Chapter 45: Of Light and Love

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–I need the light on to keep my eyes warm. (Caleb-3)
–I need the light on to go to sleep because I can’t see. (Hannah-3)

Early one morning I notice a light in the Weyland wheat field next to Rabbit Lane.  The soft circle of lantern light bobs around over the newly-sprouted wheat, magically as if without a master, seemingly unattached to a farmer.  The night sky begins to lighten, and I can see the dim outlines of a man checking the sprinkler heads on a wheel line.

Ron starts his big John Deere early, headlights blaring, before I can see its trademark green and yellow.  The tractor pulls behind a homemade harrow: creosoted rail beams loosely chained together with railroad spikes pounded through.  The harrow tears at the rooted wheat chaff, spewing up dust that creeps over Rabbit Lane like a heavy, brown fog.

The day after Thanksgiving is a favorite day for the children and me, not because of bringing home a Christmas tree or putting up Christmas lights.  Rather, it is because the “tree” of lights appears on Little Mountain in Tooele.  The tree is a 30-foot-tall pole from which strings of over 300 incandescent light bulbs, circling the pole, are stretched at 45-degree angles and anchored to the ground.  The lighted tree offers a steady beacon to the entire valley from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.  From the moment we round the point of the mountain after a jaunt to Salt Lake we see the tree, ten miles distant.  “There it is!” the children shout upon first sighting it on our way home from Thanksgiving dinner.  Walking on Rabbit Lane, I see the tree seemingly suspended in the dark sky, whether in the rain or snow or fog or cloudless sky.  The tree has become a local icon.  We look forward to seeing it, count on seeing it, everyday, as part of our traditional holiday celebrations.  As property owners and power company policies change, I hope the tree remains.

* * *

Wherever the sun and the earth come together, there is light and shadow.  Light both dispels and creates darkness.  Darkness both yields to and softens the effects of light.  Neither light nor darkness exists alone.  Each has an indispensable part in the creation and the qualities of the other.  Each are perceived and measured in relation to the other.  But light doesn’t create shadow directly.  The creation of a darkening shadow requires an intervening object, like a house, a tree, or a cloud.  Light is dimmed only when something gets in the way of the light.

We are all beings of relative light.  To keep ourselves from dimming, we must choose to use our energies to keep objects and issues from intervening to cast their shadows.  Ours is the choice not to darken others by imposing our wills, thus darkening ourselves.  Be a light to others through kindness and service, by listening without judgment, and with music and art.

* * *

The common Pill Bug, often called Potato Bug, is tank, infantry, and command center all in one.  Bands of flexible armor enclose it from head to toe.  Dozens of legs carry it along in a smooth glide.  When threatened, it rolls up into an armor-plated sphere, protected from most predators (except those like me, a million times its size and weight).  No other bug elicits such joyful cries from children with curious little fingers that pluck up the Pill Bugs and roll them around in the palms of their hands.  No other bug is so successful at escaping their child captors, rolling easily out of palms into the concealing grass.

* * *

As I put John (5) and Caleb (3) to bed, they each asked me plaintively, “Will you lay by me?”  Their faces took on such dejected, mournful aspects, inducing increasingly severe pangs of guilt until I relented, giving up my big-person plans.  I laid for a minute with one and then the other, arising from each bed with a whispered, “I love you.”  At the end of my evening, I retired to my own bed and found myself wishing that my wife would come and lay by me—she was with the baby.  Don’t we all want the comfort of having a friend to be with us and to show us tenderness?  Unlike my sons, I didn’t ask for what I wanted.

At 13 months old, Hyrum’s first intelligible word was: “Daddy!”  I derived special pleasure from this pronouncement, and reserved a special place in my heart for Hyrum, my sixth child.  Though the older children clamored for the opportunity, I insisted on pushing little Hyrum in the jogger on Rabbit Lane.  Wrapped in blankets against the cold, his little head bounced around from the roughness of the hard-packed washboard.  Of course, I had a special place in my heart for each of my children, not just Hyrum.  But Hyrum’s place was his, occupied by no other.

When Angie became pregnant with our second child, Erin, I didn’t know if I would be able to find a place in my heart for her.  Brian, our firstborn, was the only child I knew, and he filled my heart.  How could I possibly make room in my heart for another child when I had given my whole heart to Brian?  I found, however, that the moment Erin entered the world my heart grew to make room for her.  I didn’t have to do anything but see her and hold her.  The space in my heart that I had reserved for Brian did not diminish.  Rather, my capacity to love suddenly expanded to include Erin.

It has been so with the birth of each of my children.  I take no credit for it.  It simply happened.  I believe it is the nature of human parenthood to love and make room for our children as they come along.  And there is no need to stop there.  Despite a world filled with suffering and despair, we can make room in our hearts for neighbors, friends, congregants, and colleagues.  We can make room for strangers and even enemies by granting that they were all newborn children once, loved tenderly by their mothers.  They are all human beings that deserve a measure of respect.  Perhaps the downtrodden deserve a greater portion of our kindness and respect, because for so long it has been denied them by so many.  As a prosecutor, I found no strength or advantage in diminishing the humanity of the accused, and found no weakness in offering them my polite respect.  I can loath acts of betrayal and injury without despising the being of the perpetrator.  However generous you believe your heart should be, find someone that needs a friend and let your heart grow enough to make room for them.

* * *

We walked as a family on Rabbit Lane one Winter afternoon.  Caleb (3) and John (5) ran ahead, whooping, kicking in the snow, thrilled to be alive.  Erin (10) walked quietly beside me, and I reached down to take her gloved hand.  She looked up at me and surprised me with a sincere smile and moist eyes.  Something caused me to reflect that I don’t reach for my daughter’s hand often enough.  She needs to know that her dad loves her and that she can safely anchor herself to me in the swelling, churning waters of her youth.

Hannah, my youngest, continued to share the master bedroom with Angie and me long after she turned four.  With six older brothers and sisters, the other bedrooms were cramped, and personalities sometimes clashed.  Besides, Angie wasn’t quite ready to send her last baby away.  So Hannah slept on a mattress in a corner of our room, surrounded by her clothes and books and toys.  With the passing weeks and months, Hannah’s clothes and books and toys left their tidy places to join growing heaps rippling out from her bed into space that I considered mine, not hers.  We tried to help her organize her things, but a small girl who changes outfits for entertainment is not easily contained.  As the piles spread, my annoyance grew.  I lay on my bed one night, in dim lamplight, looking around the room.  Hannah’s presence was everywhere: her scattered things.  After several moments, I began to sense another presence, a subtle but clear awareness of my young daughter’s life inside mine.  She came from me.  She was a part of me.  I realized how sweet she is, with her pink pajamas and her pigtails, and her picture books on her pillow.  My heart changed, and I fell asleep to the sound of her soft snoring.

* * *

Caleb’s chubby cheeks were flushed red and streaked with new tears.  Eighteen months old, he had been crying, again, over who knows what, and whining, again, in a language no one understood but him, if even him.  He had been whining and crying much more frequently in recent months that he ever had during his first year.  I felt frustrated by the nightly emotional breakdowns.  It occurred to me as I walked on Rabbit Lane one morning that perhaps Caleb was complaining because he was growing old enough to want to communicate, that he was attempting to communicate, but that no one understood him.  Perhaps he felt as frustrated as I did, if not more.  That evening, as soon as he began to blubber nonsensical words, I turned toward him and listened with my eyes looking into his.  While I did not understand a word he said, I showed him my genuine interest by listening.  I also talked to him, not thinking he would understand, saying things like, “You sure are a cute little boy,” or “It’s been a long day; you must be tired.”  To my amazement, I found that he could understand much of what I said, and responded with nods and smiles and more babbles.

Caleb’s fits began to decrease as Angie and I engaged him, giving him the courtesy and attention he deserved, validating his need and ability to communicate with us.  How often do we give other people the courtesy of really listening to what they have to say, or of sincerely trying to understand how a person is feeling?  We devalue people when we deny them this courtesy.  We communicate to them in subtle ways that they are not worth our time and attention.  Even my one-year-old comprehended my disengagement and protested by complaining and crying.  For weeks my frustrated reactions only reinforced a disconnecting and devaluing message, causing him to react with his own increased frustration in a cycle that threatened our infant relationship.  Fortunately for us both, the insight helped me change my perspective and caused me to return to him and listen.  Communication is most powerful in the listening.  This lesson, however, is one I have struggled, repeatedly, to learn and relearn, to apply and reapply.

* * *

I played Backgammon with John for the first time when he was five.  He had often watched Brian and me play, and he had badly wanted to play.  There came a point in our game where John couldn’t safely move two checkers.  I hit his blot, then he mine.  He came to see that he would lose his first game against me, and he believed that he would lose badly.  But he wanted to win in the worst way.  He suddenly burst into tears and gave in to absolute defeat.

“Okay,” I declared.  “End of the game.”

His sobbing intensified.

“Look,” I suggested, “we’re just learning how to play.  If we can’t learn and have fun, then we’re not going to play.”

I wasn’t harsh, just matter-of-fact.  He stopped his crying and rolled the dice.  A double six!  I ended up winning the game, but only by one point.  I congratulated him for how well he had played his first game.

“Thanks, Dad,” he replied, beaming.

I felt happy, humble, and grateful for how the experience had ended.

“See!” I said.  “Never give up.  Keep pushing forward until the game is over, even if you don’t win.  Never give up!”

* * *

Engineers at the Tooele Valley Airport, owned and operated by Salt Lake City Corporation, saw fit to change the lighthouse fixture and bulbs.  The new lights flash quick pulses of green and white as they turn, barely visible on my bedroom walls.  The slow, sweeping beams of the old lighthouse light only the insides of my memory.

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