The interplay of light and shade

There’s a lark somewhere. I can hear her singing her tiny heart to shards, and I sweep the cirrus sky for the speck that will show me where she is. Hovering on the wind high above her nest, she’s invisible to my naked eye. And now I think of you. I was walking this very path, my heart in tatters, numbed by the senselessness. I wanted to write a poem to speak to your short and magical life. It seemed that first line came from nowhere.

It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. Years when the sun has continued to rise and set, the new leaves have burst yellow on the oaks every spring and the bluebells have nodded oblivious in their shade. Years when I’ve caught glimpses of you everywhere, yet known you’re no more visible to me than the lark. Years when others I’ve loved have left too, each departure opening the wound afresh, yet each of their leavings was more timely than your own.

I grumble at the excess light in the photo I’ve just taken. It’s my own fault. I got the settings wrong, and I’ve bleached out all the texture in the sky. I’m an apprentice photographer these days, fascinated by the interplay of light and shade. Too much of either and the shot will be out of balance, its subtle beauty lost. Darkness, I’ve discovered, matters just as much as light and often more. Without it, all you have is a blank page.

I grew up in horror of darkness. My parents left a light on at night in deference to my fear. It was a big concession from two people who’d lived through the blackout of the war. Darkness, like sex, was a subject much avoided during my childhood. I learned to sing of light from my first day in Sunday School. Take my little light round the world, I’m gonna let it shine … The shadows at the heart of the Christian message were often glossed over. A mystery too deep for a child. Nonetheless, Good Friday drew me like a moth, its love and cruelty beautiful and unbearable all at once. Love to the loveless shown … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I learned the beauty of the shadows long before I began to cry myself to sleep from the pain.

My mother lost her father a few weeks before my second birthday. At first she didn’t believe me when I told her years later I could remember him. He was dying of lung cancer. I can still see the room they took me to. I described it to her, and she had to admit I was telling the truth. My father’s mother died when I was five, so by the time my mother lost her best friend I was no stranger to grief. I was six years old, going on seven. I heard the phone ring before I’d even finished getting dressed. I heard my mother’s howl of anguish. My father came into my room a few minutes later. I was knotting my green-striped school tie in front of the dressing table mirror, as if it were any normal morning. I thought for a moment.

That means I’m never going to see her again, doesn’t it?

There’s no need for you to worry about that.

His words told me he thought me too young to grasp the concept of death. Years later I came to see he was afraid I did understand, and he didn’t want to deal with it. My mother’s grief, on the other hand, overwhelmed the household. It was a darkness of tears so deep it left no room for smaller mourning. Her friend had died of a heart attack we were told. It had come out of the blue, although she was barely thirty. It was a long time before it dawned on me that the true tale may have been a deal darker.

Embracing darkness doesn’t come easy. In a world obsessed with image, grief and shame are private matters, unless they’re plastered across the front page of a tabloid newspaper. It seems we love nothing better than the spectacle of other people’s pain and humiliation. Perhaps the vicarious suffering of a celebrity funeral, or the self-righteous glow of watching another’s fall from grace help us to hold our own shadows at arm’s length. Bad things are not supposed to happen in our well-manicured universe, so we make believe they don’t. At least not to us. Then the ultimate sin becomes to be caught in a moment of weakness.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon. I’ve been granted a couple of hours’ freedom and I’ve spent them in the bluebell wood. The wood has become my safe place during the dark days and I emerge into the sunlight like an owl at noon. I’m walking back to Mrs P’s, ready to serve afternoon tea, and reflecting that all the beauty I’ve imbibed over the past few months has done nothing to shift the knot of fear in my gut. I’m outside Sister Rose’s house, one of my many temporary refuges on this terrifying pilgrimage, when the light dawns. I’ve walked away from Charlie five times in the last two years. I’ve fled half way across England to escape. Nothing in my life is as it would have been if I hadn’t met him, and dozens of other people have been impacted by my choices, but I’m still trying to pretend none of this ever happened. I want to hold light without the darkness. I don’t want to admit my own shadow side. Not even to myself. Especially not to myself. I’m so afraid people will hate me for my darkness I’ve completely forgotten that those I love have seen me at my worst, and not one of them has turned their back. I’m the one who’s scared of my own shadow.

I’ve lived most of my life in mortal terror of upsetting people. What will people think? I grew up with these words ringing in my ears, the acid test of good or bad behaviour. The worst thing I could ever do was to offend someone, or to let them down. But in truth it’s impossible to please everyone. It was trying to please Charlie got me into this mess in the first place. You can’t be an angel all the time, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, and the world won’t end as a result. My path takes a new twist at last.

The lark stops singing and plummets from the wide light of the Hertfordshire sky to the shade of her nest in the undergrowth. She’s safe there. Too much light is a dangerous thing when you’re tiny and vulnerable. I take one last photo of the shadows on the footpath and turn for home. Not my own, but yet another temporary pillow on the journey. I remember you used to talk about living life in colour, and I understand a little better now. Colour and light shift from white to black and back through the whole spectrum of the rainbow. Everything belongs. And light without darkness is nothing at all.

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