Shadows on the Ceiling

My grandfather gave me an aesthetic appreciation for shadows. Nana and Gramps lived in and old neo-Victorian house on Powder House Boulevard, in Somerville, Massachusetts, overlooking Tufts University. It was still Tufts College at the time of this story. Three of their children were not yet married and they lived at home. My grandfather was little bigger than a leprechaun and had the talents of a shanachie. He drove a bus for forty years, never owned nor drove a car. Gramps told wild tales of his boyhood in Ireland. Chocolate cake could be dug right out of the hills, ready to eat. We believed him. He entranced children using the simplest things. He made pan flutes from empty vanilla extract bottles, scooters from old roller skates and boxes. Shadows were some of his best props.

To small boys, this two family house was enormous. Each apartment had two floors. The second story was divided. It was upstairs at the downstairs, and downstairs at the upstairs. My grandparents lived in the upper flat.

In the kitchen was an old black gas stove with white knobs to control the burners. It burned wood or coal on the side. There was no pilot light. My grandmother lit each burner with wooden stick matches. A kettle that held a gallon of water simmered over the wood burning side. The porcelain double sink was the exclusive domain of my grandmother. On one side she did the dishes, on the other, she did the laundry by hand. I remember the rhythmic sound of sheets and towels being scrubbed against the washboard and the smell of bleach in the air. The walls were plaster with wainscoting below, thick, almost smooth from years of re-painting. It probably had many different colors over the years. I only remember yellow. A small shaded wall lamp lit the kitchen after business hours. When the tablecloth was replaced on the brown porcelain table, the kitchen was closed.

In the corner and to the right of the stove was an old gas stack for heating water. It roared, sounding as if it would explode any minute. A chair from the kitchen set was stored by the window, overlooking the narrow concrete driveway below. Can goods, breads, and other various dry foods, as well as everyday dishes and silverware, were kept in the pantry. It was my grandmother’s treasure house. Loose change was kept in an unused sugar bowl in the pantry. The big money was hidden in a teapot in the china cabinet, in the dining room.

The ice box was in the back hall. The ice man brought fresh ice several times a week. He carried the ice on his back on a rubber apron, holding it in place with black, cast iron tongs. Used paper bags were stuffed beside the ice box. The straw broom, dust mop, and dust pan stood between the ice box and the porch door.

Nanna hung the wash on the back porch. In the spring and fall she stretched freshly washed curtains on wooden frames studded with nail-like pins. The curtains dried without needing ironing. The neighbors talked to each other across their yards and porches as they hung the laundry. Their talk was chatty but they addressed each other formally: Mrs. Mooney, Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. O’Donnell.

With the exception of the ice box, none of these things were modernized much before 1960.

My brother and I liked staying here. We believed that my grandmother’s toaster made the best toast. It was always soft. She used real butter. There was always Welsh’s grape jelly to put on it.

The shadows were kept on the third floor. No matter how bright the sunshine, the four bedrooms and long foreboding hallway were always dark. The master bedroom, at the front of the house, was the ideal place for viewing the shadows. In the winter months, after dark, my grandfather took us upstairs to the front bedroom. However many of us that fit, my brothers, my cousins, and me, lay on the bed and watched the shadows cast by passing cars on the ceiling. The pattern changed depending upon which direction the cars were coming. When cars passed each other from opposite directions, the patterns were more elaborate. They moved from the window, across the ceiling, over the chandelier, and disappeared out the bedroom door. The light that accompanied the shadows illuminated the pictures of the Sacred Heart, or Saint Theresa, or the crucifix on my grandmother’s rosary beads. They hung over the bed post along with the dried out palm branch from the previous Easter.

Watching the shadows was great fun. We often hummed along with the shadows, a wordless, one syllable, “Ah” song: mantras at an early age. The irony is that as we fearlessly watched the shadows on the ceiling, we were warned of the boogieman who hid in the shadows of the trees across the street. Whenever a person walked slowly down the street, perhaps stopping to light a cigarette, I wondered if he were the boogieman.

My grandfather’s ability to find entertainment in simple things was extraordinary. He had the simplicity that people travel to Zen monasteries to find. He was always himself, no pretense.

This is one of the few boyhood memories that that has traveled with me into my adult life. Certainly, more things occurred that what I remember. Most of them didn’t achieve salient roles in the thought realm into which I have wandered back and forth throughout my life. Maybe my personal unconscious simply chose those events which are significant to the present moment in which I recall my childhood. It doesn’t matter whether I reminisce at twenty or fifty years old. The same memories, give or take a few, appear. My childhood is a part of my shadow.

Over the years, I lost my innocent look at the shadows. Shadows remained dark for a long time. I gave into the programming that shadows are negative. The shadow creatures of nature, the wolf, the bat, the snake have never been able to overcome the atmosphere of fear that have been attached to them. No scientist, philosopher, or theologian has ever proved the evil that has been attributed to these creatures. It could be resentment. Humans, when they block out their creative abilities, are often resentful of those who are competent at what they do. The wolf, the bat, and the snake move through the darkness with ease. Wolves are perhaps better at community living than humans. They have also saved the lives of humans trapped in the wilderness. Would there have been an Ancient Rome if a wolf hadn’t saved Romulus and Remus? Despite their prowess and kindness, they remain shadow creatures. None of the other nocturnal creatures have received their notoriety or condemnation. The Great Horned Owl, who is as fierce in the night sky as the wolf is on the ground, never gets any bad press.

My shadow always travels with me. When I walk into the sun, it is behind me. When I walk away from the sun, it is in front of me. If I stop at noon, with the sun high above my head, my shadow disappears. When the sun is bright, my shadow is dark and well outlined. On a gray day, it is less dense, with indefinite shape. In either case, it is still a shadow. It has no material features. My shadow is cast by my entire being, inside and out. It is what is inside that determines the outside shape, physical, emotional and spiritual. When I’m in emotional turmoil, I may stuff things into my body as a substitute remedy for the condition. My shape bulges in inconvenient places. My shadow changes shape as well. Only I know what I did to alter the shape.

Behind me, the shadow collects my experiences, my craftsmanship, my triumphs, my mistakes. In it, I can bury memories or simply store them until I need them. In front of me, the shadow points the way into unknown territories, new explorations, new triumphs, new mistakes, new moments waiting to be converted into memories. I can eulogize it, fear it, welcome it. Mostly, I welcome it. It remains, ever faithful, my shadow. I can rest in it with the same security that I rest in the shadow of the willow or the oak. I have no fear of what hides in the shadows of the trees. As the wind blows, the leaves rattle, softly in spring and summer, brittley in autumn, the patterns of shadows are kaleidoscopic on the grass, the wildflowers and the path in front of me. The are just like the shadows on my grandparents’ bedroom ceiling. It is this simplicity in nature that my grandfather reflected.

In Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Casteneda relates some of Don Juan’s philosophy and understanding of the shadow. His insights are into the concepts of doing and not doing, being and not being:

“Shadows are peculiar affairs,” he said all of a sudden. “You must have noticed that there is one following us.”

Don Juan said that my body had noticed our pursuer…there was nothing unusual about being followed by a shadow.

“It’s just a power,” he said. “these mountains are filled with them.”

He asserted that in the daytime I could only feel its presence. I wanted an explanation of why he called it a shadow when it obviously was not like the shadow of a boulder. He replied that both had the same lines, therefore both were shadows.

“Look at the shadow of that boulder,” he said. “The shadow is the boulder, and yet it isn’t. To observe the boulder in order to know what the boulder is, is doing, but to observe its shadow is not-doing.

“Shadows are like doors, the doors of not-doing. A man of knowledge, for example, can tell the innermost feelings of men by watching their shadows.

“To believe that shadows are just shadows is doing,” he explained. “That belief is somehow stupid. Think about it this way: There is so much more to everything in the world that obviously there must be more to shadows too. After all, what makes them shadows is merely our doing.”1

My shadow contains the essence of my being. It is my doing and not-doing. It is my having-done and not-yet-done. The shadow is a springboard of imagination and despair. It is the custodian of opposites. It is the Dark Night of the Soul of John of the Cross and the ecstatic visions of Theresa of Avila. It is Andrew Jackson Davis’s visions of Summerland, the life in the land beyond death. There is a power in the shadow, the revealing power of jumping into the middle of the unknown, exploring new paths, participating in one’s own life.

Shadows do not judge but will hold our judgments for us. Maybe that is what frightens us about them. Do our bad judgments and prejudices out number our good judgments and virtues? I cannot escape my own shadow. It can be a tool bag or an anchor, a refuge or a trap. My shadow is a part of my power, a power that is a manifestation of an Infinite Source. Little by little, I learned to use it. Occasionally, it slips away from me, but I recover.

As Don Juan tells Carlos, “ I didn’t know I was storing power when I first began to learn the ways of a warrior…Power has the peculiarity of being unnoticeable when it is being stored.”2

The power stored by my shadow is what I use to keep exploring the path in front of me. It is a power that keeps me to the present moment To write about my shadow, I entered the shadow itself, the not-doing of my being. As I thought about it, I was doing. As I write about it, I’m not-doing. While thinking about the shadow, my mind wandered all over the place, in and out of the past, making this project much bigger than it is. There was a pull to wallow in the dark side of the shadow, to forget joys of the shadows on the ceiling, the shadows of the willows on the grass. My shadow has stored the power of my history. Through it, each word about it has appeared on the page, one at time, in the present moment. Doing, not-doing, they balance each other out. Not-doing is present. Doing is whatever is left, wherever the mind wanders. My shadow brought my thoughts to life. It keeps my grandfather, and the simplicity of his life, alive. Shadows are all around me. They follow me everywhere. There is nothing unusual about being followed by a shadow.

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