Later that day, I clip the leash on the little dog just before supper, and we go out for our last real walk of the day. Not even six o’clock yet, but the sky is deeply navy blue, heavy with clouds, and dusk is turning quickly into a very early night.
It is the season of darkness, when the dark steals more of our hours than are owned by the light. If I were not retired, my working day would be bracketed by the dark, by a stealthy office arrival in velvet pitch, by departure into a world already settling in to night. Daylight is squeezed harshly and flattened in-between. I’m glad Mark gets out for lunch, feels the cold wind on his face, soaks in the wan rays of the furthering sun.
It is the season of darkness, and this year, I am making a constant and mindful search for the light.
This year I am drawn, just about every day, to use the fireplace. Dinner dishes done, Mark lights the gas insert; its flames blaze up, blue-tinged and charring white. I take my book; I settle into the chair closest to the fire, putting my stocking feet on the ottoman, looping a light blanket over them. I settle into the contemplation of someone else’s words and thoughts. Often Mark and Jim turn the TV on in the next room; their laughter is warming, too.
And the dog slips in, climbs onto the couch, sighing, and circles around and settles, her snout pointed toward the fire. Her eyes slip slowly closed, setting like the sun: a last glint and then they’re gone. Her soft snores underscore my reading.
The firelight dances; I look for light in the words I am reading, and in the little family gathered beneath this roof. An oasis in the darkness, I think, and I know that one of the values of winter is the gravitational pull of a gathering light.
We search for light-filled ways to mark the season. I read on a local blog about the Chinese Lantern Festival at the state fairgrounds in Columbus. That sounds intriguing to all of us.
On the very night it opens, we head off: first to a theme dinner at a Panda Express, where we fuel up on orange chicken and fried rice, then on another twenty miles to the site. It is cold and inky black; I think of another night similar to this, not so many years ago, when we dragged Jim to see the Zoolights. Everyone likes the Zoolights, right?
Jim hated them. He was too cold. It was too crowded. Raucous Christmas music shouted from the whirling, twirling exhibits, and everywhere he turned an aggressive baby stroller threatened his shins. We insisted on seeing at least the greater part of the light show, but no one was happy, and three grumpy people (“I can’t believe we spent all that money for that little glimpse,” Mark muttered more than once) stalked the long way back to the car and huddled in their uniquely miserable complaints for the long ride home.
I was crazy, I think now, to plan to see the lanterns on opening night, and there’s a little dreadful foreboding dancing around my gut. But Mark drives us into the parking lot, where a car pulls out of a space right in front of the ticket gate. Score number one: a great place to park.
I have purchased and printed our tickets on line, to avoid waiting in line; there isn’t much of a crowd anyway, but we skirt the few people gathered and hand our tickets to a smiling young man who waves us into a lofty, barn-like cement building. There are food concessions and (yay!) indoor restrooms; a big set of double doors are open into the outdoor path to the Chinese Lantern festival.
It is a cold clear night. We walk through a kind of tunnel, arched by giant, glowing, silken candy canes. Bobbing silken red ornaments sway over our heads. Jim looks a little uncertain, but, “I like the music,” he says. (I am too ignorant to be able to pinpoint what kind of music this is–“Asian” is my best attempt at categorizing it–but later that night I read an interesting note in To Siri With Love, by Judith Newman. She is writing about her autistic son Gus, who loves music and is pitch-perfect, and she mentions that many autistic people are drawn to Asian music. “Pentatonic scales for example, ” she writes, “used in Chinese and folkloric music–are open-ended, and don’t call for resolution the way dissonant chords do. They are seductive and meet you on your own terms [Gus’s music therapist] says.”)
The candy cane exhibit is the last aggressively Christmas-y display, and it is clear immediately that this show is something Jim enjoys. We pass through a long covered walkway where traditional red silken lanterns sway overhead. Then there is a splendid dragon, maybe half a city block long. Eastern princesses dance, suspended in swaying silken lanterns, watched over by sharp-eyed egrets. There is a life-sized tea set, blue and white porcelain rendered in silk and lights.
There are fields of glimmering butterflies, and there are characters rendered in an almost chibi-manga style. There are fish and owls and a long, triumphant phoenix. There are dinosaurs. There is an archway of hearts; lovers bundled in winter coats and hats kiss inside while a friend snaps pictures.
“Awww,” says Jim. “That’s sweet.”
A pavilion houses a series of displays that show how the lanterns were constructed. Mark, with his engineer’s soul, plunges enthusiastically, hands deep in pockets, dancing a little, but taking the time to read each installment. Jim stands right beside him, cold be damned. They learn that once the lanterns would have been made of rice paper, susceptible to rain and wind and fire. Now the intricate sculptures are made of wire with a sturdy, silk-like cloth stretched over the frames. They are illuminated from within. They glow but do not glare.
We wander out, finally, to the last exhibit, a huge, colorful pagoda, ornately bedecked with a profusion of symbols–among them, Chinese dragon heads guarding each of the corners. We circle slowly; our hands are freezing and those bathrooms beckon, but we are reluctant to be finished with this evening.
Before he leaves for work the next morning, Mark says, kind of wonderingly, “The boy really liked the Chinese lanterns.” And when Jim gets up he says, again, “Those lanterns: that was really cool.”
I let that enjoyment tumble in my mind all day. Why was this so much better than the zoo lights, despite the same, cold, wandering kind of format?
I think about Jim’s particular set of challenges. He has autism, which brings with it some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He also struggles with the bear of major depressive disorder. I have known others who walk with that black bear for a companion, and the bright lights and glorious music of holidays do not seem to scare the beast. If anything, the strident holiday reminders agitate the bear, make it rear up and show its claws.
So maybe piercing lights and in-your-face music are too much on the raw skin of depressive disorder.
The muted lights of the Lantern festival, the simple and elegant Asian chords, and the symbolism from a different culture entirely spoke more clearly to Jim than Deck the Halls or reindeer sleighs.
There are different kinds of darkness–inky seasonal darkness and the relentless darkness of the mind. There are grief and regret and consuming loneliness. There are physical challenges that restrict sight and sound, the ability to move and to communicate.
There is terminal disease; there is addiction. Mental health challenges. Disability and different ability. So many challenges the human family faces: so many shades of darkness.
And different kinds of light illuminate the different shades of night.
It is another early morning, and Greta and I wander down the hill, and I realize that the folks in the white colonial are all decorated for Christmas, still over a month away. Our door is wearing a glittery orange leaf; it catches the gleam of the little sconces we hung on either side of the door after the house was painted. It mirrors the leaves blowing into the front yard, and it beckons the whole yard-full of leaves still stubbornly stuck up in the front-yard tree: C’mon guys! Take the plunge!
The glitter leaf will stay there until Sunday, at least, and then we’ll think about how we’ll decorate for this yuletide season.
We have small, thin fake evergreen trees, pre-lit, that we’ve put on either side of the front door for the past two years. We store them in the old garage; this summer Mark peeled a long, leathery snakeskin off one of them. The bloom is off those little trees, at least for me.
We have stake lights that Jim picked out some years ago; they look like giant, old-fashioned Christmas bulbs. He liked them a lot the year he got them. Each year since, they’ve lost a little luster. We’ll let him decide if he wants to plunge those into the ground this year, lighting the path to the house.
There are tangled bales of colored and white twinkle lights. There are oversized plastic ornaments that have sometimes danced from the boughs of the tree outside the oversized kitchen window.
I am happy, this year, to go with whatever the boyos decide about outdoor illumination. (Last year’s November was downright balmy, if I remember right. This year, it is cold, and dark, and not great weather to be climbing on ladders and stringing twinkling lights.)
I’m thinking simplicity: green wreaths with red bows on all the windows.
I’m thinking we need to buy candles for the Advent wreath, which is just a green wreath we lay on a side table. We snug in four mis-matched brass candlesticks and begin, four weeks before Christmas day, to light one candle at dinnertime. I like the idea of the candle glowing in the bay window, of another joining the chorus each week. I like the symbolism of the light intensifying as winter grows darker, and as the celebration grows nearer.
Sometimes we buy the traditional colored candles: three purple tapers, and one pink. Sometimes we go with green and white candles, or with red and green. One year, I think, we had blue and silver tapers. We’ll wander out on Friday, Jim and I, buy chocolate for Christmas packages, get the last of the mailing-out gifts, and we’ll pick up the candles that will light our path to Christmas.
And we’ll look for light-filled ways to get ready. We may do something traditional; there are some drive-through light exhibits, including one at a state park not too far away, that don’t require leaving the warmth of a car. Driving allows us to control the loudness of the music, too. Maybe we’ll explore that this weekend.
This morning a friend sent a notice about a historical yuletide exhibit in a nearby town, in a restored Victorian house–a Christmas tableau lit by candlelight and flickering flames from a broad brick hearth. Maybe we’ll visit there, too.
And certainly we will explore other ways to pierce the darkness–with floods of words that speak to our hearts, with music that uplifts us, with films that make us laugh and sniffle and think about what could have been, what shouldn’t be, and how we can touch the future. We will gather with friends; we will reach out to family.
We will each confront our own special darkness, the physical and the spiritual, the emotional and the intellectual. Because, I realize in these latter days, we can’t ask others to constantly hold the lantern, to shine our demons away. It is our job–it is MY job–to find the sources of my darkness, and then to light the flames or turn on the spotlight that will illuminate those dreary, darkened corners. And only then, with my own darkness under control, can I, perhaps, help others light their special ways.
We will each this year, in our own way, search for the light that illuminates the season.