Toward Solstice: Ten Unexpected Sources of Light (An Instagram Essay)
We are pretty good at recognizing sources of light. There are candles and stars and light bulbs. There’s the switch on our phones to make them into flashlights, and the moon hanging like a lantern overhead. But this year is darker than most, so we must be vigorous in our search for light. What follows are ten images taken over the past two weeks. Some are sweet or hopeful, while others are unusual—even strange and hard to account for—but which, nonetheless, struck me as sources of light.
To the right side of my car, motion. In the stream below the highway, two deer slip through the water and into the woods. I’m driving through the part of New York that’s so far south it’s practically Pennsylvania. The sun is just starting to rise and hasn’t yet burned the fog from the fields. The deer are quick as silver, and the stream too, is silver. The trees and grasses are white with new winter. I think: This is what breath looks like.
I take the fossils into my hands some days. Not because they’re shells and conjure images of the beach, though it’s not bad to warm yourself with memory. But I am thinking of another sort of memory, of the earth, the soil, and what persists. Though it is inland, the bluffs along the York River are studded with shark teeth and scallops and coral. I went there this spring and found the Chesapecten jeffersonius and spiral Turritellas in the sand. Millions of years have passed since the whale heaved her blue hulk over the ancient sea that is now Virginia, but her fossilized bone is still there. It astounds me, this fact. That I can reach out and touch the delicate cream-colored spiral and know time.
#3 Morning Sky, 390 South
Line of traffic, line of pines, and the sun bigger than all of us.
#4 10,000 Maniacs
They sounded so preachy in the late 1980s, which was hard to take. Sound was the main thing then, the flight of guitar strings, the voice’s ability to make beauty, to soar above mismatched living room furniture and chemistry exams and grungy church basements. How time changes things. I’ve been playing Blind Man’s Zoo on repeat in my car and can’t get enough of young Natalie singing her heart out over poverty, pollution, and war. I’ve grown nostalgic for voices that tell the truth, I suppose, find myself buoyed by someone singing straight out about how off course we’ve flown.
#5 Ginkgo leaves
On the ground in Richmond. The leaves fell on the same weekend the decorations came out and put the artificial strings of light to shame.
#6 Poor Box, Albion
The poor box in a place where I was once poor, a town not very far from where the 10,000 Maniacsfirst recorded. What? You think. This is not a source of light. But look closely. See the way the brass has worn? Notice the slot that’s been pried with a tool and torn into as someone tried to twist their way inside. Perhaps this is sad to you, this attempted theft of goodwill. Maybe it seems desperate and a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world. But I see something else in the battered poor box. Perhaps it’s because I was the overly polite and patient variety of poor that I find it heartening that the poor are not always content to wait.
I mean the fancy variety, with the leaves on. The sort you’d need to break into a poor box for. But the splurge is worth it. Because of the perfect taste and smell of the peel, yes. But also because the leaves get you that much closer to the tree.
It’s not that the young woman in my class with the voice like soft cloth slaughtered the turkeys, it’s that she did not flinch at the sight of red flesh hanging garish from their beaks or the spread of their feathers or the up-close spill of blood. More than that, it’s the way that when another student invited others over for Thanksgiving (If you need somewhere to go…), the gentle soul who’d shocked us by killing the birds said: I have two turkeys in the back of my car, let me give you one. For a reason I can’t quite name but suspect has to do with honesty, the young woman—who’d faced a thing we had not, who had been violent and was suddenly rendered badass—stood before us, somehow, impossibly, even more tender than before.
#9 Love Songs
Is the young man strumming his guitar near the English building looking for attention? Is he a tad too earnest as he looks to the sky and croons? Perhaps. But he stands there, singing Stay, as the rest of us shuffle by, on our way to and from our final classes, to and from our cars, to and from our offices and grocery stores and the next place we’ve told ourselves we need to be.
#10 Snow, Lamppost
Just a few inches, but they came out of nowhere, and this is Virginia, so people are scrambling for milk and bread inside the store. And because this is a fine store in a fine neighborhood, there will be goat cheese in their carts. There will be pancetta and extra bottles of wine. And because this is the South, no one will cut another person off as they reach for the last jar of tapenade. No one will say anything but, Drive safe now. But no matter the imported Swedish cookies, newly ground coffee, and last loaves of freshly baked bread, all the light we could ever need is swirling around outside.
Sonja Livingston's most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history and imagination to illuminate the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the memoir, Ghostbread, which won an AWP Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.