Thursday, October 14, 2004

Light and Not-Light

These days I think a lot about light. On a literal level, there is less of it each day. My indoor therapy lamp seems to help with mood, but sitting under the lamp for an hour is a poor substitute for a two-mile walk complete with foliage approaching peak. This morning I couldn’t help myself. Late to work or not, I craved time outdoors and happily tramped up to the corner and back.

As I walked, I thought of my friends. I have become unabashedly Vermont-centric. When out of town visitors come, they tend to think we are excessive in our love for this place where we live. But everywhere I looked this morning, I waxed enthusiastic: the frosty fields, the foliage (well, really, it is exceptional), the composition of scenes of lake with cows and mountain backdrop. Is it boring when I go on like this?

In large part, what makes the view always breathtaking is the difference in light. The quality of the light changes with the different angles in different seasons, and the backdrop colors vary so dramatically from spring and summer’s myriad greens to splashy foliage to winter white that the view is—quite literally—always new. As the foliage approaches peak, light bounces off the yellows, not so much off the reds, and the very contours of the hills are transformed. With my visitor last week, I found myself saying again and again, “Look, just look at that.” While she appreciated the views, I don’t think she felt the awe that comes with repeated experience of the same vista in different lights. There is so much to look at here.

Light and shadow have long been themes for writers more accomplished than I. My old favorite, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita springs to mind. If I tell you that it is about the devil’s visit to Moscow, the crucifixion, and the story of a novelist imprisoned by Stalin, that probably doesn’t do much to make it sound readable, but it is. Bulgakov’s use of plot is surpassed only by his use of imagery, with light and darkness predominant.

The image at the end of Pontius Pilate, his sins forgiven, being led up a beam of moonlight has staying power long after the book is closed. You remember Pontius Pilate. He washed his hands of making the decision to crucify Yeshua, the name for Bulgakov’s distinctly human Jesus figure. Pilate’s sin was to fail to choose between fighting for light or fighting on the side of darkness.

Let’s get one thing straight. This is not about being on the winning side—right can lose, often does lose. It is also not about finding the silver lining, a wimpy way of saying “Oh well, I didn’t really care,” handwashing after the fact. Most important, it is about recognizing that the light does not exist without the darkness and that both are within us. It is about trying to find where the light leads us, but looking hard at shadow and contour.

In Vermont, in this season of not-light and changing contours, we get new angles on the world. But in any season and from any latitude, we have the obligation to choose between fighting for light or fighting on the side of darkness.

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