The Light Gets In

I kid you not—this is a different picture from the one on the last post. And I promise I’ll try to take more interesting/less repetitive pictures than this. But if you’ll indulge me, I there’s this one more…

We live in a sweet little home built in 1927, complete with original windows that are high on charm and low on energy efficiency. Every winter, I can tell how close we are to polar-vortex-like weather by the amount of frost on our windows. So far this year, the frost is still mostly on the upstairs windows, which is good. It means it’s cold enough to make the back door creak but not cold enough to give me frostbite on a quick run to the trash bin.

If the frost reaches the downstairs windows, though, look out. It’s a whole different story!

Sitting on the corner of the bed to get ready for the day, I glanced up at just the right moment to see this, little ferns of ice swirling their way across my bedroom window. Looks cold out there, I thought as I leaned forward to put some lotion on my winter-dried legs, only to glance up again from a different angle and find the ice looked completely different, more like a filmy opaqueness of dirt and dust. Certainly nothing that glinted in the sunlight.

It amazed me how such a small change in perspective could produce such a vastly different view–sparkles from one angle, dirt from the other.

The profound nature of this was probably somewhat heightened by my January funk, but I haven’t stopped thinking about that window since then.

About ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn photography. I read about composition and experimented with backgrounds, but eventually I realized if I wanted to up my photography skills, I needed to learn how to use the manual settings on my camera. To do that, I had to become a student of light.

I began by focusing on amount of light–was there enough light to capture a clear, focused image? If not, how could I play with the settings to capture more light? It sounded simple at the outset–Get More Light–but when I realized that there are at least three settings that control the amount of light captured in any image and that adjusting one affects the others, I started understanding more of the intricacies of images and I began to see images and settings differently.

Eventually I learned to ask myself more nuanced questions. How quickly is my subject moving? How intense is the light? Where is the light not falling? What color is the light? How does the lighting make me feel? I’m by no means an expert photographer or an authority on the manipulation of light, but photography grew my ability to see, and to understand what I see and how it makes me feel.

After my third miscarriage, I fell into a pit of deep grief. The sadness nearly smothered me into giving up, into giving into a lifetime of despair. It was only through the outpouring of love and care, some from near strangers, that I had enough clarity to commit to pursue joy again.

Around the same time, Elizabeth Edwards published a book–Resilience–and not much later, passed away from breast cancer. I’d been no more than mildly interested in John Edwards’ political career, but I found Elizabeth Edwards’ story intriguing–wife of a man with a failed presidential bid, diagnosed with cancer several times, and victim of a complicated and public spousal infidelity scandal. During the press coverage surrounding her book and death, someone explained her life’s anthem, which she had identified as a quote from a Leonard Cohen song:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

That’s what I want, I thought. If a dying woman can choose to live, and even to use her pain to shine brighter, surely I can find my way out of this sorrow eventually? I set it as my email signature, a daily reminder of the healing and light and beauty that is available to those who choose to continue ringing the bell.

When light encompasses us and brightens our day-to-day surroundings, it looks like…light. We get used to it. Maybe we even resent it when it illuminates our dirt or imperfections. Certainly, we notice its presence far less than its absence.

But when light passes through things–prisms, water, tunnels, cracks, even frosty windows–it looks like magic.

I think it’s that way, too, with the soul. When we live in the light, we get used to the light. But when the light shines through people–

through their kindnesses…

through their acts of service…

through their tears…

through their mistakes…

through their broken hearts…

that light makes magic.

It takes our breath away. It mesmerizes. It holds us spellbound.

This, I think, is the antidote to my wearying journey toward idealism and perfectionism. Reality, of course, is full of cracks. Trying to change that is an exercise in futility. But perhaps the path toward joy is less in fixing or preventing and more in awakening to the beauty found when the light shines through the fullness of all of our messy, frustrated, fractured selves.

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