Longest Night

A good friend wrote me a couple of days ago about the homicide of a five year old boy in her community. She wrote about how he was only one school district over from her own family, and about how the woman who cuts her hair has a five year old son who knew him, and that her five-year-old cried when he found out this little boy, his friend, had died.

She also wrote about the dissonance of seeing this heartbreaking news on the same newsfeed as other more “normal,” even good- news- five of their schools were ranked in the top 12 in the area.  “Both these news are close to home and causes such dissonance inside me. I feel like you’d get it,” she wrote. She wrote about how this grim news, any grim news, has such a “stark contrast” with the general milieu of the holiday season.

I suggested she light a candle, referencing my post from a few days ago by the same name.  She did light the candle and posted a picture of it online. Later, I noticed there was a much larger campaign in the community to leave porch lights on and candles in windows in memory of this little boy.   Flowers and candles, life and light- these are usually the small offerings we have in our helplessness.

It was December 14th, 2012 when I came home after my daughter’s pre-school concert and party, listening to Christmas music on the car ride home, dumping out candy canes and small gifts on the dining room table, and then, on my own newsfeed,  I saw the horrifying thing that had taken place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I thought about how this had been happening while I was at my daughter’s Christmas concert.  And I thought about the already wrapped gifts that would not be opened by those children as I wrapped mine.

It was on Christmas day a year earlier that Madonna Badger tragically lost her entire family, three young daughters, and both of her parents in a fire that started the night before, on what was probably a peaceful Christmas eve filled with the anticipation of a great Christmas the very next day.

For a close friend of mine, the Advent calendar is a countdown to the day there was a knock on her door from the military, the Christmas morning she found out her husband, a surgeon voluntarily serving his second time in Iraq, a father of three, had died.

Each Christmas morning- I sit joyfully as my daughter tears open her presents, but each Christmas Eve, I feel the emptiness of wrapping her presents alone and quietly placing them under the tree, wishing my husband was there with me.

Yesterday while my daughter watched the Nutcracker in Manhattan, two NYC policemen were being brutally murdered.

Dissonance.  “I tried to come up with a word,” my friend had written.

I’ve also seen the discord quite literally on my own Facebook feed.  “Thrilled to be celebrating 10 wonderful years with the best man in the universe. I love you!”  posted by one happily married “friend.”  Immediately followed by “Sixteen months can feel like an eternity when you’re missing someone,” posted by a young widow in one of the groups I used to subscribe to.

In the act of grieving a loss, if all goes well, that dissonance becomes integrated into one’s soul.  You just can’t walk around and only see the celebratory aspects of life when you’re walking around missing someone in the core of your being.  There is no birthday, concert, or event of my daughter’s that is not bittersweet for me.  Author and professor Jerry Sittser says it this way about his own loss, “I absorbed the pain into my life, like soil receiving decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

For those who have not been slowed down by personal loss or tragedy, the dissonance in life that we experience and see can compel us to slow down and acknowledge the unedited version of life, the often senselessness of events,  that’s not present in the commercials and catalogs showing us how to have the perfect family Christmas complete with perfectly groomed kids in matching pajamas laughing as they gather around their Christmas tree drinking hot chocolate.

Today is the longest night of the year.  It is the winter solstice.  I noticed the new church we’ve been attending was holding a “Longest Night” service- a service for those for whom this time of year is difficult, not just celebratory.  A time to be quiet,  and light candles for grief and loss.  My therapist told me last week that the holiday season is his busiest time of year, and he doesn’t have enough hours in the day to talk to all the people who want to talk to him until around the second week of January.

This morning I read an article in the NY Times entitled, “Bring on the Dark: Why We Need the Winter Solstice.”  It talks about the way modern light- and so much of it- has changed us and how most people won’t even notice tonight is the longest night because of our modern technology, and argues that “Darkness was the only power that has ever put the human agenda on hold.”   The writer, Clark Strand, goes on to say that not only are we a society short on sleep, but also the other things that happened during that darkness, “They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life.”   Darkness in life slows down our agenda; dissonance edges us towards one another and God for comfort and guidance, and hope.

My daughter and I attend the service.  It’s a very small group.  There is a harpist playing. The opening prayer: “We gather here today to confront our pain in the midst of the world’s celebrations.”   We light four candles- one for grief,  one for courage, one for memories, and one for love.  Each light is accompanied by a short  reading for which the facilitator requests volunteers.  My six year old wants to be the reader for the last candle- the one on love, so I raise my hand and we go up.   We sing hymns with minor chords.  We light smaller candles.  The service ends quietly.

Tonight we add belated tinsel to our Christmas tree to “make it sparkle” against the white lights.  We are getting ready to celebrate a holiday that welcomes light- “The” light- on the darkest day of the year.

“Does that sound right?” my daughter’s piano teacher was asking her two weeks ago during her lesson.  She was holding down two notes from a piece my daughter is learning to play by ear.

“No.” answers my girl.

“But it actually is! That’s called dissonance and it’s going to resolve in the next note. That’s what makes music beautiful.”

I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy because the darkness in our world will not necessarily make the light brighter simply by contrast- that is egocentric and heartless.   I don’t think we’ll see a resolution to the dissonance in our world and in our lives, or that we’ll figure it out.  But I do think that we keep going.   Harold Kushner in a book called “Conquering Fear” tells the story of a man attending a concert at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a couple of years after 9/11.  The lights went out during the performance, which was unsettling because 9/11 was still fresh in peoples’ minds.  “But ‘the orchestra kept playing.  Sitting in the dark, unable to see the conductor or their scores, the musicians played on flawlessly…’ ”  We go on by  turning on porch lights, and lighting candles, and by simply surviving.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”  We let the discord make us uncomfortable as it did my friend.  We allow it to unsettle us, and put our agenda on hold, enlarge us.  The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has NEVER put it out.  It’s not a bad track record to put our hope in, especially on a night like tonight-the darkest night.

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