“Don’t you love how the light is there?”
Light and dark meant something different when I was younger, and my kids were little, probably because, like all of us moms, I was so busy. Light and dark were just days and nights of blurry movement that ran together, one exactly like the day before. To our young children, light meant that it was time to get up, irrespective of the hour or the numbers on the clock, and for moms, that meant reporting to duty. Darkness was relevant mostly for the promise of quitting time (bedtime), and later, as a distinct reminder that they “should” be sleeping, even as they (and you) were still very much awake.
And while I’ll admit that whispering sweetly to a baby in a dark and quiet house seems lovely in the abstract of my middle-aged-mom memory, in real-time it felt more like a dangerous combination of exhaustion and desperation, as I paced with a baby I was sure I should best be able to comfort, the child’s demanding cries making it painfully obvious to us both that I could not. In the days before 24/7 news and internet chat boards, peering out of the front windows to find ours the only house on the street with lights on, the darkness felt like isolation, and sometimes even like failure. I secretly wondered if the competing interests of the baby’s and my opposing circadian rhythms suggested that I might forever have to choose between the meeting of their basic human needs and my own.
The summer that my busy little boys were 3 and 1, it rained down on our Kansas home for so many days and weeks in a row that it became known as the summer of the Great Flood of 1993, though in our family, it was known as the summer that the boys watched entirely too much television and Mommy very nearly lost her mind. I was less worried about being swept away by the swollen waters of Brush Creek than I was about being swept away by the rushing waters of my hopelessness and frustration and the pent-up misery of my toddler boys. Some mornings, the discovery of yet another day of fresh water dripping down my windows led to salt water dripping down my face. I wondered if either deluge would ever stop.
But, as we are old enough to know now, night feedings and rainy seasons do, always, come to an end. Most of the memories of our young family are sunny everyday ones, in the backyard that looked impossibly tiny when we visited last spring, little receivers in too-big football helmets catching passes from their dad at quarterback, or competing in elaborate obstacle courses constructed with stuff we had laying around. There were little girls in pigtails singing quietly to themselves on the swing set, and delightedly helping me plant flowers. For a brief time, even the nocturnal darkness took on a peaceful tone, when all of the children were tucked tidily into warm beds, safe and accounted for under our own roof.
And as the kids grew, the stakes grew. Sometimes I worried, along with my mom friends and sometimes with sharp concern, about our almost-grown kids, who were notably not tucked into their beds under our roof, or were struggling to varying degrees with things that made colic look, appropriately, like a baby problem. I sometimes worried, along with my breast cancer friends and sometimes with a deep and abiding fear, if I was going to live to see it all work out, and how it would be ok if I didn’t. And so sometimes I found myself pacing again, an older mom decades removed from those first sleepless nights, but back at it in the only house with lights on; even the advent of middle-of-the-night cable and internet message boards were no match for the return of middle-of-the-night feelings of isolation, and sometimes even of failure.
I don’t know if it was the slower pace of mothering older children or of survivorship that was the catalyst, but somewhere along the way, I began to notice the light. Somehow, it had become less binary over time: it wasn’t simply the either/or, the dark or light, the day or night anymore. And it wasn’t the most sunny part of the yard that most pleased my eye, and not even the blinding sun of the beach I loved. It was the filtered light that made my heart sing, the dance of light and dark together. Everywhere I looked, in every season, I noticed something new about the beauty of shadows, the sun peeking over the tree branches and through the fluttering leaves, and the clear, golden color of everything when the sun sank, far and low in the sky.
I am not in the early spring of life anymore, and probably not even in summer. I am no longer a young mom who fears that a baby might never stop crying, or that another mom would be better suited for the job. I am long past the worry that the constant sacrifice of early motherhood will never end, that an adolescent misstep signals permanent and total disaster. Through light and dark, I have come to know the impermanence of things, and – on the best days, anyway – to keep them in perspective. In the autumn of our lives, we know in our very beings the circadian rhythm of days and nights, seasons of warm sun and cold rain, how surely they return, and how quickly they retreat. None of us have reached middle age without surviving seasons of gray skies of many kinds, and we know that life’s seasons, both lovely and difficult, will surely pass.
There is health and there is illness, there is abundance and there is scarcity, there is joy and there is suffering. It is not just “out there” in the world; it is in our communities, our friends, our families, our very homes. Most confusing is when we have both within ourselves. Maybe this is what Carl Jung was talking about, when he spoke of the paradox being such a valuable spiritual teacher. In it, we learn: to abandon the idea of light and dark in isolation, the either/or, and the me or them. To find the “and”, to seek the “both”.
And so, it is the dance of light and dark together that often speaks most accurately to our experience: abundance born of scarcity, wellness treasured after illness, joy more fully embodied because of our experience with suffering. We see light in a new way, when we acknowledge the coexistence of the darkness.
The real beauty is in seeing them both, together.