Finding Peace (and Courage?) on Longest Night of the Year
ith the longest night of the year just days from Christmas, the high dose of darkness may as well be a lump of coal in my stocking. One of the reasons I try to get outside is to rejoice in the light of day.
After a brisk walk, the sun slips behind the spired pines and the daylight wanes. The thermometer dips, and dusk begins its descent. In spite of the wintry cathedral, the warmth generated from moving through the snow inspires me to take a seat in the Adirondack chair on the deck. All’s peaceful. Almost holy.
The day before, I’d meant to return a missed call but hesitated partly out of fear. It’d been a long while, and things hadn’t ended well the last time we spoke. I didn’t want to risk my phone quitting in the freezing cold in the middle of that return call. Enough had already been interrupted. So, I walked and called my daughter instead. Traded one-liners from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with my grandsons.
Heading back home, a dead phone stowed in my down pocket, I’m warm, but a chill settles in the back of my mind as twilight begins too soon. I should have made that call months ago. I thought of my grandchildren’s voices, all the voices of all the children I loved. I prayed an answer would arrive like a single, original snowflake landing on a bright red mitten. The surprising missed call the day before seemed a hopeful sign that a stuck door might be opening after all. Texting and emailing, when it comes to conflict resolution, is useless. Sometimes only a beating-heart voice will do.
I’d returned the missed call, took me a day to muster up the courage, only to learn the caller wasn’t aware that they’d even made the call in the first place. Talk about mixed signals. But in light of all that had transpired, I didn’t say that. Instead, I tried not to curse the dark but lit a candle, of sorts, in the spirit of new birth, forgiveness and the tool of technology. Was the error a single snowflake in disguise?
“Let’s try to patch things up,” I said, searching for some honest ground to go on. “It’s Christmas.”
My ego wanted to say, “I don’t like being on the wrong side of things.” And I wanted to say that we all say things in the heat of the moment that we may not exactly mean to say. Words can be too heavy and give way, and feelings can avalanche. Then everyone’s stuck. Instead, I listened -- something I’ve been working on since I was 7. (I give you Ms. Dwyer in the first grade and her quiet corner.)
“Can I call you later this afternoon?” replied the voice, explaining that they were about to go out the door. Did I hear the sound of angels’ voices or falling on one’s knees?
“Call anytime,” I said, before squeezing in, “I hope we can patch up our differences. Love ya.”
The conversation, if two or three lines eked out under the pressures of expectations and exits, can be called such, strangely called up the time I got a hopeless gash in my tire, and my savior, Matt at the auto shop, miraculously patched it up from the inside.
“That should do ya for the life of the tire,” he said with a reassuring smile.
On the icy deck, I peer like a church mouse from a knothole in the step of some altar. Not quite a member, but a dweller nonetheless. For the moment, my phone is charging in the kitchen while the snowfields, treetops and an air-buttressed dome begin to whisper vespers of reparations. One call-back. It occurs to me that maybe we can so readily disagree with family members because deep down we trust that the bedrock of familial foundations will come through in the end.
At least I hope so, and I draw my scarf up around my face as the eastern white pines loom in the bottling cold, their boughs against the last bit of light, like burgeoning clouds. The only movement, it seems, is the ubiquitous shroud of nightfall unfolding inside this natural nave. It spreads into the open places that the trees themselves have missed and the chimneyed houses have spared.
Then, one porch light comes on, as a candle might be quietly lit, and then another follows, and as a Christmas tree twinkles across the way and the neighbor’s herd of birch reindeer in red bows bends in the upward glow of a solar spotlight, the faint call of a jet’s turbines whir the domed darkness as if to stir the stars in the heavens.
Inside the house, a string of C-7 bulbs drapes our tree in red and green and yellow and blue and reflect off the window pane. Just outside, their cheeriness lands, fairylike, on the snow. I’m a child again, and it’s midnight Mass. The voices of my younger brother and two sisters join in with mine and the other children singing, “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining ...” and the lights all around flicker in harmony to the night’s ode and the sweet childhood memory.
But the great pines out here are still. A nearby mill churns with the call of its industry. The call of exhaust dusts from a distant car. The muffled call of fluffed wings from a nearby branch beckons. Unseen, snow lifts before it sifts and drifts downward. The call of a dog echoes cross-lots. Perhaps a greeting for someone home from work. Dad loved to say, “Don’t curse the darkness.” He was trying to prepare me for those dark moments we all encounter at one time or another. And as if in reply, that nightfall sky offers the first star, and soon the appearance of Cassiopeia’s Chair urges me to move inside to a warmer post.
I leave the piny pine cones and red-berry sprigs in their snow-filled wire basket on the deck table. My phone is probably charged by now. Opening the door and taking the first step inside, the floor responds welcomely to the stamp of my boots. The night is cast with candles in the windows. It’s time. First I write a sentiment for a special digital Christmas card: “Light a candle, be heartfelt. Sing a carol, praise Orion’s belt. For to dance under the stars’ firmament above is the way to give presence to our spirit of love.”
I press send. Then I wait by the fire for that promised call.
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .