Darkness

“There’s a darkness on the edge of town.” I find myself singing that song to myself a lot these days.

Maybe it’s because right now, here in the Pacific Northwest, we are living through those months when the days are nastily short. I wake up in the dark, walk to the office in the dark, and walk home in the dark. There are even days when the clouds roll in and the rains come, and I make a dash over to the SUB to grab lunch in what can only be called darkness—at noon. Darkness visible. Maybe it’s because I lost my father to the darkness of eternity this fall, or the shadows cast by illness and mortality among friends and family in recent months. Maybe it’s because it’s 2012, and the recession of 2008 is still with us. The headlines in the newspapers these days haven’t been helpful either. Maybe’s it’s just Springsteen.

Darkness on the Edge of Town has always been my favorite Springsteen album. Its honest and unremitting acknowledgment of the feelings of pain and loneliness invoked by living through our darker days rings so true. And then those feelings are somehow translated by the music, in that authentic way Bruce has mastered, into a sense of earned triumph and great promise. Songs about making these badlands good again. Elegies to the eternal romance of chasing that something in the night that continually summons us. Fragments of that dark, silent moment when you hear a voice calling your name. The stubborn belief in a promised land that lies behind every dark cloud that rises from the desert floor. “Wanting the things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.” That says it all, really, the essence of his work: The belief in something else that the darkness, and only the darkness, holds for us.

Darkness has its virtues. Even as it hides the light of day, it reveals the billions of stars flickering like jewels in a canopy above us, reminding us of the eons of space and time beyond our experience. Always there, but erased by the sun’s bright light all day long. Darkness reveals the mysterious and magical way our familiar surroundings look when they are bathed in the blue light of the moon. It invites us to rest awhile, restore our energy, renew our perspective for another day, close our eyes. The visual equivalent of silence: It summons our dreams and creates possibilities unimaginable in the light of day. Darkness was on the face of the deep just at the moment the world flashed into view.

The last year at Puget Sound has been among our most challenging and, at the same time, one of our most brilliant. A college education is more important and valuable than ever, and more expensive, too. The recovery has been sluggish, government support for education eroding, and job prospects narrowing. Like every organization, we have cut costs and trimmed budgets, even as we have increased financial aid to support our students.

But out of the shadows, stunning flashes of light. In October we kicked off a capital campaign that has already broken records, with the largest gift the university ever received (an $8 million endowment for financial aid), the largest gift to a capital project ($6 million for Weyerhaeuser Hall), a string of record-breaking totals to the Puget Sound Fund (now at more than $2 million annually), and support for new faculty positions in exciting fields like neuroscience, biophysics, and international environmental policy. A beautiful new building finished and paid for, buzzing with activity, in place of old ones finally swept away. Faculty are achieving national recognition for groundbreaking scholarship and teaching excellence, garnering three professor of the year awards in the last four years alone. And our students: really brilliant. Reaching for the stars, every year earning more and more postgraduate honors, entry into great graduate and professional schools, and impressive first jobs.

I spoke with one on a dark December day. She was just back from South Africa for the holidays, the ink still wet on the diploma she received (true, in the rain) only last May. She eagerly talked about her first six months on the job with an international NGO in Cape Town (where she had spent a semester studying abroad in her senior year at Puget Sound). The organization supports promising entrepreneurs with good ideas, filling the gap between micro-financing and venture capital, not just by supplying emerging new business leaders with funding but also matching them with mentors who have been successful in similar businesses in developed countries. The excitement in her eyes glowed like evening stars as she related some amazing success stories she’s already helped make happen—for the mentors as well as the new entrepreneurs. Shafts of light.

Just the other night, not sleeping well, I woke up and looked out my bedroom window into the darkness. It was even darker than usual: I was watching the last few minutes of a full lunar eclipse, the shadow of the Earth gradually dropping the curtain on the moon. And as it did, the stars never burned brighter…the things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.

There I go, singing again.