Our Unremitting Efforts to Combat Darkness
by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
It’s the last act of “Merchant of Venice.” The drama of the trial is over, and Shakespeare, wrapping up the play in a regular wallow of romance, waxes briefly philosophical. The weary world, like ours, suffers in darkness; but a tiny candle can overcome it, both physically and figuratively. Many of us can remember that during the Second World War at sea, smoking was forbidden on deck. A good U-boat lookout with a pair of binoculars could spot the glowing ash of a cigarette from miles away.
Think of all the bright, sunshiny songs we learned as kids – “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,” “Chanukah Light,” “Light one Candle,” the list goes on. We were pretty much indoctrinated in the notion that without our unremitting efforts to combat encroaching darkness, it would swallow the world. That’s probably true.
We anthropoids have always been intuitively afraid of darkness. In our early days, it concealed the predators we feared, just beyond the mouth of our shelter or the ring of our firelight. Later, in the cities, it masked the actions of thieves, muggers, and gangs. The proliferation of motion-activated floodlights and cameras today bespeaks our continued uneasiness with the dark.
Years ago, we had tough city kids taking Outward Bound courses on the islands of the Maine coast, and discovered they were terrified of natural, complete darkness. They’d never experienced that before. It was impossible to feel superior to them; we preppy types were just as afraid of the darkness they came from.
I drove home from the park around sunset yesterday afternoon, and couldn’t help but notice how the waxing gibbous moon pointed way off toward the south, where its light was coming from. The sun seems to have run away from us. I’m hoping that the solstice will be sunny; I’m going to stick a little piece of masking tape on the floor somewhere to mark the shadow of a front window casing – sort of a poor man’s Stonehenge. And then each sunny day I can watch that tape get left behind by advancing spring, until finally the day comes that I’ll have to wear a ball cap to shade my eyes while I make breakfast.
If you’re looking for something to brighten these brief, dark, cold days, consider that the sun will begin returning in just two weeks. I know, I know. The weather always follows the sun by about six weeks, so the cold will continue to deepen till around Candlemas – in secular terms, Groundhog Day. But winters just aren’t any more what we remember. It’s been quite a while since any of us here have seen 30 below, lugged our car batteries inside for the night, or put pans of hot ashes under the oil pan before trying to set out in the morning. I think those were called the good old days.
My friend Larry in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, last week pronounced the disappearance of his sun. They won’t see it again for a few weeks; but thanks to a dim twilight at high noon and what I call snowlight at night, people get around all right. The temperature there at the moment, however, just north of the Arctic Circle, is -25º Fahrenheit, with light snow. But they’re on the internet, just like us at night, and looking at the same black windows we are.
Our ancestors, not so very long ago, wrestled with the challenges of long winter darkness with few of the marvels we enjoy. Dickens’ “bright, dry, gleaming rooms” were lit by candles or whale oil lamps. The paintings of the magi adoring the Christ Child ignore the fact that candles and lamps weren’t very popular with stable owners; the wise men were probably feeling their way around in the dark. My grandparents in urban Albany, N.Y., lived in a three-decker with one toilet in an empty coal bin down on the first floor. There were no lights anywhere, so to go to the john at night you took an old D Cell flashlight down two flights of stairs and prayed nobody else was in there.
There’s a reason all our midwinter holidays are festivals of light. With yule logs, the miracle of the temple menorah, and the light shining in the darkness uncomprehended, we create and celebrate our own light, and paste a bit of tape on the floor to mark the return of the natural light of the world.