Pinpricks and Seedlings

It is dark when Mark heads out to work in the morning; when he comes stomping in at the end of the day, it is, again, dark. And yesterday the snow fell, focused and steady, all day long.

I miss our walks. (It will not be long now; very soon I can lace up my regular old shoes and retire the surgical boot, and then, if the day is nice and the sidewalks aren’t icy, I can head out. I miss moving and stretching; I miss seeing neighbors and friends who are also walkers; and I miss the fresh air and the pale winter sunshine.)

It’s easy to understand why people fall prey to seasonal affective disorder when their only glimpse of the daylight is out the window of their workplace.

If their workplace has a window.

It is winter. It is dark. And that seems like a metaphor in so many ways.


I am reading a lovely book called Wintering : the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. May turns forty, and her husband is stricken with a sudden, very serious, illness. Their young son decides he doesn’t want to go to school; it is an unexpected but violent preference. And, as her husband slowly heals, May herself grows sick—so ill she walks doubled-over, and she spends much of her time in bed, sleeping.

It’s a winter time in her life, May writes, and she divides the book into winter sections: October, when the darkness comes creeping closer; November, when the cold settles in. The deep of December. The magic of the lights of the aurora borealis that flit through January’s darkness. February and the snow.  March, and she balances industry and rest.

And then the blooming begins, and the dark season wanes, as she knew it would.

But some seasons are longer than others (think Game of Thrones) and some darkness is hard to penetrate with battery-powered flashlights, lights carried with the cringing hope that the batteries are fresh enough not to flicker and fail.


I know what May means about winter seasons in life; sometimes, loss and grief, illness and disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of mis-belonging settle in deep. Sometimes, we just have to hunker down and see it through, drowse by the fire, escape into a book with no literary value—candy for the mind. Start no new projects. Place a moratorium on making energetic plans. In the winter times (the dark times) it is, often, enough to endure.


The pandemic, of course, is part of the darkness. We’re thankful, now, that my brother Sean, sister-in-law Nora, and two of their children are on the mend.

Four or five months ago, we sat in the middle of a series of concentric circles. Way out there, far off on the outer ring fringes, were some people who were sick. We didn’t know them personally, so much, but we knew someone who knew someone.

Then there was a slow creep. The virus jumped to the next circle, still comfortably far away, but now we KNEW that person.

And then we had to quarantine because the virus was staining our safe little no-man’s land, creeping, seeping closer.

Now the disease bubbles madly in the circle right next to ours. We pull our masks up tight, wield hand sanitizer like a weapon, like a torch. We stand back-to-back in our tight little space, hoping to ward off the enemy with our tiny stash of lights.

We worry about the people we know who are affected. A friend’s elderly mother can’t have visitors in her nursing home isolation, and struggles with the illness and the loneliness. A niece mourns her husband’s mother and brother, both gone so quickly.

Schools close. People argue about masks and gatherings and curfews and lockdowns—bitter and angry arguments. There’s a brooding, simmering discontent.

It is a dark time, a dark, dark time.

And then the vaccination arrives, a tiny pinprick of light, a wee small sigh of hope whispered on a horizon.


And dark politics roil up, too,–vicious, contentious simmering…dangerous and threatening. Helpless, we watch from the sidelines. Voting done, there is no action to take but to pray that law prevails.

It is a wintertime, as May writes so eloquently. It would be a wintertime even if the sun shone close to the earth and the temperature soared to a hundred and four. These are days when sometimes the best I can do is light a fire in the fireplace and reread a book that’s like an old friend…words so well-worn they require no mental effort, no new thoughts.

We plod along, getting ready for the holiday. We mail off cards and packages to people we would rather see in person, to people we haven’t seen (or hugged) in far too long.

This winter has been a really long one.


One morning, de-cluttering for Christmas, I reach into a drawer and pull out a baggie. Seeds! Terry’s family’s heirloom tomato seeds! I had rejoiced to get them, and then I had put them aside, and, in the hustle and bustle of life, I never planted the precious things.

Instead Mark went out in the late spring and bought five little tomato plants; he put them in our kitchen sink garden on the patio, and he nurtured them.

They flourished and bloomed, and then heavy little tomatoes appeared, green and hard.

Mark watched them eagerly.

“Tomorrow,” he’d say, “that one should be ready.”

And tomorrow would dawn, and that one would be gone: a raccoon’s snack, a deer’s hors d’oeuvre. Not a single tomato made it to our plates last summer. We had to buy our ripened fruits at the farmer’s market.

Now I wonder if we could grow some tomatoes inside. I wonder if I have left these seeds too long, and if they’ve lost the will to sprout.

But we have a paper egg carton with 18 egg-crannies, and we have a bagful of seed starter, and here are the seeds. I am afraid I’ve wasted this potential, but I think, “Why not? What will it hurt to try?”

We fill the egg-crannies with the good rich dirt, and we sprinkle the seeds. I put the carton on a tray and nestle it on the old treadle sewing machine, next to the front window.

Every morning I water the dirt gently.

In a week there are two sprouts.

I am excited out of all proportion. I wait for more to emerge. The two tender seedlings soldier along, but nothing else seems to happen.

Maybe, I think, the light is wrong. I move the tray next to the Advent wreath, onto the cabinet in the bay window, where the pale winter sun sighs through the sheers from 8 until five. I water them in the morning.

When I come home, there are seven brave green shoots, bowing toward the light.

We light the Advent candles at night, and the seedlings seem to stand up straighter, reaching toward the flames.


Jim suggests that, as a nod to Christmases past, we re-watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies in the evenings. For three years, we made seeing the films a part of our Christmas day. Mark and I had both discovered the books in high school, and we both re-read them at least once a decade. And Jim fell wholeheartedly into the films, immersed and fascinated.

So for three Christmases we eagerly awaited the latest film. When the series was complete, we bought the boxed sets and re-watched them at home, and we waited for Jackson to film The Hobbit trilogy so we could start another Christmas movie habit.

Now, at first, Mark and I go along with the suggestion to humor Jim. We watch half a film a night; we’re energized by Jim’s delight.

And quickly, of course, the well-wrought stories draw us in.

I am getting ready for bed one night when the word valor falls firmly onto the bony floor of my mind. We had just watched a scene where Legolas, fearing there was no way to win the battle, told Aragorn he would follow him anyway.

What is valor but the decision to hope when hope seems like the least possible path?

Last night we watched the final film in the series, The Return of the King. The landscape, in many scenes, was beyond desolate. The enemy’s army was a horde. And yet, in that bleakness, there was honor, there was courage, and there were deep, abiding friendships. There was hope simmering beneath dread.

I think of this quote, from the movie and the book:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

We live in a time of pandemic, of violence, of climate catastrophe.

And yet.

These are the times that are given us. What can we do with this time?


After the seeds started sprouting, I started looking around. When Jim was four, Mark had a kidney surgery, and his officemates sent him a plant. We have repotted and separated it time and again, and here, in this house, we have two of its descendants. They were growing long and tangled.

I cut the longest tendrils and stuck them in glasses of water on the kitchen windowsill. And: magic. Roots sprouted.

This week, I filled pots with dirt and started three new plants. Three plants from a 26-year-old, well-traveled, mama! The rooted shoots took a day or two to think about the dirt they were stuck in, and then they decided to thrive. Their leaves are glossy; they are turning toward the light. They drink up all the water I can offer.


Our sweet neighbor Deirdre left a tiny plant on my front steps last spring; its pot was maybe an inch in diameter, and the little plant was loaded with tiny flowers. It put it, too, on the windowsill by the sink, and I pretty much forgot about it.

The flowers faded; when I thought to water the tiny thing, they came back. And then their season must have passed, but the sturdy little plant hung in there, green and paused, and grateful for what little attention I offered.

And now, I had the potting soil out; I had an extra pot. So I repotted the tiny plant, and it caromed swiftly into a growth spurt. It’s sitting on top of the bread box in the big kitchen window, its healthy leaves reaching four and five inches into the air.

It may be dark winter, but things are growing, and not stealthily, either. This is raucous, joyful clamor.


Deirdre, in fact, texted me this morning. She attached a cell phone photo of our house; it looked like a holiday postcard in the untrammeled snow that flatters everything. The Christmas tree lights shone from the front window onto the lawn.

“I love your tree!” she wrote. “I love looking outside and seeing your lights.”

I think that it is possible, in simple cheerful ways, to share light with others during dark days.

And tonight, Theresa, a former student, called to touch base. As she was signing off, she said, “Have you read about the Christmas star? Be sure to look up on the 21st!”

I looked the star phenomenon up online to find that Jupiter and Saturn will align, and a star will shine as it hasn’t shone for 2o years—a great and unusual conjunction. And maybe, a symbol we need right at the time when we need it.



Last night I woke at 3 a.m., and the room was brightened. I pushed the curtain aside; moonlight reflected off the pristine snow. The glow enticed and allured; I could not close my eyes. I sat up and turned on the lamp, and I read into the even wee-er hours, buoyed by the light.


In the week to come, we’ll celebrate a feast of light during the darkest days of the year.


Winter comes, bringing darkness and cold and sometimes, a thick layer of snow. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to hunker down, to stay close, to brew the coffee, to pull the blanket up, and to drowse by a flickering fire.

Sometimes the darkness and the cold seem pervasive, and it’s hard to imagine any kind of miracle.

But seeds sprouts, and lights flicker, then grow strong. In the clear dark night, a baby cries, and his parents comfort him with work-hardened, loving hands.


I may not have chosen this time, but I can choose how to live within it.

I may need to winter a while, but I know there is growth, and warmth, and light.

Hope abides in this dark if I just have the valor to believe.

Different Darkness, Different Lights

Early morning: I let Greta out into a pitch black world, and I stand shivering on the cement stoop while she traverses the backyard. Her white patches glow; they signal where she’s headed. She doesn’t dilly-dally; it is cold, and there are secrets hidden in the dark.

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.



Lanterns 1

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.