Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let There Be Light

As I write, Hurricane Irene is “churning up the eastern seaboard.” I borrow the phrase from the Weather Channel personnel, who have been talking at me from the television atop my refrigerator. The media have done a fine job of churning up our anxiety over the past few days. Usually an impending blizzard has them blustering, and usually they miss the forecast by such a wide margin that this could be a case of the boy who cried wolf. I think, though, that this time some wild weather really is threatening. So we have followed instructions and stocked up on bottled water and batteries for flashlights. And this activity has led me to contemplate light.

In a world of curtailed carbon footprints and careful energy consumption, and in my specific world of daughter Annie, who is co-president of a student organization known as Greening Princeton, turning on a lamp is a direct hit against Mother Nature. But I love to turn on lamps. Turning on the first lamp of the evening is the moment of transition from day, with its phones and errands and meetings, to evening. Time for a glass of wine or a martini. Time to pick up The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. Time to enjoy the slanty light sifting through the copper beech leaves as the sun starts its descent.

But that’s not really why I like to turn on lights. I just like light. To me, nothing speaks more strongly of safe shelter than the glow, warm and golden, of lighted windows. The house I grew up in was always fully illuminated, in spite of my father’s imprecations to turn off the lights when we left a room. Once, when I was 16 and had had my driver’s license for about six months, I had gotten disoriented in a snow squall while driving our battered VW aimlessly around the outskirts of Altoona and environs on a late winter’s afternoon. When I finally turned onto Cypress Street, Hollidaysburg, and saw the windows of our solid brick house shining like beacons from a lighthouse, I was so relieved that I didn’t mind (much) the solid scolding I got from my mother.

On another occasion, when I was a graduate student making ends meet by serving as a resident advisor at a local boarding school and deeply unhappy about a number of things, I was charged with ferrying the girls' field hockey team to an alumna’s home for an InterAc championship celebration. It was a miserable autumn day. A cold, penetrating rain made the streets slick and sullen. I drove up an obscure Main Line lane and pulled into a courtyard. In the dusk, the fieldstone house, with its many-paned windows all lit up, radiated warmth and welcome. I wanted to hop out and follow the girls into the gathering.

Of all the houses that I have lived in, however, the one that excelled at beautifully beaming light was the farmhouse we lived in when our children were growing up.  I confess that, if I left the house in broad daylight but knew I would not be returning until after dark, I would go around and turn on all the lights. Few things made me happier than driving up our dirt road and seeing our house all aglow. I was home.

We are in a different house now and, with those energy-efficient light bulbs that Annie insists on, the glow is a sickly green. And that is why as soon as Annie goes back to school I replace all the “good energy” light bulbs with good old Sylvania 50-100-150 light bulbs.

(Former) home sweet home...

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