How often do we think about light? It happened to me the other day at work. Winter light in the early afternoon looks different from light in the summer.
Recently, I found myself staring at a floor graced by light shining through a ceiling window. For several seconds, maybe a whole minute for all I knew, I remained in a trance, staring at the floor, observing the light there. My coworkers would have considered me crazy, but then most of them know I am easily entertained. I think a cloud passed and that drew me out of my trance. That day I began to think about light; how it plays such an important part in our lives. And I am not talking vitamin K (is it vitamin K we get from sunlight, right?). I mean light itself.
Way back when our biggest worry was nuclear fire and who might press the button, us or the Soviets, I attended a county college. While I was there I took a few art classes. A drawing instructor asked us students to sketch someone we knew. I couldn’t find anyone to sketch so I drew someone from memory. When I returned to class the instructor, we will call him Dave, took one look at my drawing and mumbled something about me being a cartoonist. My rendering wasn’t life-like enough for him. Once Dave finished bashing everyone’s work he told us that the only common denominator in our sketches was the use of solid lines. The true artist, he told us, and I am paraphrasing here, knows how to use light and shadow to form edges. The lesson: never use solid lines because, in Dave’s estimation, there were no solid lines in real life. People, buildings, animals, plant life, etc all took their shape because light allows each to do so. This little lesson was probably the reason why I moved toward more abstract expression in my artwork. I was never good at portraits and the like. And ultimately I changed majors when I transferred to Rutgers University. Since then I never looked back. However, I never forgot Professor Dave-Not-His-Real-Name’s lesson about light.
During my little trance at work (I often zone out on the job…which is undoubtedly not a good thing since I am sort of responsible for the safety of others), I recalled an image from my childhood growing up Camden, NJ. It’s more like a continuous loop rather than a still photograph. In it I see a neighbor’s white garage door across the street from where I lived. In the summer, whenever there was an afternoon shower, I used to sit in the dining room staring out at that garage door. The white paint held the slightest shade of gray when the clouds were overhead. But the moment the sun broke out from behind the storm clouds, often miles away to the west, the garage door brightened. It was about this time when I would start hounding my mother: Can I go outside? It stopped raining. Can I? Can I? It usually worked. As a child with five siblings, and being the second youngest, my mother was usually at her wit’s end and happy to empty our domicile for, as she so lovingly put it over the years, a moment’s peace.
Light and memory play so much into our lives that often the two are inseparable. I know for me that of the memories I can recall there is always some quality of light in them; even in the dark there is always the slightest source of light–stars, street lights, the moon, fireflies, headlights, windows in houses lit from within (these also appear differently in summer and winter), dawn, dusk, and even phosphorous roots that gave the Pinelands where I once lived an otherworldly quality. And who could forget how each passing year meant a different light coming off the candles on a birthday cake? Does anyone remember what the light looked like the first time they walked home from school on their own? How different it appeared when you got lost versus how it comforted you when you arrived home after a long trip? How about the light when you first made love? What about every time after that? What did the light look like with light coming through a window, or from beneath a closed bedroom door? What was the light like when your first child was born? How about the first funeral you attended? On your wedding day? The first time you kissed someone?
Light in memory plays tricks on us, however; like so much else in the past we tend to see through what the poets call rose-colored glasses. It was like the lesson Dave-Not-His-Name taught the drawing class I took at county college. The light is always best in the here and now.
One last thought: I am 45 years old. And when the clouds are right and bright sun rays are reaching down from the sky toward the ground on some distant horizon I still find myself scanning those sunbeams, perhaps hoping to see angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder. The point here, I think, is not to actually see physical manifestations of angels, but to pause and savor that light broken into rays that stream through the clouds. All of us look for eclipses, shooting stars and the like, but how often do we calculate just how many variations of light we will see in our lifetime? It is something that we take for granted; this light that graces our lives.