Saturday, December 15, 2007

Shining our lights against the darkness


When I was a little girl living in Laos, I remember one day there was a commotion outside our house. We went outside and discovered that the sun was being eclipsed by the moon. A crowd had formed on the dirt road and many of the men had shotguns. My father could speak Lao (he never met a language he didn't learn) and found out that in Lao mythology it waas thought that, at such times, a huge frog is eating the sun. It sounds ludicrous here and now. But at the time - watching the strange dusk falling in the middle of the day, seeing flocks of confused birds fleeing to their roosts, hearing the wild dogs howling - it seemed entirely possible. As the frog took bigger and bigger bites out of the sun, men began shooting up into the sky, trying to kill or chase away the frog. I realize, now, that we were probably in some danger of being hit by bullets falling to earth, but it was an amazing thing to be part of. It was one of the great things about my father; he always charged headlong into the worlds we lived in, whether it was sensible or not. And he always took us along for the ride.

And here, on this gray December day, a world away from that sun-drenched place, it's afternoon and the sun is setting. The light is weaker and and the days shorter. The nights are long and cold. All up and down my street, my neighbors have wrapped their trees and porches in light, draped greenery on their snowy houses, brought trees indoors. If you look at it objectively, it's as logical as, though probably less dangerous than, shooting a giant frog in the sky. The Lao knew that, whether or not they shot that frog, the sun would come back. We know that, whether or not we drape our dwellings with evergreens and light the long night with artificial lights, the days will, eventually, grow longer again. But it's like knocking wood or saying "God Bless You" after a sneeze; we do it just in case.....

And it's incredibly touching to me, one of those things that shows us all in our most basic humanity - banding together in the darkness, shining lights to push it away. In Judaism there is the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. In Christianity there is the star that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. In Asia there is the Lunar New Year, with people wearing red, the color of luck, and setting off fire crackers to scare away the bad spirits. All of us doing our bit to roll the world back toward light.

So whether you lit Hanukkah candles, are trimming a tree, or are chanting at a Buddhist altar - or you're shooting at frogs in the sky - I hope there is light enough, warmth enough, and love enough around you to push the darkness back for another year.

11 comments:

more cowbell said...

please let it come back fast. Before I go mad.

Gorgeous picture! Did you take it?

I was lucky enough to see a complete solar eclipse a few years back. We were lucky enough to be very near the thin ribbon across the planet where it was a 100% coverage. Amazing! Everyone came for miles around to see it at Lake Balaton, and it was a real party atmosphere.

Elizabeth said...

Cowbell:
I think singing or playing the same songs over and over again, especially if accompanied by the jingling of bells (and performed by Harry Connick or Bing Crosby), is especially powerful juju for making the light return to us. Go forth and sing.

Found the picture on the web. It's in England, but the church in the background with the pagan, lit-up tree seemed perfect.

I've seen two eclipses in my life, and they are strange and amazing. And how scary must they have been for our ancestors?

Willym said...

what a lovely post - and speaking of the same songs played over and over - last year in Vietnam we were greet by Celine Dion murdering O Holy Night in every hotel and restaurant we went into.

Elizabeth said...

I'm sure that put you in SOME kind of spirit (a murderous one?), though not the Christmas spirit....
But I hope that warm weather, perfect papayas and mangos, and Vietnamese salads made up for it. We adopted our twins from Vietnam 14 years ago in January, so I remember our winter time there very fondly. (Happily, at that time there were very few foreigners there, so Celine D. had not yet seeped in to ruin it for us.)

Thomas Pynchon said...

You should read the novel Against the Day even though it might take forever to get through. One of the conceits it develops with a fair amount of persuasiveness is the notion that our obsession with light (it includes a description of the first 24-hour lighting in the world, in a mining camp in Colorado to keep the miners coming to the casinos and brothels) is actually a bad thing. It sympathetically describes creatures who avoid light and shows light as among other things an excess of capitalism. It goes on forever but really has some fascinating sections that might even make the light-addicted think about light in, well, a new light :)

Elizabeth said...

thomas pynchon: (Could you possibly be THE Thomas Pynchon, or are you just channeling him?) Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I will definitely take a look at the book. I can see how, in modern times, light could become a tool of capitalism. But, for me (as for those men shooting the frog), light is the essence of life.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Laos as a child too and remember the commotion over an eclipse. Which is how I came to your blog...googled frog eating moon (was looking for info to explain to a friend). Anyway, I hope you remember Laos as I do -- a beautiful country with very beautiful people...many wonderful memories.

Elizabeth said...

Anonymous: Would it be too forward for me to ask what years you lived there? My family was there from 1962 to 1964.

And yes, I remember Laos with the greatest fondness. Water festival! Wasn't it one of the most wonderful things ever to have a day where everyone ran around dumping water on each other? I remember standing on the road in front of our house, waiting for the water truck to come dump cascades of water on me. Complete and utter childhood joy.

Thanks for commenting. There aren't a lot of us and it makes me smile, just remembering.

Anonymous said...

I was in Vientiane from 73-75. We got evacuated in May 75. I was 11 yrs old and I remember hating that I had to leave. Even with the no tv/radio, the bugs, heat, rain, Laos was special. And yes, I remember Pi Mai, it was in the spring and great fun. I'm now in the process of converting the 100's of slides we were able to bring home into DVD, and just looking at those old photos (the Basi's...markets...monks...water buffalo) makes me smile too. Best wishes to you in the new year -- Maura

Elizabeth said...

Maura, I'm sure we know/knew people in common. In those decades, it was a pretty small group Westerners living (and recycling through) in Southeast Asia. (My father was, later, reassigned to Laos as Chief of Mission.) If you ever feel like sharing any of those pictures, my email is on my "about me" page and I would adore seeing them (but if you'd rather not, I'll completely understand). Happy New year, and, again, thanks for sharing your memories. Best, Elizabeth

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