Light is an Invitation to Happiness
I go on trying to understand those daily acts of light we all experience. I want to think about how we see, how light enters us. Spring is just now arriving and after that there will be all the stages of summer light. Next comes autumn light, and winter light. But there is something about this early spring light that is like a knot in my throat. It is familiar and surprising and consoling.
George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company and inventor of rolled film, said:
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
There are so many kinds of light, which is what delights and intoxicates, makes one fall in love with its possibilities.
I’m writing this ongoing poem (you can read part of it in Asking) where I just keep coming back to and riffing on those lines by the filmmaker Sven Nykvist, where he says:
"Light can be gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, bare, living, dead, misty, clear, hot, dark, violet, springlike, falling, straight, sensual, limited, poisonous, calm and soft."
You could riff on this every day and the results will be different, because the light is different, because life is different and how you feel is different. One day the light is buttery and lemony and serene, the next heavy and strange and needy. On yet another day, the light is piercing, dripping, or fizzy.
Mary Oliver writes: “But I also say this: that light is an invitation to happiness, and that happiness, when it's done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive.” I’m not someone who has much to do with organized religion but I do have a belief in the holiness of light, and in the happiness it can induce in one.
Is it possible, even, that the light of the world, carefully observed, enters us, enters our breathing, and even our souls? There is a morning meditation that John O’Donohue speaks about in The Four Elements. “You simply breathe the light into you.” When you breathe out, you breathe out the darkness. “Clods of heavy charcoal sadness can leave your soul on the outward breath.” Once we have learned to breathe the light into our everyday life, it is only fitting to share it, to let others catch our soul-light. Clarissa Pinkola Estés puts it like this:
“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it."
So, light is nourishing and empowering and centering, too. Breathing in the light is a way to come into your own being, a reminder that you belong to yourself, to the light, that you exist in the light, and because of light. And once you have drawn it into you, and I’m talking about the real light you observe and are warmed by, as well as a more spiritual type of light, you are able to share this with those who are struggling, you can inspire others who might be inhabiting a darker, more shadowy place. The Persian poet, Hafiz, writes about the effects of light, how it acts as encouragement to the frightened soul. He asks:
did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
we all remain too
And light may also be enchanting, refreshing, cleansing. Pablo Neruda talks about this type of light in his “Ode to Enchanted Light.”
Under the trees, light
has dropped from the top of the sky,
like a green
latticework of branches,
on every leaf,
drifting down like clean
I 'm fascinated by that effect this spring, after what is always a long winter. Perhaps because it’s the one sure way to catapult you back to your childhood. The way the light filters down through the new canopies of leaves, sparkling, shimmering, touching each leaf, so that when it arrives on earth, where you stand with your hands outstretched, cupped, receiving, you feel that you have communed with the green leaves, too. That spring has rained down upon even you, so small and insignificant. Dazzling drops, nature’s benediction.
Hafiz says, “A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy mouth.” And maybe a poet can be so many things, but this, certainly, is one of the possible things a poet might strive to do. To pour light into a cup for all those parched mouths. For, how thirsty we are for light, for beauty.
I like to wake up early and sometimes even manage it. How silent the early morning light, how fragile. Maybe it is in the morning, while most of the world is still in bed or wandering in their houses in loose nightgowns and bathrobes not yet quite awake, that it's possible to enter into something like a state of grace. What is a state of grace? I suppose most of us have some sort of idea of what it might be. But this is how Clarice Lispector describes it in her Crônicas:
“In a state of grace, one sometimes perceives the deep beauty, hitherto unattainable, of another person. And everything acquires a kind of halo which is not imaginary: it comes from the splendor of the almost mathematical light emanating from people and things. One starts to feel that everything in existence – whether people or things – breathes and exhales the subtle light of energy. The world’s truth is impalpable.”
And I have felt this, too. That even things breathe – the books, for example in my study, breathe in and out, are filled with light and energy. The truth of light is the truth of the world, of our own existence. And every day the splendor of light is different, shows the same old things in a new way. It was impossible to keep up with the light on the vine in our backyard last summer, and at the end of a summer, it’s even more difficult, more changeable, and fleeting. The morning and evening light is more golden. More dreamy, more dramatic. So much more emotional.
We end up talking about light quite a bit in our house. Rob is interested in how to translate the light we see, of course, into paint. It’s one thing to capture light in a photograph, but then to be able to interpret this in paint, is quite another. I’ve noticed over the years that very often, especially when people are in the presence of the work, (rather than seeing a photograph of the painting on the web) the first thing remarked upon is the light. Whether it is a diffuse light, a grey light, a side light, a streaming light.
It’s always interesting to hear painters discuss light. Wayne Thiebaud, who is well known for his pictures of cakes, among other things, has said,
“A painter in order to have a picture really feel the fullness of life needs to use glowing light, glinting light, glaring light, light which is very effusive, out-of-focus, in focus.”
Part of what I think he’s saying here, is that every aspect of a painting will interact with light. Every object is bathed in light of some sort, or is informed by shadow. If there was no light, we’d have a black canvas, an abstract painting. (Though even that interacts with light, as an object itself). In every moment, we, too, are subject to the various types of light. As I sit here typing this, I have the blinds closed because the sun is in the west, which is the direction my desk faces. If the blinds were open right now I’d have to squint to look at the screen which has a brightness all its own. Behind me, I’ve left the lamp on. I’d been sitting in my gray chair in the corner a while back, scribbling in my diary, and forgot to turn it off. So there’s the light over my shoulder from this pretty chandelier lamp, with its see-through shade, composed of silver threads. Lines of light, then, are on the wall beside the window.
To notice all these kinds of light places us in the fullness of light, as well. And when we attempt to live poetically, or with a painterly eye, then we will see that there are cups of light everywhere, that we may freely pour them, share them, sip from them.