A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence
Thomas A. Edison was born in 1847, and on October 21, 1879, he invented the incandescent light bulb. I was born on October 21, 1947, one hundred years after Edison’s birth and on the sixty-eighth anniversary of his famous invention. By the time I discovered these facts, I was in my forties, but I had already developed a lifelong fascination with light.
Indeed, my first memory is of light dancing in the leaves of a tall tree in my grandmother’s front yard in Sparta, Missouri. Aunt Grace had placed me on my back on a blanket under this tree. I remember the sunlight sparkling through the changing colors of the fluttering leaves and the occasional patch of cloud shadow that affected everything. I didn’t have language, but I knew what I was watching was beautiful.
I remember nothing else about the first two years of my life, but I recall this as clearly as if it happened this morning. Light sticks in my memory that way. And ever since that seminal moment, dappled light has held the power to induce wonder in me.
I take note of shadows and sunspots and if a cloud crosses the sun. I stop to admire the sparkling dew on grass and flowers, the rainbows in lawn sprinklers, and the way certain kinds of light shine on birds’ wings or breasts. I notice my cat glistening in the sunbeams and the way light sparkles on nearby Holmes Lake. These minute alterations in light affect me emotionally and even spiritually.
When I swim, the parabolas of light dancing on the bottom of the pool make me happy. So does the way sunlight splashing through rain can paint my porch with light. When I see shafts of sunlight breaking through storm clouds, I pay attention. When we travel, it is light that most astonishes me. Light in the Sandhills of Nebraska, in Alaska, in San Francisco, and in all the mountain towns along the front range of the Rockies.
As a college student and waitress, I avoided living in basement apartments. I cannot stay long in a room without a window, and, during the day, the shades are always up at my house. I would rather shovel horse manure outside than work in a cubicle or back room of a store.
I am solar-powered. As a child, I spent every waking moment outdoors in the summer. I spent my mornings mixing mud pies, cookies, and cakes on wooden slabs under an elm tree. And I spent long afternoons and evenings in our municipal pool. That’s when I began reminding the other children to look at how sunlight twinkled on water.
I am fascinated by every kind of light—sunrise and sunset, light sparkling in fountains, and the light of celestial bodies. A prism anywhere makes my heart sing.
My memory is encoded by light. Whether I’ve been hunting for morels along the Platte or listening to my grandson Coltrane play music, I filter my experiences by quality of light. I can tell my story by simply remembering these lightscapes.
One of my favorite words is the Japanese word komorebi, which refers to the interplay of light and leaves as sunlight shines through trees. It has other meanings too. It can refer to a melancholic longing for a person, place, or thing that is far away. Or it can refer to impermanence. Dappled light shows us that what is here now will be gone in an instant. Nothing stays the same.
Resilience is the ability to find light in dark times. We build it by our attitudes, efforts, and coping skills. All of our lives we face crises that require us to grow. Struggle defines and builds us.
As a child, I worked hard to stay sunny. I looked for people to love me, and I basked in the nurturing relationships of those who did. I found solace in the natural world and in swimming. I discovered early the joys of hard work and of helping people and animals. The coping skills I learned as a child have stayed with me. With each life stage, I have used them to stay calm and grounded.
All through my life, I’ve loved people and lost them. When I was a child, my father was off in the army in a faraway war. After he returned, I spent a year without my mother. In my twenties, my father died, and in my forties, my mother died. As I’ve grown older, I’ve had to say goodbye to many people I love.
When I wrote my last book, Women Rowing North, I was in full sunlight. My adult children and all five grandchildren were nearby. I lived a life of travel, family, and friends. On weekends I danced to live music.
That brightness has faded. The young children who surrounded me have grown up or moved to Canada. And the pandemic has created painful separations for our family.
To be happy the last few years, I have needed to grow. I have utilized every skill I know to find the light. And I have learned to look inside myself for the love I cannot find in the world. I’ve developed new rituals and routines and now feel a renewed appreciation for life as it is, not as I wish it to be. If the first part of my life was about building attachments, the last two years have been about learning to detach. I am making an effort to find the love and warmth I need in my own heart.
No matter our age, we experience loss. A kindergartener must say goodbye to a beloved teacher at the end of the year. A pet dies. Or a grandparent. And every day we lose the world that was yesterday.
As we age, the losses multiply. We may no longer be in the workplace. Our friends and relatives move away or cross the River Styx. If we have children, they grow up and move on with their lives. We have no choice but to face impermanence.
The pandemic heightened our sense of isolation and loss, but these emotions are inevitable under any life circumstances. Eventually, one way or another, we all say goodbye to everyone we love. However, in the interim, we have the opportunity to grow our ability to find light within our own hearts and to orient toward the light of transcendence, which is finding joy and bliss in the midst of our pain. When we face loss, we can learn to experience wonder in order to restore our balance. There is a way to make this arithmetic work.
We can experience flashes of enlightenment. In the midst of ordinary life, a certain quality of light can transport me into bliss. My self dissolves into deep time.
Bliss is an absolute state. It can’t be rated on a ten-point scale, and an experience can’t be more or less blissful. If we are experiencing bliss, we are feeling the most wondrous possible experience. Over our lifetimes, if we grow in our capacity to live in the moment and pay attention, we may be fortunate enough to experience bliss more frequently. We may even have times in our life when we are showered with epiphanies. What was once an unusual experience may become an everyday one.
Komorebi describes our lives as we follow a path through a forest where the trees offer us both sunlight and shadow. Our journeys contain stories of loss and reunion, of despair and self-rescue. Most of us develop an identity that allows us to feel grateful in spite of our sorrows. We can feel a great sadness for our broken world yet still taste the spring strawberries or enjoy the smell of rain. Our hearts shatter into pieces, yet we hear the song of the cardinal and watch the exploding electricity of a thunderstorm.
This book describes my experiences with both literal and metaphorical light. As a therapist for twenty-five years, I helped clients build more transcendent narratives and progress on their journeys toward a luminous life. I now hope to do that for my readers as well.
As a therapist, I had several tools. One was predicting positive outcomes for clients, since we often find what we are looking for. Another was listening for evidence of growth. When I could find that, I underscored it so that clients could see they were moving toward light. No matter how painful their situations, I always asked clients two questions: What did you learn from your experience? When you look back on this event, is there anything that you can feel proud of?
This last question was particularly useful for people who had experienced trauma. It enabled them to move from a feeling of victimization to an awareness of their small acts of heroism, which I learned were always present.
I helped people create more empowering life stories. Without stories, we are without a self. With only stories of loss and sadness we are unhappy people. However, we can all learn to craft healing narratives. We humans are heliotropic. With a little guidance, most people can move toward more resilient, more connected, and more light-filled lives.
This trajectory is my hope for you. My story is really everyone’s story. Yours will differ in its particulars, but the main themes of finding coping tools, appreciating beauty, and seeking transcendence are universal. We all must come to terms with impermanence and discover ways within ourselves to balance loss with joy. Let’s explore this journey toward the light together.
I: ATTACHMENT AND LOSS
A Motherless Child
My Father’s Shirt
Light Filtered Through Water
A Best Friend
Girl Scout Cookies
III: IN ANOTHER LIGHT
The Coffin and the Chenille Bedspread
Prairie Dog Villages
Shafts of Light
The Burning Tree
The Light from Ideas
The A&W on Highway 81
V: LEAVING HOME
The Fiery Furnace
Dock of the Bay
Pregnancy and Exile
My Father’s Death
VI: SETTLING DOWN
The Fourth of July
My Mother’s Death
Teardrops in the Snow
The Fabtones’ Last Night at the Zoo Bar
VIII: WISDOM LIGHT
Will They Remember?
My Son’s Kitchen
The Light We Can Always Find
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|Epub||July 2, 2022|
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