Alone together in the dark…

Alone together in the dark this Yuletide (in loving memory of Otis [AKA Bunkie])

Lately in my musings over Christmas, I found myself on the road with Charlie Brown moving into the darkness of Russell’s Corners in Woodstock, NY. Having never been to Woodstock, nor able physically to stand beside a cartoon character, I figure I may already have lost you. So let me fill in the blanks. I know Russell’s Corners only through a few paintings of that specific spot in paintings by George Ault, but when I first saw August Night at Russell’s Corners (you can go see this and other works of Ault’s at http://tiny.cc/8xzpp  — the five pieces shown are, in order Daylight at Russell’s Corners, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, Black Night at Russell’s Corners, August Night at Russell’s Corners and January, Full Moon) at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, NE some dozen years ago, I somehow knew that Russell’s Corners had always been part of my psychic makeup, and though I don’t live my life in that dark place, barely lit by a single light at the bend in the road, it’s always been there in my mind.
At times when I reflect on that beautiful and somewhat unsettling painting, I feel tremendous loneliness; at other times, I am amazed by the amazing transformation of the daytime world by the darkness of night which seems so much darker for the intermittent light. Standing before that painting (and to a lesser extent before Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, which looks at the same corner from a different angle, and with better lighting), I find myself having a liminal experience, as if on the edge of some other world, being here, but with a strong sense of a world beyond. Making the familiar strange is something that Ault does exceptionally well. He also captures the profound loneliness of living in the world, casting the viewer as sentient observer of a material, but insensate world.
A Charlie Brown Christmas evoked a similar feeling for me when I was 9, many years before I first encountered Ault, or even Woodstock. There is a scene (about 16 min. into the show) where Charlie Brown and Linus head into town to buy a Christmas tree. When I first saw the show in 1965 at Brendan McHugh’s house, I was amazed (like so many others) by many scenes in the show, by the opening skating scene, by the bizarre dancing to “Lucy and Linus,” and by other scenes as well; the scene that really clicked with my inner psyche, though, was the scene (lasting only about 10 sec.) where Charlie Brown and Linus leave the school and head toward town. At the point where they turn to their right and head down what seems a really long road to town, they appear as rather small figures at the bottom of the screen; in the distance, the town with searchlights panning the sky.
Just as the single light in Ault’s painting calls attention to the darkness, the searchlights suggest the darkness (Schultz and the animators don’t do Aultine darkness) and emphasize just how tiny Linus and Charlie Brown are in the world. The full effect of the scene is lost in video and DVD versions; for a second after Linus and Charlie Brown turn towards town, there was, in the original production a jump to commercial. I’m sure there were plenty of images of Dolly Madison cakes in the snow during that commercial break – but I don’t remember them. What I do remember is that I stayed, in my mind, with Linus and Charlie Brown on the road until we came back (the next scene has them already in the tree lot). So, for me, those 10 sec. stretched out for a couple of minutes, while I considered the pair, small and alone in a much larger (and it seemed to me, as a kid, darker) universe. And yet, Charlie Brown is not alone – Linus is with him. The two of them, however, are (however briefly) alone. We know that the rest of the crew is back at the school dancing together which makes the two boys alone in the dark and the cold seem even lonelier, and their bond seem so much greater.
What kept me from being traumatized by that scene (I was 9) was the awareness of the close friendship of Charlie Brown and Linus – everyone else is part of the group, but setting these two apart, the creators give their bond greater weight. And that’s what I’m thinking about this holiday season, being alone together in the dark. Doesn’t sound too cheery, but where others see Ault’s depression, I see courage in his facing that dark place again and again, and when I visit Russell’s Corners, I am also aware of familiar barns, of a corner I’ve visited many times, and I reflect on the people who built those buildings, who owned them, who, when day comes would be there working; I also think of the power grid that provided that tiny point of light and the structure underlying it. Even as I feel profound loneliness, I am aware of the world beyond, of all the humanity behind the world I see. So, in my loneliness, I am aware of the void, but still somehow feel connected.
And I’ve been blessed in my life at finding my Lini, close friends who have provided and still provide a fixed point, a solid counterpoint, as I contemplate the void. And Carla and I were blessed these past few years with Otis (AKA Bunkie), an old, blind pug who passed this November past. We’d always have to carry Otis out to the yard, and retrieve him after he had some yard time. Whenever I did this at night, and I’d pick up Otis, and we’d head back to the house, there I’d be, Linus to Otis’ Charlie Brown, heading to the light.
So, this holiday season, a period when the overwhelming darkness seems so great, I hope that you find, or rediscover, your Charlie Brown and your Linus, and if the immensity of the big bad world seems overwhelming, especially during the holiday, that you’ll remember the people behind the objects of the world, and in your life, and that you’ll know, in the darkest moment, there is a light which promises more light to dispel the darkness.

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