Remember when you were a kid, alone in bed, sleepless with ears attuned to every terror unknown to man—the things that go bump in the night, hide under the bed, favor the confines of the closet in your room?
Laughable, now, but honestly, do you ever truly shed your fears? I am reading Michael Pollan’s new book, How To Change Your Mind, and it includes a quote from some expert or other on psychology (sorry, can’t find the page and name at the moment) who declares that humans fear three things in the course of their lives: death, other humans, and their own brains.
I’m here to talk about our own brains. Like the Internet, they giveth and they taketh away. For poets, the brain is a source of imagination, creativity, and art. But the brain can also play Mr. Hyde, becoming the source of imagination, creativity, and fear (which, like yeast on sugar, feeds on the first two).
In the poem “Nights Our House Comes to Life” by Matthew Brennan, we see how some things continue to go bump in the night, even for adults, even for the “mature,” even for the even-keeled who know better but cannot fully silence their inner child:
“Nights Our House Comes to Life”
by Matthew Brennan
Some nights in midwinter when the creek clogs
With ice and the spines of fir trees stiffen
Under a blank, frozen sky,
On these nights our house comes to life.
It happens when you’re half asleep:
A sudden crack, a fractured dream, you bolting
Upright—but all you can hear is the clock
Your great-grandfather found in 1860
And smuggled here from Dublin for his future bride,
A being as unknown to him then as she is now
To you, a being as distant as the strangers
Who built this house, and died in this room
Some cold, still night, like tonight,
When all that was heard were the rhythmic clicks
Of a pendulum, and something, barely audible,
Moving on the dark landing of the attic stairs.
Brennan admits what many of us refuse to: that the outer world remains populated with our own imaginations. The characters may change, but the basic process is the same. It’s why my mother insists that she is one of that special breed of people who can see ghosts, and not always friendly ones, either. It’s how our knowledge of a home’s history can help write narratives of the night that might disturb sleep.
And, as we get older and begin to close the circle on the nights of our childhood, it’s why we can never underestimate the power of the mind and its ability to go rogue, playfully or no.
Sleep well, children!