This has not been a good year. For fifteen years now, Europe and North America have been at odds with Islamic extremists, and thousands of people, many of them 'soft targets,' have died at concerts, at work, in editorial offices, in busy markets, on their way innocently or curiously traveling from one place to another, going about their daily lives. The terrorists' anger does not seem to be abating, and nothing seems to assuage it--which I suppose is the definition of 'terrorist': I won't stop until I get my way. And of course, we can't let them have their way. The Syrian civil war goes on, with hundreds of thousands of people leaving the once busy, complex city of Aleppo and joining the parade of refugees. In turn, the tide of refugees from chaotic places in North Africa into Europe has made a profound change in Europe's political landscape--leading to the success of the Brexit vote and to increasing support for right wing and xenophobic parties and politicians. This trend crescendoed in North America with the election of Donald Trump, though oddly enough I am comforted by the fact that more Americans--2 million by the last count I heard--voted for a moderate, feminist voice of inclusion. That comfort doesn't do me or the Americans who most needed Clinton to win any good--those who are poor, those who aren't white. In turn, we are seeing a disturbing logic emerge in Trump's choice of a cabinet that does not in any way reflect the hopes and needs of the people who voted him into office. How long will it take them to discover they have been duped--another pawn of the Donald?
This makes me want to think, rebelliously, about light. I could begin by noting that in my childhood and adolescence little was made of the winter solstice--though of course we took note of the date when winter officially began. But we didn't obsess about the light. I think the credit for that goes to my generation, or those slightly older, whose New Age mythology (and I don't use that word derisively, to describe something that is fantastical and nonexistent) tied them more firmly to nature, the earth, the seasons. I remember my fabulous Chaucer professor at the University of Michigan, Leo McNamara, saying in a moment of extraordinary intimacy between an M.A. student and a professor in his late thirties "This time of year, I notice the days getting shorter and shorter, and blackness comes upon me. I wonder if daylight is going to disappear altogether." Professor McNamara had a large dose of Irish poetry running in his veins. But he explained something I had experienced for about eight years, but had no name for. Call it what you will: the black dog, depression, seasonal affective disorder, lack of emotional or intellectual energy, a tendency to lash out to people who were normally helpful and to want them to do the thing that would make this vaguely powerful feeling, this insistent anomie go away.
So it didn't surprise me that so many of my Facebook friends noted, with relief, the passing of the year's longest night, made apparently even darker by an eclipse, and wished their friends well. Made wiser by middle- and old-age, supported by a set of rules I apply rigorously to my life in December (e.g. don't drink; don't make judgements of others), appeased by a SAD light I commune with almost every morning between mid-October and mid-February, I find the dark days of the year bearable and only occasionally a challenge. But it doesn't surprise me that, this year particularly, there seemed to much collective anxiety floating about.
I found light in three perhaps surprising places. One was a Regina coffee shop called "Naked Bean," which I visited a couple of days before the solstice. The cafe was busy, partly because people were having their pre-Christmas social coffees, so I had to sit in one of the high chairs near the door. I was immersed in my re-reading of Anthony Doerr's remarkable novel about World War Two, All the Light We Cannot See--which is an odd thing to be reading at Christmas time, except perhaps for its obsession with light--when my attention was drawn by a wriggling dog who had arrived at the coffee shop's door and was scratching at it anxiously, as if his owner was inside and had forgotten him. When a woman left, the only thing she could do was open the door and let the dog in, who roved down the long room, smelling everyone and looking for just that smell that would be comforting and reassuring. A young barista followed his progress and, when it was clear the dog's owner was not there, took him to the front of the coffee shop where he examined his collar, asked his fellow worker to bring him a phone, and promptly called the owner to let them know their pet was safe but needed to be fetched. A sheepish young boy with a leash showed up not five minutes later.
What a simple act. And how much light it shed. It took the young man perhaps 5 minutes out of his day to unite a child and his dog. He had done it, he told me, because that's what he would want someone to do if his dog got loose. But the event didn't simply cast light into the days of the dog, his boy, and an elderly lady sitting close to the door. It cast light on the very act of casting light: how simple it can be, how close to home, how without drama or fanfare, how it only requires--at this time close to Christmas--us to think about how we would want others to treat us and act in the same way towards them.
My second burst of light came in the dark on the road from Saskatoon to Regina. Every year, the Saskatchewan Information and Library Services Consortium, for which my daughter Veronica works, has its December Board Meeting in Saskatoon. Veronica and I have for several years made the trek a morning before (necessary because the meeting begins at nine in the morning) so that in the afternoon we could do some Christmas shopping. This two-day trip has become its own ritual with tourtiere at Calories, a room at the Park Town Hotel with a view of the river, and several hours at McNally Robinson. But in between the holiday restlessness, we talk. In his Massey Lectures on winter, Adam Gopnik calls the car the "ultimate small-scale combined confessional booth and savannah box"--this latter in relation to his discussion of the wonders of central heating. So in our moveable confessional box, on the way home we got around to Trump's election, and I had confessed to my daughter that for an entire week afterward I had trouble focusing, and certainly couldn't write. She said "You said something when I was young about knowing which things you could do something about and which things you couldn't, and that it was important to know which was which. I can't do much about climate change, but I can keep my footprint as small as possible and walk wherever I can. I can't do anything about the election of a mean, mouthy man. But Della (the SPL person who takes care of them while they are in Saskatoon) arranged really nice lunches for us, so I emailed her and told her everyone was talking about the great food. And I work for an agency that has figured out how to give library cards to homeless people so they can take out books and sign up for computer time."
Yikes! I had no idea I regularly invoked the serenity prayer. I certainly had no idea that Veronica remembered it and used it to direct her life, much less that she had found what I sometimes cannot: the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you cannot. My daughter has leap-frogged over me into wisdom. We had talked the day before about the beauty of humility, of simple, humble goals in life and how much happier people are when their goals aren't out of proportion with their lives or their gifts, and I had her in mind when I talked about the research on humility--a way of validating her life and her choices without saying that was what I was doing. Here her humility does her great good, allowing her to choose to do what she can and not waste her time worrying about what she can't.
The light here is enormous, and has a lot in common with the light I'd glimpsed at Naked Bean. Light lives close to home and bursts into being in simple gestures like emailing a colleague about nice lunches. This light has clarity in an age of terrorism, xenophobia, and general selfish meanness: if we all do simple kind things we can out-light the bastards.
The third light was in Saturday's Globe and Mail. Elizabeth Renzetti began her regular Saturday column by talking about a father and son who had read Daniel Rotsztain's book, All the Libraries in Toronto, and were inspired to visit every one of them over six months. On the TVO website, father Lanrick Bennett Jr. talked about going with his son Jack on public transit to each of the libraries, where they had their copy of the book stamped. Mr. Bennett talked about how remarkable this time with his son had been, how they'd talked and had become closer. Renzetti goes on to describe how libraries are underfunded, yet nevertheless remain essential places where "Challenged with the question of how they shape their future--digital or analog--libraries have made themselves indispensable in the present, providing free movies and lectures, ESL lessons, open WiFi for bad teenagers, meeting places for refugees and exhausted new mothers alike." She cites Michael Sandel's book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which argues that we need public spaces, like libraries, where we can gather and where everyone is treated the same.
Obviously there's a connection between Renzetti's story and Veronica's life: libraries. But in both of them, libraries stand for cultural institutions, for literacy, for communal life, for beauty, for information, for attempts to find the truth in a "truthy" world. So, even if we have made it past the solstice yet still find ourselves surrounded by darkness, kindness and culture can ameliorate a lot. Writers, painters, musicians, film makers all want to ground us in an intense experience we are having here, now, an experience like and yet unlike our own, human yet not exactly ours. They want to share their own perspective, and varying perspectives are going to be golden over the next little while.
So my New Year's wish for you is for light. I am grateful for your ability to kindle it in surprising places. I want you to know how powerful you are, even in the face of terrorists and Trumps: you can give kindness to the person in front of you in line for coffee who discovers he does not have enough change, into the person you make eye contact with and smile to as you walk down the street, in the words of praise you speak to a co-worker. Even if you do not think of yourself as an artist or as part of some cultural institution, keep writing, thinking, creating in whatever ways seem good in your life: a letter to a friend or favourite aunt, a photograph of a sunrise sent to cheer a friend. And throw in a little kindness for good measure.