A Certain Slant

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to even venture out.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

Slants of Light

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I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.  Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I like the slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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Ever since reading about the “The Tree of Lights” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1975, I’ve been keeping a look-out  for special slants of light. Like Dillard, I want to be “lifted and struck”, to resonate in a new awareness, no longer blinded, to see everything in a sharper focus.

It can happen unexpectedly.  The first time was in an art class in 1980.  My artistic ability was limited to stick figures so a doctor friend and I decided to take her high school art teacher husband’s evening “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain” class at Lakeside School in Seattle.  Robert Fulghum was an unorthodox teacher—not just an artist, but a Unitarian pastor, a story teller, and a musician.  He was, in his entertaining and inimitable way,  able to teach us how to look at the world in terms of shadow and light, solid and air, space and density, patterns and plain.  He put a drawing of an old cowboy boot, hung upside down in front of the class, and asked us to draw it that way.  We were not to think “boot”, but to think of it as lines and shadow, empty space and full shape,  dark against light.

I drew by focusing on the small detail rather than my expectation creating a recognizable “whole”.  At the end of class, Fulghum asked us to turn our drawing right side up, and as I turned the paper around, I was astonished that I had created a distinctly recognizable cowboy boot, my first real drawing.  It stayed on my refrigerator for four years.  I was so proud that I had been taught a new way to “see”.

Not long after, Fulghum wrote a little meditation on what he had learned in kindergarten for his church’s weekly Sunday bulletin.  That bulletin somehow found its way to the desk of Washington State Senator Dan Evans, who read it into the Congressional Record.  From there it was reprinted, passed around and eventually made it home in the school backpack of a publishing editor’s son.  That mother, going over the school papers, sat down to read “All I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum and set out, in pre-Internet days, to track down the author — not an easy task.  He soon received a call from her, and the first thing she asked was “do you have anything else like this you’ve written?”   The answer was an emphatic “yes” from a pastor with years of sermons and church bulletins in his files.  His first book of collected essays was published a year later.   His life was never the same, turned upside down just like his flipped cowboy boot drawing.

I keep looking to collect a new “slant of light” but they are elusive because I’m blinded to them most of the time.

Maybe, just maybe,  I could see more clearly with the world upside down…

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