold death and rot.

During summer night walks, you can hear frogs, katydids, beetles and other insects announcing themselves to potential mates. The collective symphony of sound is nothing short of trance-inducing, and at times nearly deafening. On quieter summer evenings, Great Horned, Barred, and Screech Owls can be heard calling out across the landscape. Coyotes whoop it up with a primal exuberance that is thrilling to behold. Warm humid air carrying the mixture of wild scents simmered together during the heat of the day enhances the exhilarating experience of being surrounded by night. Growth, passion for life, and physical prowess are the dominant themes expressed in summer.

The autumn night walk has a cool, electric energy. It is a season of transformation and of completion. The sounds of insects begin to diminish. Only the hardiest of them continue to sing on cool evenings as their life cycle approaches resolution. The location of nocturnal mammals, while mostly unseen, is revealed by the sound of freshly fallen leaves that crunch beneath hoof and paw. Faint scratching sounds in short bursts tell of mice and shrew activity, while louder, but still delicate crunching and snapping sounds indicate deer are moving about. It is a season of completion, celebration, and preparedness.

Winter is perhaps the most spiritually potent time to be outside in the dark. It is nature’s time of inward focus and conservation of resources for a far off season. The haunting rattle of plant skeletons in the wind and the creaking of leafless trees on bitter cold nights emphasize the one aspect of life that we don’t really like to dwell on: death. In contrast to the vitality of a summer evening, a winter night wrapped in a blanket of snow can offer an experience of true stillness, and reminds us of the importance of quietude in our lives, and that all things must experience some form of death before rebirth can occur.

The greater portion of our journey through life is wrapped in profound mysteries. Early man had no science, no math, no formal training in logic, yet he knew how to live. I can’t help but feel connected to our ancient ancestors whenever I sit in the woods at night, knowing they too faced the darkness, wondering about the mysteries of the world around them. Paleolithic hunters knew that the darkness held great potency. They entered the darkest recess of certain caves to seek aid and healing from the spirit world. Guided by an inner sense not squelched by an overly rational mind, our ancestors knew a great many things about the stars and the ways of plants and animals and the rhythms of the earth. They had no science, but they did have direct experiences with the forces of nature and thus learned deeply from them. For all our knowledge today, have we any more wisdom than our early ancestors? Wisdom must be quested for and the seeds of vision cultivated. It cannot be accumulated the way information and facts can. The earth, ancient and wise, can illuminate our journey towards wisdom – if we will listen with our hearts wide-open.

What began so long ago as a search for an experience of true night was really the start of my journey towards wisdom, towards a deeper connection to that part of life that is unseen and eternal.


Addendum No. 2 to “In Search of Night”

Paleolithic man knew that the darkness held great potency, and so in many places around the world caves were used for sacred communion with the spirit world. Paintings recorded deep in these cave systems throughout the world can be interpreted in different ways perhaps, but clearly there is clearly some acknowledgement of the unseen and eternal forces that influenced their lives. Whether for gaining favor and protection during an upcoming hunt, or for undergoing rites of passage by adolescent Cro-Magnon boys – the darkness of the cave facilitated journeys and communications to and from the realm of spirit.

Once, I had the opportunity to enter a modest cave alone. I did not get very far before it became impressed upon my being that I was truly inside the earth, surrounded by a great many tons of rock and soil, and in absolute blackness. There was not a single photon of sunlight for my eyes to record. The silence there was so deep as to seemingly pull the noise and chatter of my mind right out through my ears in a kind of “reverse listening”.  With my headlamp turned off, I sat motionless on a rock for a long while in this profound solitude and stillness. I could hear the blood in my veins, and the flow of my breath. I could feel a powerful shift in my consciousness, as though I was being drawn out and away from ordinary reality. I got a bit nervous because this was so overwhelming and spontaneous, and I wondered if I might get ”lost” for good if I let go completely. Trusting this process and the Creator, I chose to surrender to the moment and in an instant transcended my sense of the present time and space. I vividly experienced floating and tumbling about in a great, primordial void. No up, no down, no sound, no light, no breeze – just a hint of chill to the space, though I sensed it from a place outside of my body. In time, certain images appeared that were symbolic to me, though seemingly irrational or incomplete. I do not know how long this experience lasted, but it felt like quite a long journey. 

My connection to the physical realm – my body and the cave – was re-established by the mild discomfort from sitting on the rock for an extended period. This discomfort eventually drew me back to ordinary consciousness and the density of my physical form. I was so disoriented upon my return that if I had tried to stand up at that moment I am certain I’d have fallen on my face. It took me a minute or two of talking aloud to myself and fidgeting around to ground myself and remember where I was.

Reaching other levels of consciousness without ingesting some sort of substance is not all that difficult, but sometimes making sense of what is experienced can be – especially to the logical mind. The greater portion of our journey through life is wrapped in profound mysteries, and even our vast, accumulated knowledge of things is small by comparison. Early man had no science, no math, no formal training in logic, yet he knew how to live (not simply “survive”). Guided by an inner sense not squelched by an overly rational mind, our ancient ancestors knew a great deal about the stars and the ways of plants and animals and the earth. For all our knowledge today, have we any more wisdom than our early ancestors? A quick look at today’s headlines provides that answer.

It is wisdom that helps us to live within the mystery of life. It is wisdom that helps us in dark times and places. We should seek to cultivate wisdom, for it cannot be accumulated the way information and facts can. The earth, ancient and wise, can still show us the way, if we will listen.


Spiritual Unrest  

"Spiritual Unrest # 1" © Michael Gambino 2013It is tempting to try and explain the pervasive, uneasy feeling that many of us sense as simply a function of general economic, political, or global conditions just because such conditions have always plagued humankind. While these may be contributing factors, the unrest of our time that I refer to flows like an invisible undercurrent, settling low like a heavy vapor that does not dissipate. Our deep, internal awareness knows it exists, and that is why, even though we might rationalize our feeling or attribute it to various known causes, this spiritual unrest does not go away. 

There is some force at work behind the increase in both quantity and frequency of murder-suicides, the random acts of violence committed just for the thrill of it, the hostage-taking, the mass murder of school children, terrorist acts like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings, and just today the deadly mass-shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. There are many more horrors taking place that don’t make it to the evening news or the front page. It is easy to label such actions as simply crazy, random events by twisted individuals, or that it has always been the way of the world that bad things happen. War, pestilence, atrocities, starvation, disease, and disasters have been part of mankind’s story since ancient times. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others condense many thousands of years into stories of dark ages, civil wars, political folly, conquest of nations, civilizations collapsing and their populations vanishing. So it is easy to disregard what is happening in our present day as sort of “business as usual”. It is also easy to become unfazed by such horrors (especially as they increase in frequency), slowly growing apathetic to the reality.

This shadow presence that I sense spreading in the world manifests in small, rural communities as well as large cities and war-torn countries. It is the dark side and it hungrily moves about, sniffing for opportunities to infect the hearts and minds, and indeed the souls of susceptible individuals that it can use as tools and weapons to destroy life anywhere it can. Pop-culture has often expressed dark threats and undercurrents through books and movies such as psychotic, sadistic villains like Batman’s enemy the Joker, multi-national terrorists, Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, and of course the zombie apocalypse theme. I believe that the reason for the success and proliferation of these stories and this pop-culture fascination with darkness and evil is that we all sense this spiritual unrest of which I speak. These stories are the manner in which society brings itself to cautiously look at the darkness. They are a way to explore our place in the story as well.

There. . . you see what I mean? This is why I have not published much lately. Who really wants to read this sort of thing? I certainly have resisted writing about it. We prefer the colorful butterflies of spring, and the lovely wildflowers, beautiful landscapes, tranquil ponds, and the sweet awkwardness of baby animals to brighten our day, and steer our minds away from the uneasy feeling many of us have, but prefer not to speak of. We need those beautiful scenes of nature, and of life’s simple goodness to remind us what is at stake if we do nothing to counter the darkness. We cannot ignore the dangers that are growing daily, or shrug off the horrors of the world as someone else’s problem. Things are happening closer and closer to home, and we need to remain very aware each day. Most people choose to focus on the light and the positive life-affirming qualities since that is what we desire to grow in our world. This is how it should be, yet this does not mean that the dark side does not exist.

So what I write about at the moment may be a dark, uneasy topic, but I feel there is a risk in being unwilling to take a good hard look at it. Yes, this requires a certain amount of courage to do. Throughout history the world has seen dark ages, but not the likes of which we see today. Something is different this time. The world is so far out of balance, and the earth so abused that it is overdue for a game-changing correction. It is in fact already occurring and the pace accelerating. In truth, what concerns me most are not natural disasters, which are terrifying in their own right, but rather those people infected by the dark side who carry out unspeakable, random acts of death and destruction with no known motive. No pattern to track, no place completely safe.

With this in mind, please stay very aware of your surroundings wherever you go, and pay attention to the non-entertainment variety of news, and look deeper than the cursory treatment that many news items get. No, it is not a pleasant pursuit. Remember to trust your gut feelings and observe them closely. People depend on you, so be actively aware for their sake as well as your own.

Despite our crazy schedules, do not be too distracted or busy to take care of one another. In whatever way you do so, please pray every day for each other, the earth, and for those suffering across the country or across the globe. Your love makes all the difference in the world.


Writing as Medicine

After my last post, “Writing in the Dark”, I reviewed the various themes, stories, energies, and tones I had been working on for months, trying to bring at least some to completion for posting here. With so many, sorting, editing, and trying to finish them became its own sneaky distraction that seemingly kept me from actually moving forward. However, I finally realized that all of those pieces I had been working on were essential ingredients needed for this next stage of the journey, though none of them were able to stand alone very well. They were not meant to, as it turns out, because individually they would not completely convey what my heart and soul needed to express. To me, writing is often like a medicine made of many herbs selected in proper proportion and tinctured precisely to achieve potency. Experiences in life often need to be gathered carefully, lovingly, respectfully, and in their own season before being added to the mixture. Then these elements must blend and infuse over a period of time before they yield just the right healing and inspirational elixir.

Some medicine is bitter to take, but it often draws out the deeper poisons of body, mind, spirit, and emotions. This ultimately permits a clearer and brighter light to shine through us out into the world. In some ways, writing about (and reading) “bitter” or unpleasant things is similar. It can break up stagnant thoughts or beliefs, stimulate emotional flow, purge impurities that might be clouding our minds, and it can result in a strengthening our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fortitude. If we can get past the bitter taste, and endure the uncomfortable sensations we feel after taking the medicine, we will be better for it.

Passage into new realms of consciousness and awareness often requires a sacrifice of some kind. We must give up something of ourselves, be it comfort, an idea, personal desires, an old belief, an attachment to something, a way of being, a notion of the world, or even who we think we are, in order to follow our path. While some sacrifices in life may appear to be forced upon us, we eventually learn to trust the process of life and trust our path, looking for the opportunities that are ultimately revealed. It is not always easy or pleasant, but we can ride the energy sweeping us across some new threshold by listening to who we are called to be – and who is calling us. As difficult as it may feel at times, life happens for us, not against us.


Writing in the Dark

Writing has always been a spiritual practice for me. I enjoy the process of writing, even though it is not necessarily an easy one for me. Though I would prefer it to be so, there is no guarantee that I can produce something on demand, or on any kind of schedule.

Those of you who have followed my journey of writing here may have noticed a shift in both content and frequency of the articles posted here. As I have said before, this is not due to lack of interest in writing, or a lack of ideas and topics to explore. Instead, it is just that the themes and information that are working their way through me currently are a bit unsettling and not very cheerful. 

Much of the writing I have been working on since February has not yet come together in a coherent form, and so cannot be published yet. Other pieces I have worked on were more like exploratory sketches. Still there are other pieces that I have been reluctant to publish out of my concern that people might not understand why I am “suddenly” writing along themes that are decidedly more troubling. Compounding this reluctance, I have not wanted to risk alienating the regular visitors to my website who came to it for the beautiful insights and images of nature’s wondrous spirit. What I am coming to understand now is that to hold back or resist this phase of the journey is to be stuck on the road, unable to move forward.

"Into the Forest" © Michael Gambino 2013For me, writing has always been about sharing what is in my heart and soul, and what I’ve written so far has been mostly appealing and inspirational. It has been light-filled and colorful. Yet I have been reluctant to share the rawness, the darker themes stirring at the edge of the light as they await their turn on the page. I guess I was hoping to take the dark and make it light, but in doing so, I would not be honoring its true nature and energy. All aspects of life, whether cheerful or frightening, offer teachings and opportunities for growth and enlightenment. Not all that is dark is evil. Creativity emerges not from the well-lit and familiar, but from the dark unknown places within us.

I have been camped on the edge of this particularly dark forest for a long time, awaiting guidance on the right time to continue my journey and enter that forest. Fear of losing my way has caused me to hesitate. Also, I have not wanted to chase away the audience drawn to my writing for the beautiful insights and images of nature’s wondrous spirit. What awaits me (and you the reader) on those shadowy pathways remains hidden for now. Perhaps once my sight adjusts to the darkness I'll see there is also light, and it will not be as forbidding as it seems to me at the present moment. Time will tell.

The truth is, this is a test of faith. I believe that the Creator has guided me to this moment, and I am meant to go forward now. There is no point in hesitating any longer, so I have chosen to break camp and shoulder my pack in preparation for crossing the threshold into those dark woods. If you choose to follow, pay attention, be brave, bring your faith, and hold your lantern high.


Being Prepared for Emergencies

Yes, I am still here! Though I have not added much to this website in recent months, it is not due to a lack of interest in writing. I have been at work writing a guide to help family and friends begin to seriously start preparing for emergencies. This is something I had sort of been avoiding for a while, but I feel I can delay no longer. The writing of it has taken a long time – and I started it way before Hurricane Sandy was even on the radar.

Most people I know do not have much of anything prepared in case of an emergency that extends beyond a few days without electricity. Naturally, many people do not want to think about such things because life is already a challenge, and it can be confusing knowing where to begin. This is why I wrote this quick-start guide to assist people in getting prepared. 

The guide has a simple overview of survival priorities and descriptions of various emergency kits you should assemble, and there is something in it for people of nearly all levels of experience in this sort of planning. It includes item lists for each type of kit to help you get started quicker. I've provided links to websites for suggested products and emergency gear. I am not endorsing or selling any of these products, but present them as a starting point for researching your own choices and purchases. This version of the guide is not a survival manual, per se, because that would take many more pages to cover survival strategies and skills. The primary goal for this version of the guide is not to try to cover everything from A to Z, but rather it is to motivate people to move into action as soon as possible on preparing for emergencies by assembling their emergency kits and plan. I wanted to get it out to family and friends and those on my mailing list ASAP, so everyone can download this version of the guide for free at this time. An expanded version will be forthcoming and made available for a small fee.

Keep in mind that there are other types of emergencies to prepare for that don't give us advance warning the way storms do. I hope that you will take the time to read this guide and implement some sort of preparation for yourself and your family if you have not already done so.

Click here to read "Being Prepared for Emergencies: Getting Started". You can download the file and print it.