After dropping my son off at school this morning, I stop for coffee at the bookstore in downtown Damariscotta. Sometimes I see friends or acquaintances there and stop for a bit to catch up, sometimes I splurge on a double latte, but today, with just a dollar in my pocket, I get a to-go cup and am out the door in a minute. As I stop to turn right on Main Street and head home, I look to my left and see a woman coming out of the Waltz’s Drugstore. She’s someone I worked with at the local newspaper 15 years ago, and I know a small portion of her story: her husband is an alcoholic, she wanted a baby but never got one, she stops each morning at a half dozen different places around town to buy lottery tickets. She often drinks coffee with the local guys at the soda fountain at Waltz’s.
“How are those boys?” she’ll call out when she sees me come in for a prescription or a greeting card.
“Great!” I chime. “How’re you doing?”
“Great!” she replies.
It’s easier now, but years ago when I’d be out and about with the our twin boys, our fertility drug babies, she would make a big deal of them. And I felt bad for the heartache seeing those boys must have caused her. I got two and she got zero, as though God cared which way our names are spelled, as people say around here.
With no cars barring my way, I turn right and see a man walking down the opposite sidewalk, head down, hands in coat pockets. My husband knows him better than I do, but I know him well enough to make small talk at parties. I know that last year he lost a wonderful and promising son in a car accident in China, and I can’t imagine such a loss.
As I make my turn and cross the bridge from Damariscotta into Newcastle, I pass a gas station and see a man at the pump. I remember ten years ago or so when his free-spirited wife left him and their young children for a biker. “You gotta be kidding me?” was the general response around town to that development. I remember getting my car inspected at the garage not long after and seeing his daughter sitting in the garage office watching a small TV with a powdered donut in hand. She smiled at me with her white mustache.
If I were to drive around town or go into Reny’s (small town Maine’s answer to Walmart) or stop at Yellowfront Market, I would no doubt see, in a matter of minutes, a dozen other people whose stories I know in part either first-hand or second. But there are many more people I pass around town whose faces I may recognize but whose stories I don’t know at all. How full God’s heart must be with all of our stories.
Each afternoon my favorite thing to do is to switch on the little lights we put in each window at this time of year. In our little part of town there are many 18th century colonials and capes clustered together and most of us do the “lights in the window” thing in December. It’s very lovely to look out and see the old houses twinkle. Our neighbors must be less cheap than I am because they’ve obviously invested in the lights that turn on automatically at dusk. Our little lights with the rotary switches that slide with a snap between your thumb and forefinger refuse to give up, so I can’t justify buying the new and improved variety.
But I like going from room to room and turning on the lights in this one season of the year where light, candlelight and pale lamplight, is imbued with wonder and meaning.
As I move from room to room I sometimes imagine what it must look like to someone walking along the road toward our house. First the lower right comes on, then the lower left, then a pause before the upstairs bedrooms and the little room that connects the house to the upper part of the garage. These little candles don’t shed sufficient light to see everything inside our home but they give the passer-by, or the driver who turns to look, a glimpse into the face of our world.
What these lights don’t show is what’s happening at the back of the house: a disheveled child grumbling over homework at the kitchen table, a woman unloading the dishwasher and wishing she were the type of person who always knew ahead of time what they were going to have for dinner, a man in an upstairs office playing a few decompressionary games of solitaire while sipping a shot of frozen lemon vodka, a blond-haired boy on the porch off the kitchen cocking his head to a jazz CD and working to match the notes on his saxophone.
The homework child says, “Would you knock it off, I’m trying to work here!”
The saxophone child says, “Idiot, I was here first!”
The woman says, “Would you guys please be nice to one another.”
Who would know what is true about the back of this house unless they knocked on the door and asked?
In his song “Laughter” Bruce Cockburn, sings, “I laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. I laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.”
Who can know? Who can know about anyone?
Perhaps this season of light, with its sense of expectation that even the most jaded among us feel, is one of the few times of year we’re granted the warrant to penetrate the darkness of unknowing that surrounds us on every side. Maybe it’s the time to knock on doors and ask, “How are you doing?”
As both an interviewer or a friend, I've found that when asked most people will answer. The desire to be known is so deeply found in each of us, because we know that to be truly known is to be loved. This season of light, both Hanukkah and Christmas, is about God caring about the details of our lives enough to enter into our midst and do something. Now we’re asked to be the face of God to one another: to walk down the road and knock on our neighbor’s door.
And it helps us to be brave when a light is on to greet us.
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