Photo by Martha Lynn Coon

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An Abundance of Light

In a world where abundance is often associated with success, it can be difficult to embrace realities that beckon to us with the gift of scarcity. Yet some types of scarcity contain experiences of absence, simplicity, or just plain less that reveal to us the power of opposition: strength in humility, expanse in minimalism, and light in darkness are some of the first examples that come to mind.

I recently moved back to my hometown in North Alabama after twenty-seven years of departures, stints abroad, soul searching, city exploring, aversions, avoidances, and pretty much anything else that could convince me that of all the places in the world, this couldn’t possibly be the one where I belonged. The stereotypes often associated with being Southern were ones I’d worked hard to outrun. I pursued advanced degrees, learned German, dabbled in French, traveled extensively, and made lots of urban-dwelling friends. I ran with artists, pursued exclusively progressive political agendas, and basically engaged in any form of behavior that might distance me from assumptions often made about a girl with a Southern accent from the foothills of Appalachia.

It took years of painful reckoning, one overarching therapeutic relationship, a broken marriage, and finally, a global pandemic for me to finally reconcile with myself, admitting that stereotypes be damned, this is the place I love most in the world. And as I approach middle age, I finally realize that the likelihood of this changing during my lifetime is starting to become slim. I surrendered to this realization, packed a U-Haul, loaded the kids, and began the drive back East. In reality it was a bit more complicated, but I wouldn’t be Southern if I didn’t love a good story. And so the adventure began.

One of the first things to captivate me about life in North Alabama was the quality of light. As a teenager, I read an article in our local newspaper about an independent filmmaker who might make a movie here. This was back when (a) print newspapers existed in most every town and (b) just the possibility of someone making a film here was enough to make the front page, or at least the Arts and Culture section, of our hometown paper. One of his comments focused the beauty of the light, which struck me as odd, because I’d never lived anywhere else and possessed zero understanding of what he meant by this puzzling yet somehow inspired compliment.

Then I grew up and left this town to build my own life. I lived in Berlin, where there is a particular quality of light when the sun decides to shine. It’s a mellow sort of light, and dismally absent during the long, cold Berlin winters. I spent time in Washington, D.C., and New York, where buildings literally block the sun and traffic affects both the air quality and light, creating some slightly more psychedelic sunsets but never really capturing my fancy. Opportunity lured me to build my adult life in Austin, Texas, a place with brilliant, bright light. Sometimes the light takes on a harsh quality though, burning so brightly and directly that sunscreen can be required just to cross a Texas-sized parking lot at midday. My favorite time of year there was winter, when the sun mellowed just enough for it to feel like a good friend. Cold Texas mornings would burn away to a kind, gentle warmth by afternoon, and the light took on a quality akin to how clarity might feel if it were personified. I’m missing the light in Austin this winter, along with our circle of close friends.

Still, this fall marked the first time in twenty-seven years that I’d spent a significant amount of time in Alabama during autumn and the light did not disappoint. I don’t know enough about cinematography to offer an informed opinion about what makes light beautiful, but from a girl living in her hometown after two decades of wandering, I can say with conviction that it’s gorgeous here. I can also say, though I’ve spent considerable time waxing poetic about light and its allusive qualities of grandeur, that it’s decidedly not the reason I chose to move back. At least not the light in that sense.

Ironically, the seeds of my desire to return home were planted during my first big foray away from my hometown as an undergraduate, which occurred a whopping fifty miles from my home. During those years, I began to question the faith I inherited growing up in what many people call the Bible Belt. Though sustained by Christianity, I questioned it. God felt most apparent to me in the natural world, through my experiences with kind and generous people, and in the hard but fulfilling work of relationships. I wasn’t sure what the church had to do with that, except teaching us to love and revere those things as conduits of the God that Jesus pointed us toward. The church was an important container and teacher that celebrated the life and ministry of Jesus, whose radical politics and passionate teaching completely inspired me, but I couldn’t quite reconcile the system with the source. So I began to investigate. Something about an early Christian sect called Gnosticism called to me, and I wanted to understand more about what made them particularly heretical in the eyes of the early church. I thought by learning what left the Gnostics decidedly outside the framework of the early church, I might conversely learn what made the early Christians and the canonical Gospels “in” as it were. It made sense at the time, and when an opportunity to study these texts firsthand became available through a fellowship in Berlin, I jumped at the chance.

I wish I could say that by attempting to learn Coptic and working with a brilliant theologian and reading Gnostic Gospels in their original and unadulterated language, my questions were answered, and the life of the church became instantly and indefatigably illuminated. Spoiler alert: It did not. But something else altered inside of me that’s come to define both my understanding of human struggle and the broader parameters of faith: My understanding of light.

In the Gospel of Thomas (Logion 77), Jesus says “I am the light that is over all. I am the All. The All came forth out of me. And to me the All has come. Split a piece of wood—I am there. Lift the stone, and you will find me there.” The textual focus on the power and importance of light continues, which is a facet of most Gnostic-influenced thought and language of the time. Logion 83 adds, “The images are visible to humanity, but the light within them is hidden in the image. The light of the Father will reveal itself, but his image is hidden by light.”

During my study of the Gospel of Thomas, light began to transform from an external quality to an internal perception. Latitude and air quality aside, our visual observation of light differs for each of us, but what I’m describing is more about an experience of light. It began to land for me that the internal factors that generate light, at least the kind of light referred to in the Gospel of Thomas and other places in the canonical New Testament, are things we can grasp, practice, and experience daily. Yet it’s not the conceptual part of light’s abundance that really speaks to me, but rather its application.

The capacity to see and think of light as something that both shines and radiates became a life raft for me twelve years ago when I gave birth to my first child, a daughter. She was beautiful and appeared physically perfect. But over the difficult weeks and months that followed her birth, we learned that beneath that physically perfect body she is neurologically compromised in ways we are still learning to understand. This knowing unraveled slowly and painfully, with missed milestones, ocular issues, and a slow dawning that the life I’d envisioned for my child would be radically different than the one unfolding before me. Her mysterious and singular brain seizes daily, thwarts most attempts at verbal communication, creates emotional and behavioral chaos, and evokes balance disorders that she’s heroically overcome to learn to walk, and now with twelve years of age, she mall walks at an intense pace that may one day lead to running. She’s committed to increasing her speed with every year, and it’s alternately the most inspiring and terrifying thing I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold.

When she was young, we ran into an artist friend of mine, a film director from Germany, who commented immediately and casually that she was “a child of light.” Upon hearing her observation, an odd wave of relief and excitement spread over me. I’d begun to see what my friend saw, but thought it was something akin to the nebulous idea of “mother’s intuition”; that is, something felt internally but virtually impossible for another to track or corroborate. She was my joy, but could people really see past the differences to the light that were so apparent to me? For a stranger to recognize it so immediately was disarming but also deeply intriguing. This growing understanding of what that light means, and the wisdom it holds, has become an anchor as I navigate the impossible waters of how to raise a child who makes zero sense to the culture she inhabits.

One of the many secrets she’s revealed to me personally is the tyranny of metrics in our modern lives. Metrics make or break the experience of understanding those with developmental differences. That’s to say, if my child’s productivity were measured by any average standard of success, each day of her existence would come up short, ostensibly full of failure. For example, I hope to teach my typically developing son how to cook independently. My daughter’s metric for success is to use a fork consistently, and God willing safely, one day. When I lose sight of her metrics, I lose sight of everything.

At forty-five years of age, I am approaching the midpoint of my years, and the reality that my time here is growing shorter, rather than longer, with each passing day. Sitting with this reality has wreaked all sorts of havoc for most middle-aged people I know. The folks in my orbit have dissolved marriages, grieved dreams, considered surgical corrections, changed jobs, pondered early retirement, invoked plant medicine, and taken countless far-flung vacations. In my usual zest for life, I’ve checked most of the boxes on that list myself. When I look to time as a measurement to reflect either the success or the quality of my life, I often come up short.

While time is a reality, its systematic march toward death is one of constant diminishment. It’s almost fascist in its relentlessness. I recently came across an observation written by Emily Gordon Fox describing the advent of digital watches. She depicted the new technology as “murdering time . . . slowly chopping off pieces of it and lobbing them into the dustbin with a little click to let you know time was gone.” If the oppression of the digital watch could be described in such a way, how do we begin to understand the time butchery of text messages, email pings, smartwatches, fitness apps, and Snapchat? How can we possibly measure time without resorting to mania in such an epoch as this?

In an age where time seems scarce, and the ways to squander it abundant, my personal practice is to change my metric. A good friend of mine always says to measure what matters, because if you don’t, what you measure becomes what matters. In our time of digital precision and distraction, with our constant obsession toward optimization, the sanity of my soul hangs on a move away from the measurement of time as my metric for progress and success, and toward the measurement of light. Light, as the writer of the Gospel of Thomas so eloquently puts it, is in the chopping of the wood and the wood itself. It both shows us God and abstracts God from us, pointing the way to a reality so dazzling that we couldn’t possibly behold it with our naked eye. But like Moses and the Burning Bush, when we approach it, we can rest assured we are on Holy Ground.

But where do we find light? And how? As I began this reflection on the quality of light in my hometown, I’ll return to it. For me, moving home was a synthesis of moving toward what I know and perceive to be sources of light in my life. I see them in my children. I also see them in my elders, in the relationships long-suffered and hard-won, and the commitments that people hold to and for each other in communities that still bend toward health. I see it in the fading of the sunlight at this time of year, and the advent of long winter nights that beckon to us and teach us through the antithetical experience of light’s absence. In many cultures, this shift to longer nights and diminished light is recognized as the New Year, the time when plants that will burst forth with life and vigor in the spring begin the slow, difficult work of germination. In the Christian tradition, the fasting time we call Advent calls to us with a similar invitation. It’s a time of stillness, a time for resting and being held not by the Light that is, but the Light we know is to come. And when that Light comes into the world we feast, just as the earth itself celebrates in color and splendor every spring, evidence of growth that began in the stealthily fecund months of winter. May the seeds of our hopes and desires be nurtured in these times when light may be necessarily scarce, but a potentiate still worth celebrating, and an indicator of abundance yet to come.