Sun in the Window

Last time I wrote it was advent, and I was waiting for the light to come.

Tonight I’m outside in the front yard, coaxing the light in. Fred is spacing the paper bags evenly along the sidewalk and driveway. I’m setting the candles upright, grounding them in the sand, making sure the wicks are ready to catch a flame. Neighbors who walk and drive by silently most nights are stopping to shout “Merry Christmas!” as their curious dogs look on. There’s something old fashioned and magical about these little bags of sand and light.

They make me think of Pittsburgh. In  the neighborhood in the South Hills where I grew up, every house lined the road on Christmas Eve. The Shamrock Manor Women’s Club took orders every fall and dropped off sand and bags and candles as the holiday approached. On cold Christmas Eves, after we’d opened the gifts from the siblings, my father and brothers would put on heavy coats and strike their flimsy matches against the wind and dark.

Later, as we drove to my grandmother’s house and then to midnight mass, the world would be transformed. Luminaria decorated the hills like chains of earthbound stars. We’d sing Christmas carols in the car and go silent as we entered the darkened chuch.

That church is a gym now. My parents are gone. All of my aunts and uncles, two of my siblings, and a few of my cousins have passed beyond this earthly light as well. I’m thinking about them tonight,  dipping my hand into each bag, holding the flame at the end of my lighter against the wick until I see it swell.

I’m remembering one especially sad lunch with my parents. My father was already ill with cancer; my mother was overwhelmed by the thought of that loss, beginning her long slide into dementia. Soup and breadsticks were one of the few foods they could both still enjoy, so we had come to Olive Garden for lunch. The light was gray outside the windows and the trees were bare.

“What if none of it is true?” my mother wondered.

She was thinking about another life, a life they might share after they shed their aging bodies and met again in some promised, airy beyond.

I was thinking about how true it had all been already, how the spring had returned and refilled the branches every year, how the luminaria had stayed lit in the snow, how my parents’ love, swelling like two flames into one, had lit my childhood.

This year it hit sixty degrees on Christmas Eve in Albuquerque and the luminaria burned all night.  Christmas afternoon, a column of  sun poured through our dining room window like the beam from a light saber. All afternoon, this wide cone of light traced a path through the blinds, across the orchid on the table, past the Christmas tree, and into the hall.

Rusty felt it first, and went to lie in the glow.

I saw it while I was on the phone with my sister, miles away in Ohio.  It outshone the lights on the Christmas tree, which shrank back into the branches, recognizing that this wasn’t their time to glow.

A little while later, Fred came in.

“Look at that light,” he said, walking into the family room from his office. “I’ve never seen it quite like that before.”

I have been thinking about light a lot this Christmas season. Ever since Thanksgiving,  I’ve been enjoying the lights on my neighbors’ houses. The neighborhood is aglow with snowflakes, twinkling laser shows, a Santa Claus pig, and simple strings of colored bulbs hanging from the eaves. I like these little stands against the darkness; these tiny blinking beacons shouting into the night.

Recently as I was thinking about how hard churchgoers have worked to turn a religion born out of love and an explicit rejection of power into a hierarchical system hungry for power at any cost, I read an article that mentioned that Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a practice. It made me think about the weeks I used to spend with students at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center in the Jemez mountains. Once a year for a bunch of years I’d travel to the center with a group of eager teenagers.

We’d rise at dawn, don our robes, and sit zazen in the zendo. We’d breathe in and out until we’d pulled the light over the edge of the mountains. After breakfast on those cold mornings I’d take my coffee and stand by the river, imagining what it would be like to let the cycle of light sculpt my days. I’m wondering what the world would be like if more people treated Christianity as a practice, as a simple way of being light in the world.

On nights like tonight when the moon is small, I carry a flashlight when I walk Rusty in the evening. There’s a dark patch where the road loops behind my house, a wild space where the street dead ends into the mesa. If I’m carrying a tiny circle of light,  I move through it without looking over my shoulder, without listening for footsteps in the rustling  leaves.

Sometimes I think it is all real. Sometimes I think that the birds are the heavenly hosts, swooping in to warn us, singing to bring us joy, dancing on the wind to outline the breath of a holy spirit.

Sometimes on a quiet Christmas afternoon when the planet tilts just right, I walk into my living room and see a solid column of light.

Sometimes when I strike a match and light a candle I am certain that light has an edge; that fire will always find a way to outshine the darkness.

Sometimes when the  year has been full of aggressive shadows, when it has seemed like the darkness is swelling, I can toss a candle into a paper bag of sand.  I can strike a match, touch it to the wick, and watch the flame swell, as it passes from one torch to another.

Sometimes in Pittsburgh, rays of winter light would catch in the bare branches outside my parents’ kitchen window.

I can see it now, that light that stretches across time and distance. See how it chases away the darkness; see how it warms me still.

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Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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