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Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night's Journey Into Dayby Phil Cousineau
Night Walk in Manila by Pico Iyer
I fly and fly, across the largest ocean in the world, over ice floes or tropical islands, far from any season I know, and get out in an airport that dissolves all sense of time and place. Long corridors, panels of glass, screens above every door, clicking over. Men in suits disappearing down this escalator, appearing from that one, drifting away along that moving ramp.
I walk and walk as if across a screen myself, and at another gate, more men in black waiting to disappear into a hole, a stranger comes up to me and says, Excuse me. Are you Pico Iyer ?” I dont know what to say, but the safest answer seems yes, and he places a book of poems in my hands, stands beside me as a flashbulb pops and then is gone again.
We go up into the sky once more—six miles above the earth now, and darkness everywhere—and when we descend, a few hours later, the pilot welcomes us to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, named after the opposition leader who was killed on this very tarmac not long before. The night is very dark, and my body, up now for twenty-five hours—or forty, by my watch—is full of life, ready to walk out into the morning.
I get into a car and we drive down Roxas Boulevard, sudden fireworks of silent lights around the gaudy discos and the karaoke parlors, and then the dark returning all around. I put my things in a hotel and go out again, with a new-day briskness, to get my bearings in this foreign place. Men appear in front of me talking about this girl, that club. Music thumps out of a darkened doorway. Faces are peering out at me as the door opens, and as I take shelter in a beer garden (2:00 a.m. now for the people around me, eleven in the morning for me), I see rats scuttling under the chairs where young girls, alone, eyes closed, are singing last years love songs.
I get up and walk, to ground myself, to try to imprint on my floating mind something solid and substantial, and as I do I pass a young girl, sitting up abruptly on the sidewalk, and starting to pass a comb through her long, straight hair. She couldnt be more than twelve or thirteen, and yet she gets herself ready for bed as if in a Manhattan duplex, and then lies down again, on the street, and pulls a sheet of cellophane above her.
Around her, all around, whole families are sleeping. Children are huddled on the main divider of the street, and parents, who look as if they expected a future not so different from mine, are stretched out in careful patterns beside the streaking taxis. I walk among these outstretched figures in the dark and another woman smiles out at me from the bushes. She is very young, and very pretty. She says how warm it is tonight, and lonely. She smiles at me in the dark.
I walk and walk, to try to get back what I knew this morning (or was it last night? Two days ago ?), but whatever I thought I knew has been effaced, by everything around me. In the casino on the main drag—3:00 a.m. now—there are so many bodies I can hardly move, the lights from the chandeliers catching the excited faces as figures press and shout above the spinning wheel. I step out and go exploring in the beauty salon next door, climbing the grand staircase of an old colonial mansion, and finding, at the top, girls recumbent in the hair-cutting chairs, too poor, I assume, to have real homes in which to sleep. In one room, no less mysterious, a Japanese boy lying flat out on a treatment table, a young woman coming in now and the to adjust the sheet above him, beneath which his feet protrude.
On the street again, by the cloud-covered ocean, the first fathers and their children are beginning to extend their rods into the water as the sun comes up and the traffic begins to intensify behind them. In the grand hotel down the road, which remembers Marcos and MacArthur, sweepers are making the halls immaculate and uniformed workers pass through the dining-room like ghosts. The first elderly couples are out now in the park, whole clusters of them, skittering, and flashing their bright skirts like tropical birds as they practice ballroom dancing.
I go back to my hotel, ready for a good nights sleep—its coming on for 9:00 a.m.—and when I awaken again, its dark, the traffic beginning to subside outside my window, the roar of the vacuum cleaners outside my door long gone. The streets are beginning to empty out as I go out into the dark, the men, the women, beginning to congregate in the shadows. But everything is less strange now because I know the routine in some way, half expect that whisper behind the trees. Very soon I wont make out the people sleeping in the streets. Very soon the shock of the poverty will have become part of the daylight world for me, something I could take for granted.
Pico Iyer, journalist and travel writer
Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.”
— Francis Quarles, Emblemes, 1635
Learn to reverence night to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.”
— Henry Beston
In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness we invent our own stories. ”
— Anthony Manguel
Night time is the right time,
to be with the one you love.”
— Ray Charles
The mammoth steel presses bellowed, the praying mantis-like stamping machines screeched. Forklifts hummed across the factory floor carrying pallets of coiled steel wire. The midnight coal train clacketed down the tracks behind the factory on its way to the River Rouge Plant, in the burning bowels of Detroit. The moment the whistle blew to signal the end of my ten-hour night shift at the steel factory, I hustled over to the time clock. Quickly, I punched my time card and slipped it back into the long metal card rack on the wall. As I turned to leave, I noticed some newly scrawled graffiti on the cement brick wall:
It takes all day to get up and all night to get down.”
To this day I dont know who wrote those pugnacious words, but Ive never forgotten them. I still marvel over how well they captured our defiant factory rat spirit during my four benighted years at the factory. Hardly a day went by without someone groan about how tough it was to get up every day for work. Then again, hardly a night went by — especially when the weekends rolled around — without hearing somebody boast about how they were going to get down as soon as they got off work. The street jive insinuated a night of hard drinking, heavy gambling, skirt chasing, or drag racing down Woodward Avenue. But it was more than braggadocio. It was a riff on Night Time is the Right Time, the Ray Charles song that was playing on the radio in those years because whatever happened after midnight was our time. If we could get up,” we could get to work on time; but if we could get down,” we might get to that place beyond time that exists in the shadows of the night.
Somewhere,” said night shift foreman one night, the real life is waiting for us.”
For the handful of us who were working our way through college, getting down meant pulling all-nighters in the hope we might catch up with whatever courses wed fallen behind in during the week. After slaving away through those long night shifts and then doing homework until three or four in the morning it was wrenchingly difficult to get up for class. For me, the sound of an alarm clock going off, especially during the dark dawns of winter, was like an ice pick in my ear. So I was never on time for my 8 a.m. journalism class twenty miles away, at the University of Detroit.
One miserable morning during my senior year, my professor, Judy Serrin, noticed my bleary-eyed expression as I slunk in an embarrassingly twenty minutes late. It may have been the oil stains on my hands or the smell of factory phosphate on my clothes, but a look of concern crossed her face as I passed by her desk. It looks like youve been burning the midnight oil,” she whispered with unexpected compassion.
It was very Detroit of her to say so.
Burning the midnight oil. My grandparents had used the expression to describe how late they were forced to work, night after night, during the stark years of the Depression. My first newspaper editor had employed the phrase as a warning when he hired me to work the graveyard shift. But there was something else, something shiver-inducing in my professors voice.
Rust Belt respect is what it was.
In those years, in those factories and shops, people took pride in how hard and long they worked. You worked at whatever task you were engaged in — churning out steel nuts for the car companies, or churning out essays in college — until you were done, even if you had to burn the midnight oil. No excuses, no whining, no cheating.
Cold fact,” sang Sixto Rodriquez, the legendary Detroit songwriter, who was working night shifts down at Dodge Main my last year in the factory. Just a cold fact.”
You had to burn the midnight oil to do anything worthwhile.
Until the early seventeenth-century the word for working late into the night was elucubrate, which was defined by Henry Cockeram in The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English words, "to doe a thing by candlelight." In 1635, the English novelist and poet Francis Quarles wrote a poem called Emblemes that featured the first reference we have for another way to elongate our days:
Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.”
We tire the night in thought; the day in toil.
In other words, it takes all day to get up, all night to get down.
The poets archaic but discernable language opens a window onto the seventeenth century with the advent of street lamps and longer burning lights in the home, which liberated people from the tyranny of darkness.
Originally referring to the actual act of burning oil in lamps for light and safety, the expression has come to mean any practice that allows us to stay up later, see better, push the natural rhythms, work overtime, even unravel the mysteries of the impenetrable darkness. Ever since I have equated it with working late, working hard, working it, as in working the system, using every ounce of strength and wit to get through life. And to do that you had to burn the midnight oil.
This was a sea change in the way people regarded the night, which for centuries had been dreaded and even avoided by sleeping and waking early. The night was dangerous; the night was cruel. It demanded respect and even avoidance, usually by way of sleep. The development of powerful oil lamps brought a sea change in the way people experienced the dark, and with it developed the belief in a strange beauty after dark, like the chiarascuro of Rembrandt, or the shadow-strewn world of The Maltese Falcon, or the radiant photographs of distant galaxies coming back from the Hubble Space Telescope.
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