A Streetlight

At once sarcastic and tender, W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” offers a night sky empty of stars:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
—”The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden, 1957

I might very well like a starless sky and call it sublime or subtle in its black-on-black nuance, the poet states, and I do not mourn the sight of a supernova, which is after all the explosive death of a star, and I may not notice the absence of one should it simply blink out, but in all matters, “If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.” In all matters attracting my human attention, be it the night sky or my partner’s dimples, let the more loving one be me.

* * * *
I did not know how much I love color as a perceptual reality until my spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) became symptomatic and walking became something that I had to concentrate on while doing.

At night, I started to experience something called “freezing of gait,” which I would also sometimes experience upon coming to a door. I understand it now, but for a couple of years, I experienced terror, simply because I did not understand what was happening. For most of us, walking is partly an improvisation in which the brain perceives differences in the environment—the room on the other side of the doorway, a nearby divot in the field, a slope—and reacts quickly, without thought. The walker changes course, or almost stumbles and pops back up, or stumbles and gets back up. The feet adjust.

The walker with a neuromuscular condition such as an ataxia or a spinal cord injury or SMA has to “think” his or her walking; it is a process of planning a step and executing it and then repeating it, starting with the thought. Each stride has at least two parts to it, and one of them is conscious thought. “Leg: Move.” All of the information the world presents to a “normal” walker with good eyesight is processed silently and rapidly, and the walker walks. When I was first affected by SMA, all of the same information threw me into a freezing of gait response: every doorway to the outdoors presented me with too much information; the world of the outdoors at night was worse with its absence of information. It was a living nightmare and at least now I usually have such nightmares only when asleep.

The night, though. Every so often I still have the freezing moments: at night, with its gift of the absence of color, that huge absence of information. Streetlights cast shadows that appear as chasms, and then my oh-so-ginger step across reveals a half-inch drop. An actual dangerous break in a sidewalk, but a well-illuminated one, may look flat and safe and result in a fall.

It is the nighttime’s lack of color, color which the brain uses to notice spots at which I need to make changes about my next step, that freeze me. I thought I was alone in this, but I am not; “freezing of gait” is not my expression and is a common phrase—when I first read it, I almost cried because I recognized the description and I finally knew I was not alone.

The idea in Auden’s poem probably meant little to me when I first read it years ago. A starless sky? Okay, I can imagine that. But other than the word “Love” in the title, how is this a love poem? “Let me be the more loved,” could have been my personal motto. Give me more presents than I give you and let’s call today good. Love something that can not love me back? I never owned a pet rock. “Let the more loving one be me”? Pshaw.

Blue does not know it is “blue,” and green does not know how many examples and variations it offers. They need perceivers, and that simple fact of perception is Auden’s “love”; for me, I love the varieties of shades and nuances of color, and so do my so-far unbroken legs and arms. I love my girlfriend’s dimples, too.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 26 asks, “Imagine we lived in a world that’s all of a sudden devoid of color, but where you’re given the option to have just one object keep its original hue. Which object (and which color) would that be?”

* * * *
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  1. lifelessons · October 26, 2014

    You give a whole new relevance to this prompt, Mark. As usual, a wonderful and insightful response. Judy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wscottling · October 26, 2014

    That was pretty deep. Thanks for sharing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Leigh W. Smith · October 26, 2014

    Great poem and a thoughtful, heart-rending response, Mark. Thank you for letting us peer into your world like this–it sometimes feels invasive (I hope it doesn’t feel that way to you), but I think people benefit from getting even unpleasant information about illness or grief or other of life’s perceived “negatives” from someone remarkable who has lived in that space or still is there. And then, the happy story ending, complete with dimples. Nice!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. abodyofhope · October 27, 2014

    I had never read that poem before. Nor had I ever heard walking described by someone with SMA.
    Thank you for opening doors on new knowledge for myself and your readers. I hope you decide to share more about your journey with SMA in the future as well. I will be sharing this today.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dixie · October 27, 2014

    A tree with leaves of green. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. thereluctantbaptist · October 27, 2014

    What a beautiful and poignant response to the prompt. The human body and brain are so marvelously intricate. Thank you for helping me appreciate that. I have had a few neurological episodes in which I had to sit and think about how to stand up and walk – autopilot would go out for awhile. Thankfully those episodes have been few. I am sorry yours are not. Saying a prayer for you. And let the more loving one be me, too.


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