The darkness of December and its inevitable soul-sucking cold snap is upon us, and just like that, right on schedule, sprouting up in objection to the sudden nightfall on houses, trees, fences, churches, bars, malls, highways and byways are bursts of holiday lights, blazing with positivity, promise, and heat, and fulfilling the ancient pagan tradition of lighting fires and torches in the dead of winter to worship the returning sun, and living out in real time the adage, “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Much darkness to be cursed these days, as always, but we’re not going there. If you’re reading this, linked to the free world via a computer or perusing your neighborhood community newspaper in your favorite neighborhood coffee shop, bar, bus, bedroom, or tree fort, you’re one of the lucky ones. You are connected. You have some semblance of a home, friends, family, and hopefully meaningful work and roots in your community, and enough sense to both appreciate it all and still yearn for more, so much more.
Me, I’m writing this on a bellyful of Thanksgiving leftovers, my spirit momentarily sated by the company of close family and friends, and a weekend’s worth of playing and hearing unforgettable live soul music. I was acutely present for all of it, taking deliberate time to practice the power of now and gratitude in every delicious moment, probably because I spent the morning after Thanksgiving in the Midway Walmart on University Avenue in St. Paul, where living wage advocates staged a protest on behalf of underpaid Walmart employees.
Poor families trolled the aisles, glumly browsing boxes of DVDs and standing in front of walls of flat-screen TVs, trying to decide how big a screen, how warm a fire, they could afford. The sight of insatiable blank-faced shoppers’ faces has always made me blue, and this depressing diorama was especially vivid and has stayed with me: Rows and rows of capitalism’s losers seeking entertainment and escape from their stunted existence.
That is not my story, but given the times I know it could be. Me, I’m writing this with a stack of unpaid bills at my elbow and the annual pressure of delivering Christmas gifts to the ones I love on my mind. I’ve made my living as a freelance writer, teacher, author, and songwriter for going on five years now, and, as my family can attest, even though I write and publish as many articles as I ever have on a weekly basis, even though I constantly fish for more work, it’s not much of a living. My wife works at a nonprofit and carries most of our very real financial burden, and we both feel the stress.
That is the extent of my troubles, and our darkness, but tough times be damned I am hardwired to light candles. I have no other choice but to believe there are riches beyond what we’ve been led to believe is a good life, so no matter how much the world may devalue me as a man of little monetary worth, I refuse to be defined or enslaved by the consumerism and class matrix that rules America. To keep my sanity I concentrate on not what I don’t have but what I do: Health, food in the refrigerator, a warm bed, my dog, my beautiful children, music, love, an ability to give of myself if not gifts, and the knowledge that, as a provider for my family, I will not go down without a fight.
Which is what I see this year in the explosion of Christmas lights all over town. History has taught us that inside each of those well–lit homes there is a struggle, probably even some sadness, but I’m seeing them in a different context this year. In each holiday display, no matter how simple or garish, I see an altar made by a real person with real problems who took the time to not curse the darkness but to light up the night and embrace all of life’s uncertainty and splendor.
I took the photo that accompanies this column around this time last year. I’d been walking my dog on a timeless, cold, and quiet night in my beautiful comfortable neighborhood, surrounded by mansions that could probably house four families each. The best part about December’s darkness, of course, is that windows shine forth like aquariums, and the creeper in me can’t help but momentarily linger on the warm goings-on of my neighbors.
Which is what happened as I walked down to Lake Harriet that night. The year’s first big billowy snowfall was in full swing, a solitary man was hanging Christmas lights, and I grabbed my camera. In that moment I saw the human spirit distilled down to a single super heroic act of providing us all with something infinite, holy, and warm to gather around, and a flame to be fanned far and wide. Pass it on.