A man comes down with the flu. He’s the sort of man who swims laps at the gym before work, who remembers to back up his computer on a weekly basis, who displays his kids’ crayon masterpieces in frames on his desk. He is used to being in control. But thanks to the flu, he is forced to surrender the second half of a day when he had intended to Get Important Stuff Done. At lunchtime, he crawls home in his car and retreats to his bedroom, demanding to be left alone.
I imagine him contorted under the covers with the curtains drawn, sniffling and writhing in the dark, and sputtering through the garbles of congestion, Everything is shit. (Pan to millions of fellow Americans entertaining the same sullen notions, each sickened by 2016 in their own ways.)
There’s a tiny, timid knock on the door that evening. It creaks open — his small son stands in the sliver of light that leaks in from the hallway. Daddy? From the bed, a groan. I just came to hurt with you.
The boy climbs up onto the mattress and curls into the mess: father and son, recumbent and quiet, small tangles of warmth within the awful. A slit of a sunbeam slips between the drapes, just enough to illuminate a wrist bone, a pink fingernail, a slow rising and falling of both chests.
This is not my story. It’s an embellished version of one I heard in a sermon at Washington National Cathedral on December 23rd. The ailing man (now recovered) is the reverend’s friend who had recently recounted his son’s comforting offering, marveling at how the moment had provided such simple but transcendental solace.
I invented the details, but not the fact of the disease (and the dis-ease), the bedroom withdrawal, or the boy’s words. I just came to hurt with you.
We are not a church-going family. We attended the Cathedral’s Christmas-themed service for the carols — for the warmth, for the nostalgic ritual, and for the enchantment. However subliminally, we went to be told, I am here to hurt with you, or just to soothe the year’s hurt in a space built on faith that everything is not shit.
During an average holiday season, it doesn’t feel so necessary to collect proof that everything is not shit. Most years, it’s probably not normal for a Christmas sermon to be more bittersweet than joyful, but that was the theme of the whole thing: life is dark these days, and you must find the light, for yourself and for the people around you.
Brene Brown writes, “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it.” An addition: neither does the light destroy the dark, except in a small and unsustainable moment of pure blaze. The two forces dance in and out of one another, rendering each other’s existence at the edges. Light splatters dapples and shapes shadow puppets, while dark creates the cavern to contain a flicker or glow.
To bring something to light is to make it known. To darken is to shade — to show nuance that might be otherwise invisible.
In my oldest memories of Christmas, I turn off the lamps in the living room and turn on the bulbs of fake candles in the windows. I am dressed in slippery sock feet and a nightgown with white lace trim and pink satin ribbons, and I spin pirouettes around the wooden floors, cradling a tiny wooden nutcracker. Go away, Mom and Dad. I am Clara. Do not ruin it.
Our decorated fir tree stands in the corner, and I crawl back behind it. The string lights and ornaments cast rainbows around the dark walls of this makeshift cave, where I try to keep still and keep quiet, lest I break a bauble and shatter the magic.
One night, one year, I hear a muffled jingle of bells that can only be explained by approaching reindeer, can’t it? A year or two later, I contemplate the practical viability of Santa. I have come to understand the bigness of the world, and the mythical figure no longer seems to fit its harsh realities. Still, I search for evidence to validate fable over fact.
When I catch my mom at my pillow, playing Tooth Fairy, I become more convinced of the unsavory truth. I ask her for confirmation: Is it all made up? Santa, too? When she answers, my faith in folklore consequently collapses. I remember being bitter and wishing she’d lied to me. The magical explanation, however unsustainable, felt better.
Don’t tell your sister yet, my parents request. Let’s not ruin it for her. She still believes.
In December 2002, a traumatic trip to the ER culminates in my diagnosis with type one diabetes. The next day, I’m rolled from the intensive care unit to a private room in the hospital, where family friends deliver a three-foot-tall Christmas tree. I do not want to be photographed with the phony Santa who is making his way up and down the halls, thank you very much. I know how horrible my hair looks. Besides, the scent of antiseptic soap corrodes any possibility of holiday charm.
In the following weeks, I’m forced to memorize the estimated carbohydrate counts in common foods: 30 in two slices of bread, 15 in a small apple, 40 in one cup of rice. The nutritionist quizzes me, holding up a rubber bagel and a fluorescent fake banana from her side of the table in the doctor’s office. I am 12 years old and terrified and angry and confused.
For whatever foods I can’t memorize, I use a pocket-sized book of nutrition information. We keep a copy in the kitchen cabinet, and my mom carries another in her purse. We flip through its shiny pages at restaurants, anxiously searching for “mashed potatoes” or “burrito” before I am allowed to eat.
Every meal requires a syringe in the stomach or arm or butt with a specific dose of medicine: the sum of carbohydrates multiplied by an insulin ratio, which differs depending on the time of day and depending how active I’ve been and will be later, among other factors. I have always been good at math, but my life has never been at stake like this before. Accounting for certain foods, like pizza and birthday cake — the beloved centerpieces of most childhood rituals, each gooey and glorious circle ceremoniously sliced and shared evenly among the group — proves especially tricky. The doctors urge me to avoid these things whenever possible, along with Halloween candy, pasta, ice cream, and whatever else tops the typical 12-year-old’s list of favorites.
The doctors also tell me that if I don’t master all of this guesswork-based arithmetic, I could face amputations, heart disease, and blindness by my 20’s or 30’s, which seem so soon and so distant at the same time.
I am 12 years old and terrified and angry and confused. In my journal, I scribble an entry about how terrified and angry and confused I am. It’s not so much the physical side effects that scare me — it’s more the metaphysical whimsy I want to protect. I want to keep my daydreams. I want my unique identity in tact. I want independence, but also to fit in with the other 12-year-olds who don’t seem as terrified and angry and confused as I am. I want joy and triumph and magic within the banal constrictions of bodily illness — that is, without the honest everyday reminder that I’m thoroughly mortal.
If cheerless math and malady eclipse all of life’s lightness, what’s the point? I wrangle with this question for the remainder of my childhood and young adulthood, scrounging perpetually for evidence — preserved in writing, drawings, and photographs — that everything is not shit. That there’s transcendental goodness muddled in the dull brutality of reality. That there will always be communion in the shadows — to hurt is to be mortal is to be human, together. The depth is worth its darkness.
It’s December 2016, and I’m sitting at the sunlit wooden counter, eating a bowl of sautéed kale, tatsoi, and sweet potatoes for lunch. Before I head home for Christmas, I’m spending 10 days back at Shannon Farm, the first place I apprenticed four months ago when I was just beginning my traveling exploration into organic agriculture.
In September, when the weather was juicy with sweat and summer bugs and when the world still swelled with zestful (if tenuous) promise, I helped prepare what was going to be a winter garden. My host, V, taught me to till the beds with bare hands, to push the red markers onto every other prong of the rake, to draw the shallow grooves in the dirt, and to fill those trenches (in slow pinches, like pretending to scatter fairy dust) with the tiny brown beads of soon-to-be kale, the teensy tatsoi, and the brown teardrops of spinach.
You want good seed-to-soil contact, V had explained as we patted the seeds into their muddy blankets. No air pockets. The tiny kernels would need a warm, dark nestle to survive and to sprout.
And sprout, they did. Now, the frills of leafy jade have grown into a miniature jungle, safely cloaked from winter’s chill with row covers and a high tunnel. (Farmers use this sort of temporary greenhouse system to elevate the temperature by a few significant degrees, so tender leaves can continue to flourish. The simple technology blocks out the frost while capturing and containing sunlight, which naturally converts to warmth.) When I peek underneath the thin cloth, the smell of lush, crowded life is almost sickeningly fresh — a shock to the numbed nose. The purple pansies and giddy greens seem so blissfully unaware of what’s happening beyond their warm bubble: the opposite of abundance. A grim crumble.
The rest of the garden has turned to brown. The tiny red tomatoes that I previously popped onto my tongue like candy are nowhere to be found; neither are the throngs of flowers, the clustered fiestas of jalapeño peppers, the luffa squashes hanging plump from their vines. In September, I weeded the patch of sweet potatoes, memorizing the heart shapes of the leaves while the amber knobs secretly swelled underground. By December, those potatoes have been uprooted and moved indoors to cure in a dry drawer.
In fact, it seems like all of life’s vivacity has been shifted from outside to in. To heat the house whose doors and windows were once tossed open for cooling, a fire burns in the wood stove, embers popping. Twinkling strands of lights coil up around the banisters of the stairs and deck the tree that stands propped in the family room. Distant family and friends, newly reunited for the holiday season, assemble for boisterous group games of Catan. And here I am, too, welcomed back into Shannon Farm’s cozy fold. Both the farm and I are changed but the same, both grown up in ways that might resemble destruction from a peripheral view.
V has dried the crop of luffa squashes, so we peel them and slice them into discs to set into homemade soaps we plan to give as Christmas presents. While we microwave and stir and tint the glycerine, I tell her about where I’ve been and what I’ve done this autumn — about planting hundreds of garlic cloves, about rotating herds of sheep from pasture to pasture, about learning the amusing social hierarchies of goats. When I was last here, we cringed through the first presidential debate, shaking our heads at the television screen and protesting in disbelief, trying to trust that the sick joke would end in due time; now, hopelessly dismayed and disempowered, we agonize together, scavenging for the positive moral in this realized dystopian horror story. We scatter rose petals into the soap molds.
Later, I toss the sliced sweet potatoes and tatsoi and kale into a hot pan and serve up the mix for a quick lunch. As always, the syringe in the stomach comes first. A bruise blooms. But the meal that follows is transcendent. It’s just food, just vegetables, but ones I planted myself, with help. It’s a wink of true magic in the shadows of the menial; proof that something crisp, bright, and nourishing can come from humble seeds nestled in the mud, as long as they’re sowed with support and fostered with adequate sunlight. There, the moral. At least everything is not shit.
But a lot of it is. America aches in all places. The sacred mythology of American democracy feels as if it has collapsed. (Was it all made up? There never was liberty and justice for all, was there?)
The President of the United States is an impossibly legendary figure whose shape is always shifting. The title inflicts too much patriotism, too much power, too much responsibility for one mortal man to unfailingly bear, though perhaps a woman might have been better prepared to take its oxymoronic double standards. We yearn for a leader who might set us free and protect us at once, who might carry us into a better future with 240 years of old baggage in tow, who might transform and stabilize at the same time and somehow do it with both strength and a smile. The romanticized illusion has always been futile. Now, the fable feels feebler than ever.
Our collective shadow side, brought to light, threatens to swallow fifty states whole.
“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it.” Darkness illuminates. It clarifies. Its depths contain glimmers: kindness, camaraderie, communion, quiet growth beneath the surface. The dark is the place to probe for what’s otherwise unseen.
The hero of the story is not the strong father, but the small child. I just came to hurt with you. I wonder how the littler me — the one in the nightgown and sock feet — would have reacted to Trump. Would this reality have crushed her? Would she not have noticed the ache, too entranced by her innocent faith in goodness?
She wouldn’t have had patience for an attitude of somber surrender, I don’t think. She wouldn’t have tolerated worried frowning. She would have grabbed at my hand, pointed at the Christmas tree that’s now well past its prime as the month of January ticks closer to inauguration. Look. The lights are still lit. Don’t you see them? Come, dance. In my mind, her tiny white socks flit across carpet and floor. Her feet flicker in the shadows.