Together we Carry the Light

Last year, in a podcast episode, I read an email nearly in its entirety. Its author was to be my (then) three-year-old son’s new preschool teacher. Kellie knew her from childhood, the Waldorf community being the modest size that ti is, but this was my first impression. She was writing to introduce herself and also to introduce us to the concept of the Lantern Walk ritual, which is kind of the next thing after Michaelmas. When it was to be held, a couple days hence, she would be leading it. At the time, Kellie and I were in the car on the highway blazing our way to Boston to see Dead and Company at the Garden. She read it out loud to me as I drove and it moved me to tears.

I have to quote at least some of this verbatim again:

“As we enter the cold, darker days of our calender year we may find solace and strength in contemplating the light that we all carry within ourselves. This is a time of letting go and giving over to the season’s passing. The crops have all been harvested. With an abundance of food and wood, we store away the land’s gifts for the long, dark winter ahead. Now the land is going to sleep. All in nature is beginning to die and wither on the vine only to be reborn in spring. It is also a season of trust; one that speaks to us to slow down and to meditate on the mystery and drama about to unfold. At this time of receiving, trusting and letting go we can find within ourselves an inner strength and light that we can in turn share with the world. This gift, given with deep reverence and love is truly the message of this festival.”

She went on to explain the joy with which they would make the lanterns together, the importance of holding the ceremony at dusk, the “magical time when the sun’s light has gently faded, but the veil between light and dark is still visible, barely illuminating their way”, and that the mood of the lantern walk itself would be quiet, joyful, peaceful reverence with the intent of leaving the children “with a feeling that all is well with the world; that love and kindness can heal and that with their own light they can find their way.” Wow, I mean, yeah. I didn’t know this person yet, but I knew I wasn’t sure I was capable on my own of giving a child (or anyone) that feeling. Kellie might be, but I’m not sure about me. It was suddenly clear that it is really important to make that happen, and I was instantly grateful that someone, a professional even, was there to help. Or even just to clue me in.

In all the time since, I haven’t shaken that, which hopefully represents a start.

This year, the lantern walk was scheduled for a Friday, but it was cold and pouring rain, so it got pushed to Saturday. Then it was too windy, so it was pushed again to Sunday. When Sunday came, my son was throwing up. I try to be cool and rational about these things most of the time. Kids get sick and they get sick a lot and they have to sometimes miss things because of it. Sometimes we all miss things because of it. It happens a few times a year in a good year. But while my youngest – and his older brothers, who were slated to attend with us – took it pretty hard when we told them we weren’t going to be able to go, I think I may have taken it the hardest. I know how beautiful and meaningful this ritual is, not just from last year’s email but from the experience itself. It absolutely lived up to the hype, in its own very quiet and austere way. It wasn’t just that these concepts are crucial to young children – and they are – but also I knew how he had helped make his pretty lantern and how much he wanted to carry it with his close friends (they have a little gang) and beloved teachers all together. This was a pretty big bummer.

Worse, though I tried not to dwell on it, next year is Real Kindergarten, and we almost definitely can’t swing the tuition to keep him among the Waldorfs (Waldorfi? Waldorfos?). That is enough by itself some days to break my heart a little, but here what kinda crushed me is that this would have been his final lantern walk at Pine Hill and that he had missed it and wouldn’t get to experience it that one last time. It wasn’t gonna leave a scar on him or anything like that, and so as to not make it worse I made sure not to let on how disappointing I thought this really was. But I mean, you know…you want your kids to have as much happiness and joy and magic as possible. Even when you know it can’t last, when you know eventually they’re going to have to confront some of the more grim aspects and angles of our world – perhaps especially when you know this – you want them to have as much goodness in their life as they can have. You want them to have more than you have, or even ever got – and I had it great! But I still want him to have every last drop of it that he has available.

Like I said, these things happen – the many big and little disappointments in life and all that. This time, I’m happy to say, that’s not actually the end of the story.

Like an Advent miracle.

Within a couple of days, I saw on Facebook that the sainted people who do the Children and the Arts Festival each May (I prefer to call it Children of the Arts, but that’s another story) were organizing a Peterborough lantern walk parade. They weren’t just like throwing the idea out there – they were bringing in a professional from Vermont to advise the townspeople, mainly the children, in the construction of lanterns en masse.

Efforts at lantern-building were launched and coordinated across the public school and in several sessions scheduled at the library. Better still, the parade would conclude in Putnam Park with the annual lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. Soon afterward I learned the parade was timed to start following the community sing of Handel’s Messiah at the UU church and I knew we’d all been granted a reprieve. It would surely be different, but we would get our magical lantern walk after all.

My youngest would get the chance to use the lantern he had prepared and come to love and all of us would participate in that beautiful pageant, to recognize, hold up, announce, and celebrate the light we all carry within and the eternal fact that it doesn’t go out even when the darkness is strongest. And so would I.

The day came, the night before the official first Sunday of Advent – Advent Eve, as it were. We spent the late morning and indeed a good chunk of the early afternoon in Wilton at the Pine Hill Holiday Fair, an event that always proves a magical affair.

(In fact, that day, as we walked up the hill after parking the car, a couple we know from church was driving down the hill, making their exit. “Is it as magical as usual?” I asked. “It’s more magical than usual,” the driver replied with light cheer. He was right.)

Within the walls of that enchanted schoolhouse, we found new friends and old, chatted about syrup and fish, and picked up a few little things from the delightful array of vendors. In other years, the kids often wanted to leave before I did but not this time. We made many different crafts at the appropriate stations; I myself even made a gnome.

By the time we got home, there was scarcely time for a snack before walking down the road to get a seat at the always-crowded community Messiah sing. I sat for just over an hour, in the white numbered box pew, just being blown away as I always am by this work, especially so when performed locally, by community members in the church to which I belong. My son tolerated this part – barely – while I and my wife simultaneously contained him while being moved right up through Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.

Feeling spiritually on fire, we walked from the church right next door, walking around to the back parking lot of People’s Bank – carrying the lantern, of course – and we were floored. It seemed like the whole town was back here, and the organizers were running quite the operation handing out spare lanterns and long rods to hold them in an efficient fashion. There were hundreds of people here! Everyone was carrying a lantern unique to them! The already well lit parking lot was positively ablaze with little earthbound starlight and the mood was sparkling. We soon heard sounds of drums, then more pieces of a marching band. There was even a long Chinese New Year type dragon! Why the hell was there a dragon? Nobody knows! But it was great and filled us all with joy.

I couldn’t tell you how cold it was that night because I felt perfectly warm the whole time. Together, seemingly as an entire town, we slowly made the procession across Main Street and down Grove the few hundred yards to Putnam Park, passing the Town House and crossing the Nubinusit by the waterfall. It is hard to put it into words – a friend of mine said she had been moved to tears by this, and I nearly was as well when we could see, over the brook, what awaited us in the park. It wasn’t just the hundreds of lights carried by those who’d been ahead of us in the parade, but the beautiful people responsible for this episode had also dotted the entire forested hill above the park with lights. It was like a school of stars streaming into a dark, snow-covered starfield. Everyone marched the long way around the back of the park, beneath the forest lights above, before taking a spot somewhere around the Christmas tree.

As I had known it would be, this was indeed a very different kind of lantern walk than the one conducted at my son’s school, which emphasizes the quiet part of quiet joy and encourages parents after the conclusion to bring their children home in near-silence and spend the rest of the evening in a comforting, warm glow. This, in contrast, was loud and boisterous, and would certainly not be followed by a silent evening. I respect the concept behind the reverent version, but I also think there are other, absolutely legitimate, routes toward arriving at the same place – and perhaps this was a bit more. This was OUR TOWN, like, our entire town, joining together in this one place for an official, community-encompassing beginning to the Christmas season. Everybody was there, we shared in the moment and the feeling; I don’t know how many consciously realized what a powerful ritual we were all creating at that moment, but we created it all the same, and we all carry away the blessings and higher consciousness from it.

Here, in this first-ever event, this Instant Tradition (I think there may be riots if they don’t do it again next year), it wasn’t even just the most fitting beginning to the season or the most appropriate ritual observance of its meaning, but here was an eruption of evidence of the spirit that exists in this town and its people, and what it is capable of. For my own part, I felt not merely attuned to the turning wheel of the year and connected to the universe, but looking at my fellow townsfolk and their parents and children and lanterns, smiling faces and warm hearts, I felt hope. Real hope.

Here in the heart of the Monadnock Region, this community has heart and spirit and POWER, to an extent I never before imagined. There is hope for us yet, as we lay this year to rest and prepare for another.

We may not have concluded in silence, but we capped the day off with some takeout Chinese food at home. I asked my son if today had been a magical day and he looked me dead in the eye and nodded so hard it shook his entire body.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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