the shadow knows

This is the time of year that produces the most bitching and bellyaching, the last days of November, the curtain call for autumn. People complain about the darkness, complain about the black, but I have to ask, isn’t the black also sometimes beautiful?

There is something majestic about the whole scene, something inky and purple about the texture of the night that sets in, the kind of night one doesn’t meet at any other time of year. It is so dark that anything that is light takes on new significance, the light from the inside of a passing car, the glow of a neon sign.

The days, if sunny, are colored with orange haze and long lovely shadows. Many of the days are sunless. These days are more like monotonous shrouds of cottony white and gray that stretch around barns and church steeples. The darkness is thus a reprieve: an opportunity to forget, a chance to dream. When 4 pm feels like 9 pm, then the very notion of time itself becomes irrelevant. Some might see this as an obstacle, but others might see it as liberating, an empowering opportunity.

Each day no matter the length I wrestle with assumptions. People have assumptions about me as I do about them. One is that, being from New York, that I am suffocating or drowning living in a small wooden town like Viljandi, and would still suffer in an even larger “metropolis” like Tallinn, home to just 400,000 souls, about the same number as Cleveland, Ohio, or Omaha, Nebraska. My truth is that big cities can be even lonelier places than small towns, as I have experienced first hand. Just because one is surrounded by people does not mean that they know who you are or care about your well being. And often the streets are just as deserted. I’ve rambled through the empty black streets of Washington, DC, and New York City and Boston in the wee hours, like wading through graveyards, the only signs of life being the homeless bums snoring away on the park benches, the pigeons pecking away at the garbage.

Another assumption is that just because I have written a book about Estonia (two actually), that I am some kind of expert or knowledgeable person when it comes to this place. Not only that, but I am a figure who might be able to give a person advice (!). In which case, I almost automatically point the hapless soul searchers in the direction of fellow bloggers Flasher T or Mingus, gentlemen who exude enough confidence to fool others into believing that they actually possess some form of insight or wisdom. I understand the need to look for support. Life is tricky. I can’t even count all the letters I’ve sent to Vello Vikerkaar asking his advice on whatever it is that pesters me. But we are all just humans! Equally flawed, equally ridiculous.

Supposedly, the above attitude makes me a nihilist, which sounds quite scary. I imagine nihilists to be cloaked in shadows, weepy and black, like Sirius Snape sporting a “No More Mr. Nice Guy” coffee mug in one hand, a scythe in the other, and a puss that conveys a nasty attitude. I have no idea how this nihilism snuck up on me and overtook me. It was plain highway robbery, or rather a back alley mugging. But I think it comes in handy in times like these, the autumn of autumn. Long days or long nights, sun-drenched insomnia or gloom-induced narcolepsy. It’s all just weather, right? Equally flawed, equally ridiculous.


15 thoughts on “the shadow knows”

  1. Well written. That reminds that I arrived in Estonia the first time at the end of a November. Knowing nobody there, just hoping to meet the guy, I got to know through letters at the harbor. Arrival by ferry with a lot of drunken people aboard, from Helsinki. Then I got the soviet documents to sign, though Estonia was independent again since three months already. Luckily I met the one person. I've got a place to sleep, on a small kitchen floor. I was happy.


  2. Maybe it's not the “autumn of autumn”, the shorter days and the longer nights and the black, but the repetition; the repetition of the still mysterious, despite attempts at familiarizing oneself with it; the dark and the cold of neither the first nor the last repetition, with its almost imperceptible modicum of wisdom.


  3. yes, this thing with time disappearing – that is completely true! I read about it in a tourist brochure before coming Tartu, and was horrified (I had just spent a year in London, after all). But I love it, the timelessness, the smallness: you feel visible, and known, and loved, most of the time.


  4. It is timeless existence when by looking outside you cannot tell whether it's morning or evening.

    it is very comforting. You can wrap all the alienation, disappointment and emptiness into this timelessness and imagine that it never existed.


  5. Ah, this Theroux is a learned man, 40 years my senior, a product of the New England Ivies. It does look like a good book. I'll get to it eventually, but I have a very thick stack of books to read before I get to that one. I have been reading Roy Strider's Himaalaja Jutud in the toilet. I got Lady Chatterley's Lover for my birthday (of all books), along with some others. I think my wife buys me books that she wants to read, and I buy her books that I want to read. But not bad so far. I love any kind of post-WWI fiction.


  6. Reading in the toilet … yes or no? If I had an outhouse, this would not be a question I'd ask myself, but my toilet happens to be top of the line ….and wife has been making fun of me when I read there. She even refers to one particular Seinfeld episode as a proof that it is ridiculous, that is why they make fun of it, by having George having this weird habit of undressing in the toilet and always reading something. I don't undress completely, but I do read. Is there anything wrong with it? Is it frowned upon somehow. Many of my books have been to the toilet so to say. They are not “flagged” but should I draw a line somewhere. If so, then where? Is tweeting and surfing ok? Oh, here's an idea. Why don't I just go to the bathroom and google it …


  7. This year, I've heard many people saying that this autumn is actually much less depressing than last year – because it's so much warmer. +5 to +10 Celsius degrees in November is very warm.


  8. For my part, the cold is not really a big issue – it's the lack of light. If we would be consistently some degrees under zero, we would get snow and the landscape would have much more light. It would also mean drier air. Windy and wet Helsinki in November is not a picnic…


  9. I'm with the last commenter. +5-10 C is pretty pointless and depressing. These Baltic frost-heaved, potholed landscapes of crumbling limestone, prefab blocks, the small town houses of silikaattellis — it all looks awfully bleak in cold rainy weather.

    It's just not the natural order of things and here's hoping that winter will soon come without any “Indian summers of autumn”.


  10. It was much less depressing because it wasn't windy and rainy. It felt wet in the air, but it didn't almost didn't rain, there was no sleet.
    I didn't like the daily dusk inside though.


  11. The Sami have a goddess Beaivi, who stands for both Sun and sanity. In the darkest time of the year, a shaman had to contact her (helped by drinking the urine of reindeer who had eaten amanita mushrooms) and ask her to come back to stop the madness… and this is how we got Santa Claus, I suppose.


  12. The shadows, short days, darkness, snow, snow falling…your breath guiding your way in front of you as you thump through the flakes…Ahhhh it's romantic, beautiful, peaceful.


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