Winter Lights

  • This is a summer village mainly, and it is unusual to see lights in the houses after the fall has come and gone. But on this winter weekend, perhaps because of the new snow, people have come back, and the windows of the houses beam. I am accustomed to walking the length of the street after dinner in near total darkness, so it makes for a happy surprise, this sudden brightening. In the dead black cold of night, the windows seem to shiver with gold and amber--strong and beautiful assertions of the light.

    Did I mention that this is a valentine?

    Of course, I really could be anywhere, at any time. I could be a traveler in 19th century Russia, for instance, tromping from village to village on some unspecified romantic errand, crushing the thick-caked snow under my boots and taking courage from the lights of the candles in the cottages, if you catch my drift. Winter lights have much the same power the world over.

    I recommend to you an essay by Virginia Woolf about the magical hours of the winter days in London when the sky used to drop like a velvet drape and the street lamps and the lights in the shops popped on in protest.

    I also recommend a recent biography of Thomas Edison by Neil Baldwin, which contains a description of the winter night when Edison put his invention on public display. At his home in Menlo Park, N.J., he created the world's first showplace for electric light. Crowds of reporters and others would trudge up a hill to see lampposts, set 50 ft. apart and crowned with helmet-shaped glass bulbs, cast light over bare trees and snow-dusted fields.

    Edison's goal was to find an incandescent light that glowed at a steady rate, a clean, pure force. He added a filament to a vacuum. I know exactly how he felt.

    Today, when one flies over America at night, it is amazing to see how much dark space there is between the necklaces of light along the coasts.

    Am I making myself clear? It is very important to me that you understand what I am driving at.

    If all this is still too oblique or elliptical you may wish to refer to the ending of Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, when the lights go out in the radio studio during the Blitz and Joel McCrea calls into the mike, "Hello, America. Hang onto your lights. They're the only lights left in the world."

    Or to the fires set by the Aborigines in the movie of The Right Stuff. At the high end of the dark, the light from the astronauts' capsule winks as it orbits the earth, while down on the earth itself, the bonfires of the Aborigines glow white and spark.

    Certain exceptional people are lights in winter. (I do hope that I am getting through to you.) Louis Armstrong was one, especially when his eyes gleamed over the mouthpiece of his trumpet. Carole Lombard too had a wit like sunshine. Fred Astaire was light on his feet.

    Walt ("Clyde") Frazier was a winter light. When he was running the New York Knicks' offense, he dazzled even the opposition into awe. Clyde was an impressionist at his game, like the French Impressionists--Renoir and the boys. They even created light. How did they manage to illuminate those hats?

    Friends are lights in winter; the older the friend, the brighter the light. Teachers are, as well. A high school teacher of mine taught all there is to know of light and language. He died blind, out of the light. As did John Milton. "When I consider how my light is spent," Milton wrote, substituting light for life.

    "More light," said Goethe, as his was about to go out.

    "This little light of mine,/I'm gonna let it shine. " I could sing that to you, if you like. Or I could recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (light reading), or present you with a copy of The Sun Also Rises (an illuminated manuscript).

    Bear with me. I'm coming to the point.

    Not far from here, a lighthouse rises over a channel where the bay opens to the Atlantic. It's not a house really; more like a tall steel skeleton with a cyclops eye circling at the top. It surveys the sea where, 300 years ago, brave English seamen came to this area searching for a port. Without lights on the shore, those sailors could not tell rocks and shallows from safe water. They had nothing to guide or protect them.

    Which illustrates the fact that for winter lights to do their thing, there must be darkness and much cold around. Without that, they would be any old lights and not the remarkable kind that rescue men in danger. Winter lights are heroes. But I hardly need to tell you, of all people, about that.

    I bring you greetings from the long ago and our first snow together. Our eyes watered and our lips turned blue, but you refused to go inside. You said that the snow was meant for us alone, and so we stayed out until it got dark and darker still, and there was no light in the world but you.