This Little Light of Mine

(I’m Gonna Let It Shine?)

Once upon a time I loved to sing.  When I was little, before the age of 6, I would sing out loud, unrestrained, for all to hear.  I have a distinct memory of standing on the over-sized hearth in the family room of our new house in Mississippi, only a few weeks before Christmas when I was 5.  This was my stage, front and center, and I would belt out the new song I had just learned at my new school, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  There was going to be a Christmas concert soon, and since I had only just arrived, I had to learn all the songs fast if I wanted to be part of the show.  And oh, how I did!  And so I practiced from my new stage, and sang my little heart out, despite the mixed-up feelings I had inside.

It is not lost on me now, as an adult, the irony of this particular choice of song being sung at a school concert in Mississippi.  “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is an African-American spiritual song, not something that I had even heard of in my native state of Texas.  But it was a Christmas carol staple in my new hometown, one where the public schools were still being forced in integrate in the 1980s and the KKK was a regular fixture on the street corner near our new home.  On our first trip to the grocery store, I wondered out-loud to my mother why those men were in their Halloween costumes when it was clearly Christmastime.  We had only moved 450 miles, but it felt like we moved into an entirely new dimension, backwards in time perhaps.  We were most definitely not in Texas anymore.

So I continued to sing, until someone told me to be quiet, not sing so loud, tone it down.  Perhaps I didn’t have the best singing voice, or maybe my non-stop singing was just grating on my parents’ frayed nerves.  It is also not lost on me that my love of singing started at church and with hymns and other spiritual songs.  Even at a young age, it was the part of church that I most connected with and enjoyed.  And when my own particular joy in worship was snuffed out, so too went any hope for a religious connection later in life.  If only I had just been allowed to “worship” in my own, child-like way, even if that was not pleasing to the adults around me.  What might have become of the burgeoning evangelical gospel singer had I not been told to sit down and shut up?

As I got older my parents forced me to join the church choir, but I always hated having to sing in church.  I’d stand there and mouth the words and try my best to not let any sound escape my lips.  When I had to sing at school, I used my ability to read music to be cast as a “second soprano,” singing harmonies somewhere between the sopranos and altos.  It was the perfect place to blend in.  I didn’t have to worry about being heard.  Even still, I tried to keep to the outskirts of the group, away from the microphone, lest my voice actually be picked up for all to hear.

So now, as an adult, I don’t sing and I don’t go to church.  Except for Christmas Eve, when this sort of compulsion comes over me and I feel like I need to show up on that one night of the year, lest I feel like a hypocrite for celebrating a religious holiday but not having the decency to make an appearance in church.  Of course I love the carols on Christmas Eve, and this year, to my surprise, we sung that old favorite of mine “Go Tell It on the Mountain” – at a Unitarian church in New Jersey no less!

When my Nana was alive, she would always cry during the Christmas Eve service.  I usually have to hold back tears too: tears of joy and sadness and regret and loss and pure exhaustion.  Perhaps that’s another pull of the Christmas Eve service, a chance to respect the traditions of my childhood and be at one with the ancestors who have departed this world.  It’s not unlike the pinwheel cookies I bake each year, not just because I like to eat them, but because it evokes the spirits of my Nana and great-grandmother too, and I find their presence calming amid the mayhem.

Pinwheels are tedious to make and require patience and time, both of which I’m usually short of, particularly at this time of year.  The weather is also a factor, but I can’t tell you what difference it makes, only that it can’t be too hot or too cold, for whatever reason.  But when it works out just right, it is magical perfection rolled into small, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth cookies.  Some years it works, others not as well.  But I make an attempt each year, out of tradition and for connection.

I haven’t felt particularly merry this Christmas season and I’m not entirely sure why.  I struggle with managing the expectations and anticipation in the lead-up to Christmas Day.  Perhaps I’m finding it harder to feel the Christmas magic as my children get older and more work goes into keeping Santa alive for another year.  I often find myself reciting the message of the Grinch:

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

~ Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I do what I can, but Christmas arrives each year, right on schedule, regardless of the cookies I didn’t bake or the gifts not bought or wrapped.  And I have noticed that the one Christmas song that has been perpetually stuck in my head this December is none other than George Michael’s “Last Christmas”:

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special

Maybe it’s about being more protective of my own heart, more aware of how and who I share it with.  Maybe it’s an unconscious reflection on my ever-evolving internal relationship with the ex-therapist.  Maybe it’s just because it’s a catchy tune that seems to be playing everywhere.

Maybe I’m reminiscing.

I remember hearing the news on Christmas Day in 2016 that George Michael had died.  For me, that was the final straw in what had otherwise been a really shitty year, not necessarily personally but on a universal level.  I could not wait for the year to be over and behind us for good.  George Michael’s death hit me deeply and profoundly in a way that caught me by surprise.   It was a good friend in the 6th grade who introduced me to this brilliant artist.  She moved away at the end of 7th grade and we lost touch.  I’ve never been able to find her online or on social media.  But I still think of her and wonder about where her life took her, especially when I hear a George Michael song.  I think about the giggles we shared on the school-bus, huddled together to share the headphones of her Walkman.  And I smile to think of the black-and-white poster of George that hung in my bedroom, right there alongside posters of Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block!

So last year, when I heard the news, I instructed our Alexa to “play George Michael.”  I had enough of the cheery Christmas carols (which only seemed to make me feel more depressed), and so the tunes of that raspy voice echoed through our home for days until someone, I don’t even know who, finally turned it off.  I’m quite certain that we cycled through the entire catalog, but it was these lyrics that struck me as being visionary:

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much, much too late
Well, maybe we should all be praying for time

I don’t feel as despondent about 2017, but it wasn’t exactly a year filled with hope either.  Looking back, perhaps it was a year of transition, into what I’m not quite sure.

Not long ago I had this dream:

There was a child floating on a make-shift raft in this radiant bubble of light.  She was lost, but steadfastly guarding this light that she carried.  I recognized the girl as a younger version of me, about age 5 or 6.  An older woman appeared and asked the little girl why she ran away.  She answered “well the world got very sad.”  And the old woman replied “well I’m sorry to admit to you, but in some ways, it’s gotten sadder.”  And the little girl is horrified by this.  But the older woman continues “the ugliness is also becoming clearer and now is the time to shine light on these things.  It’s also the time to shine our own lights and show the possibility that humans possess, to be better and to bring beauty.”  The little girl heaves this big sigh, one of resignation and feeling that it’s all too hard.

When I awoke from the dream, I had another song that I used to sing loudly stuck in my head:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

One thing I love about this time of year is the light, the perpetual glow from candles and little tree lights and houses all lit up.  It is never truly dark, even as the days grow shorter and the nights grow blacker.  It’s a collective force to shine light into that darkness, to keep us all a-glow through the dark nights of winter.

The other night my kids were watching an animated movie called The Croods.  It’s about a family of cavemen, led by a patriarch who is afraid of anything new or different.  As I went about my own business, I couldn’t help but overhear some of the dialogue at the end of the movie.  The teen daughter wisely describes their old, protective life: “That wasn’t living! That was just… not dying! There’s a difference.”   And by the end of the movie, her father realized the error of his old ways: “What’s the point of all of this?  To follow the light.”

This little light of mine.  I’m gonna let it shine and follow the path that it illuminates, even though it may be hard.  I don’t know what’s on the horizon, but I sense that now is the time to explore new paths and possibilities.  Energies are shifting and I am committed to following my own true inner light – and most definitely not hide under a bushel.  It’s the light that I’ve had with me since the beginning, it’s the one that others have tried to put out over the years, it’s the light that will lead me to where I need to be, if I can only trust to be guided by the wisdom within.  This is my hope for the next year, to follow the light into something new and wonderful and self-fulfilling.  My own light, my own prophecy, my own purpose.  That is the point, that will be living, that will be extraordinary.

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