Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity that’s straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is that it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes that see it or the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me that light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is that we can’t see it if we don’t look.
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights that can shine from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me that holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Light that nourishes. Light that guides. Light that connects us to the web of life that is community. Light that inspires. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
Allowing light to shine out of my life. My daily crime.
The last time my job necessitated driving in the dark, I was a young married woman. I worked afternoons and evenings in a hospital in a large city and drove home on well-lit highways and city streets after the chaos of evening rush hour. I never left the hospital after dark without Security, who saw me safely to my car.
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As a child I was terrified of the dark. I was a fearful child in general and the dark was the culmination of every nameless horror, imagined and real. Somewhere in the years of early motherhood when I became a single parent my fear of the dark vanished and it became my friend — a place of peace, rest and privacy. It shielded me from critical eyes and harsh words.
If no one could see me or find me, they wouldn’t discover what a failure I was.
After some years of friendship the dark became my lover, and I adorned it with candlelight, welcomed starlight onto my pillow and delighted in night walks. I feel strangely at one with the pale, musky blur of the skunk; the large clumsy rustling and noisy chewing of the bear eating windfall apples and the kingly owls conversing solemnly overhead. The warmly-lit world inside where people talk, laugh, and live their lives is another universe and I a wild, aloof creature, silent and unseen under the grandeur of the night sky.
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Miracles happen in the dark.
Now I’m driving in the dark again, slipping through the folds and creases of the hills, passing over the river and gliding under the half-naked trees. The small city’s lights glow dimly, behind me if I’m going home after closing the pool, ahead of me if I’m coming in early to open it. The pavement undulates and curves, unfolding under my headlights. Lit windows give me intimate glimpses of people moving around in kitchens and living rooms, sipping from a cup, glancing at a TV screen. Other drivers are out, too, strung loosely along the road. Oncoming headlights force my gaze to the shoulder, scanning for hapless porcupines, impulsive deer or careless pedestrians.
Last night, an almost perfect Hunter’s Moon rose over a stubbled field where corn grew a few weeks ago, lighting a black and white vista of fields and scattered trees. It hung low, gleaming through bare branches, silvering my right shoulder as it saw me home. As I backed into the driveway to park under the friendly light at the apex of the barn roof, moonlight flooded in my windshield as though embracing me before I opened the cellar door and stepped inside the house, no longer half fey and wild but my usual civilized and responsible self.
Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash
This morning, snow and leaves whirled in my headlights and my tires hissed on the wet road. The trees hunched, dark indistinct shapes, and the river was invisible as I crossed the bridge. I opened the car window for the pleasure of the wet snowflakes on my face, the damp autumn smell and the cold lash of dark air on my cheeks. I might have been the only living human being in the world. For a moment I wished it was so. I might have been going anywhere or nowhere through the darkness, the snow and the leaves. It seemed perfectly possible to stop the car and abandon it, to fling myself into the arms of the landscape and disappear into wood, stone, hair and bone.
Yet ahead lay the swimming pool, waiting in the humid darkness of its building for lights to discover it, for people to measure and balance its chemicals, for computer screens to come to life, for the daily schedule to be printed and the showers to be run to prime the hot water. In the town ahead were therapy patients, members of the early water aerobics class and crack-of-dawn lap swimmers. I drive through the dark for them.
So I shook off the wistful feeling that there are other ways to live, deeper, older and more magical, shut the car window and drove on, through the waking town under the dim dawn sky, heavy with downy snow, and stepped into the humid warmth and sound of the swimming pool, blue and white and brightly lit. The darkness and I parted for a time, but it has a piece of me I can give to no one and nothing else. The dark is a lover unlike any other.