Of Candle-Lighting

It was just another night of plugging away at schoolwork, and I was half-listening to Nightwish’s album Imaginaerum, loaned to me by a thoughtful student. “Last Ride of the Day,” appropriately one of the last songs, was pounding away as I worked. In the midst of the triumphant refrain, these lines caught my ear:

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead…”

 I paused and looked up the lyrics to make sure I’d heard right. The song goes on to wholeheartedly support seizing the beauty and joy of the moment despite the dark.

That simple line of poetry, and its sense in the context of the song, has remained with me all week. It could be the title of this chapter in my life.

Five or six years ago, I didn’t feel an affinity with lyrics from Nightwish or Evanescence. I didn’t write stories where characters were broken at the end and stayed broken. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the Hunger Games trilogy. And I absolutely never, ever wore black. Ever.

 But that was before I supported one of my very best friends through months of brokenness and rejection at the hands of nearly everyone around her, starting with her fiancée. That was before another best friend was pushed to physical and mental limits by her job. That was before my grandmother and another dear friend died. That was before I made a new friend who suffers from depression and a schizophrenic mother. This was before I knew the meaning of the financial worry of living on one’s own on a miniscule paycheck—and trying to finish graduate school. It was before I had students of my own, with their deep hurts and sorrows and loves and losses. It was back when school shootings were just something abstract, before my imagination took me into every home of every parent and child affected.

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead.”

But that was also before I understood my personal mission in life. My mission involves candle-lighting. And if one’s really going to light candles with any sense of urgency, one has to see the dark.

Perhaps I should clarify “personal mission.” I believe with all my heart that the Bible teaches that we were each created with our own personalities and gifts (which are enlarged and enhanced by our unique experiences) in order to fulfill a specific God-given role, in His “church” (if you’re using the language of 1 Corinthians 12), or His Great Story (if you’re using my favorite metaphor). And in this story, every character counts. There are no secondary characters. My “personal mission” is my role as a character in the story. And it’s not something I’m being dragged into, kicking and screaming. It’s something I was made for. “That,” as Gandalf says, “is an encouraging thought.”

Like I said, I understand and have accepted my mission. It is, quite simply, to love people. To love a few specific people—who God always deliberately brings across my path—with enough intensity and for a long enough time that they are helped, and enabled to better achieve their own missions.

These people tend to share one characteristic: they have been hurt.

If I still lived in my little “happy bubble” I grew up in, if life was still about nothing deeper than fall leaves and family Christmases, I would be stunted. I would completely miss these people or at least avoid them. I would be more than a little afraid of them. I would be mistaking sadness for evil. I would be “cursing the dark.”

But instead, I shed a few tears—then smile, pick up my candle, and feel around for the matches.

Wondering as I Wander

There’s something special to me about the stars. Whether it’s Javert’s magnificent solo in Les Miserables, Sam’s simple little song in The Return of the King (the book, of course), or a little offhand comment courtesy of the Doctor, it seems that most (important) literary figures agree with me: their untouchable beauty has the power to inspire. As to Sam, to me the stars represent the truth that there is light and high beauty beyond the darkness of this world.

My most recent pen-and-ink drawing, reproduced for this year’s Christmas card, attempts to capture some of that wonder that I feel.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/168882775/2013-christmas-cards-wonder?ref=shop_home_feat

There were all sorts of delicious challenges associated with this drawing; for example, how was I to shade a dark night sky using only thin lines of India ink? How was I to distinguish the “texture” of the sky from that of the hills, the rocks, the water, the elven maiden’s dress? What sort of “texture” does sky have, anyway? I had to answer that question if I hoped to work it in ink.

I began by thinking about the shaping of that part of the picture. The very concept of the picture demanded that the sky occupy a large part of the composition. I could use clouds and, of course, the placement of the stars to frame the picture, but it wouldn’t be enough. If I wanted the sky to command wonder, it needed a certain amount of shape. The awe-filled tone of the image handily suggested a round shape, a cathedral-like dome.

But I’m not the first artist to attempt to draw the night sky using lines. As I planned out the sky and began adding the first sets of lines to the dome-shape, I thought about the glorious swirls and patterns Van Gogh used in perhaps the most iconic portrait of the night sky to ever be created. Maybe I could use lines like he did, but with different intent—rather than filling the sky with pulsing, throbbing movement, I could stop it in one moment of cathedral-like, crystalline awe.

I filled in swaths of lines in the shape of a dome, leaving some glow around the stars, letting the sky and clouds be a little more stylized than my work normally is. Figuring that maybe the sun had just set in my little imaginary world, I let the lines get thinner and fewer between toward the horizon, making the shape darker around the edges of the dome and enhancing the illusion of space.

When I finished, I was sitting on the rock beside the elven maiden, my lips slightly parted in awe.

While it isn’t nearly as warm, merry, and overtly “Christmasy” as my hobbit Christmas cards from last year, “Wonder” makes a different statement about Christmas. The wonder of Christmas is not just cause for riotous celebration. Sometimes, like a starry night, it is cause for a quiet moment of awe.

For the Love of Lost Kittens

I may have accidentally adopted a stray cat.

Well, maybe it was only halfway accidental. I was the one who went and made friends with it and then opened the door to see if it would come in. But it’s all-the-way stray. Half-grown, lean, with a little chunk out of the tip of one of its big ears. Male or female? I don’t know yet. Hence, it still doesn’t have a name. Besides, I feel that naming it crosses the point of no return. And, unfortunately, I don’t know whether or not I can keep it. Not only is one of my best friends allergic, but there is no way I can afford my apartment complex’s pet fee. At the moment, I’m trying to see if they will waive the pet fee if I take the cat off their hands. It is, after all, living under their apartment complex, a most undesirable thing even in a small town like Oak Harbor.

I know, I know… I should never have let it inside.

It’s part of a running problem I have. My other best friend Mary (who, as far as I know, is not allergic to cats) called it my “lost kitten” problem long before it extended to literal lost kittens. You see, I collect lonely souls and befriend them—now and then, against their will or at least against social custom. I then look after them until their circumstances become less dire, at which point they graduate into a certain irretrievable state of being forever cherished. Granted, over the years, there have been one or two “kittens” who turned around and scratched me badly, and have had to go for the good of all considered. But, by and large, my arsenal of dear friends is now largely composed of former “kittens.”

I was chatting with Kristina (the friend who is allergic to cats) today, and suggested that maybe this particular kitten smelled something on me that told him I couldn’t refuse him. As cats go, this is the kind I’d end up with. Is it the aloof, distant kind who can trace her lineage directly to Egyptian goddesses? No. It’s a scrap-eared waif who, if he were a person, would definitely be called “needy”—who feels the need to follow me around so closely I trip over him.

But the good thing about needy kitties is that they’ll do what this one is doing right now—when you’re feeling lonely because it’s a cold, dark fall night and you’re alone (again) for the evening, the kitty will curl up on your lap and purr like a little machine, keeping you warm and not quite so alone.

Can I keep it? I don’t know yet. But I do know one thing—I will take the “lost kitten” over the pet store cat any day. I like my kitties needy.