It is called the Golden Hour or, sometimes, the Magic Hour. Photographers and filmmakers revere it.
It rarely, if ever, lasts an hour. Usually it is less, though in the far north in deep winter, it might last all day. It is that period just after sunrise, or, more usually, just before sunset when the light is warm and soft and shadows are long and gentle.
During our winters, golden hour is something I glimpse from a window in mid-afternoon. A sight that causes me to pause. For a moment.
Now that it is spring, golden hour is more like a place. We might wander in and out of the house all day, but as sunset nears a new door opens. It no longer matters what indoor tasks are pressing on us (homework, dinner prep, a pile of laundry on the dining-room table). When that door opens we will stay outside until the door swings shut and every last, golden drop vanishes.
This week, in this magic evening place, I have seen a two-year-old girl, her hair the same color as the light, kneel in a sea of violets. She used a stick to stir a basket overflowing with dandelions. She was so focused on her fluffy, yellow stew that she never saw the pink magnolia petals drifting behind her back. She never noticed the bright green buds from the maple tree dusting her shoulders.
This week, in the golden place, I have seen a brother and sister roll their bodies down a green hill, over and over again. My own shadow was so long, reaching toward them, it seemed as if I could wrap shadow arms around them while they rolled. I could use shadow hands to help them back onto their feet.
In the golden hour, all kinds of burdens are lifted. Dinner and homework and laundry matter so much less. Even the daily burden of gravity seems to lift. In this light, we walk somewhere between the earth and the sky, belonging equally to both. When the two-year-old cries, “I catch the moon!” I believe her.
Here is what I have seen in the golden hour: my children are beautiful, the earth is gentle, there is no reason, ever, to be afraid.
Here is why I hesitate to share what I have seen: Baltimore burns, another young black man is dead, wars rage, a marriage is ending, young parents grieve a baby’s diagnosis, a friend has landed back in the hospital.
I am strongly tempted to keep the vision of golden hour a secret. I know that my world is not the whole world. Do I tempt you toward jealousy if I say that this week my life, between the hours of six and eight, is almost unbearably beautiful?
Yet if I am silent then some essential part of the story goes missing.
CNN and NPR tell their stories, and we feel duty-bound to hear them. What about the good news? What about those dispatches from the golden hours?
The door to that place opens and closes according to a will that is not ours. Some evenings bring clouds and rain, and we are given only darkness.
I cannot even begin to guess why this is so.
But I hope that when the clouds move in, and darkness once again surrounds me, that you – yes, you – will have the courage to share your golden visions.
That I might know more of the story and take heart.
That I might glimpse the ending of it all and have hope.
Advent has nearly reached its fulfillment, yet I am finding the peace it promises just a little harder to grasp as Christmas approaches.
How easily I can be undone by one two-year-old with a permanent marker and an extra-long grocery list.
My friend Ashley has given me a gift this morning. It took me longer than anticipated to post it for you because I can’t stop re-reading it. I want to feel the truth of it that desperately. I want to forget the fourteen things still on my to-do list. I want to be overwhelmed in the way she describes.
By his light.
We drive I-5 through Oregon’s mid-section, far from major cities, and the sky is pitch, punctuated occasionally by lines of Christmas lights and the glow of solitary windows.
For hours, days, anxiety has coursed through my body, and now in the silence of our car, I feel I may succumb to overwhelm – so many details and inadequacies pressing down on my shoulders, shouting through the quiet. But the light finds me in the calls of the dark, and then my eyes are downright searching for the light – this steadying hand, this hope slicing through.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
Out the window I see a curtain of pitch night, and then a parting to reveal the light. Light, light, light. Night.
As we follow the winding freeway, I wonder at those who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and animal back, following the light, not a road, to their destination. Keeping course by the new star on a journey itself until it came to the One worthy of all praise.
I consider the wise men’s trek to Perfect Love held within a little boy’s body, their joy at finally beholding Jesus’s light. I imagine their overwhelm bursting forth in worship, gratitude and praise, the offering of awe, gifts from hands and mouths.
Overwhelm usually speaks to burial and drowning, utter defeat. And I know this when limitations glare and glower, and I feel I might go under. But as I watch through my window at how Light overtakes the dark, I know I truly cannot be consumed by my own mind or this world.
Just look at how light pierces through. And I am guided to the place where He is, and I am overwhelmed.
Ashley Larkin is a story collector, wife to Michael and mother to three shining daughters (ages 12, 9 and 6). She longs to be a place of welcome and seeks hard after the hope and grace found in broken things. A writer, Ashley recently has embraced God’s call to speak to groups of women, as well. She delights in sharing face to beautiful face about our completeness and utter beloved-ness in Christ. Ashley and her family live in a 110-year-old house in Portland, Oregon with a grove of horse chestnut trees that clearly has taken over. You can find her blogging about living fully awake to the messy glory of everyday moments here and on Twitter here.
Here at Maplehurst, it is the darkest time of year.
Darkness isn’t only a condition on the other side of your window. Sometimes, it is a weight on your chest. Sometimes, it is a fog behind your eyes.
In other words, our walls and windows don’t always keep it out.
Two years ago, I was living in a wilderness. I was so desperate for light and newness I decided to post something – a reflection, a prayer, a poem, a scrap of song – every day of Advent. I knew my own efforts couldn’t make the light dawn any sooner, but I wanted to be ready when it did. I wanted to be there, waiting, with eyes wide open for those first streaks of gold in the eastern sky.
In early January that year, we found out our fourth baby was on the way. And I knew then some of what I’d been waiting for. Born in September, I still think of her as my Advent child. Without even realizing it, I was praying my way to her.
Last year at Advent, I held that same baby in my arms. I rocked her to sleep in my dream-come-true of a farmhouse, but there was something darker in my head than anything I could see through the wavy glass of these old windows. Was it hormones, sleep-deprivation, the unending tasks of moving and setting up a new home? Probably I can blame all of the above and more besides. I felt both completely ill-equipped to blog every day and desperate to mark my steps toward light and hope and the easy burden offered in Jesus.
One more year, and I am standing here again. Looking back, looking ahead.
Once again, I feel too tired. Too busy. Too small. But I also feel grateful. I feel as if something has accrued in these years observing Advent. The circle of the year has not brought me all the way back to the point where I began. These days may be dark, but, if I look honestly, I see how much brighter they are than any I’ve previously known.
Here is the paradox of advent: it is a season of quiet waiting and preparation, but this is quietness like tremors before an earthquake. Because every day is moving us closer to momentous change: the anniversary of a baby’s birth, the second coming of a King.
Yes, it is very dark. All seems still and unchanging. But can you feel the world turning? Can you feel that rushing beneath your planted feet?
At Advent, we return to the beginning (a new year, a baby’s birth), but we are always closer to the end (a wedding supper and a kingdom fully come). Like the movement of our planet, sometimes the swiftest path forward is also a return. And so, I am looking back and pressing on. I am remembering what has been and welcoming what is to come. I am waiting. I am standing still. Dawn is streaming ever closer to eyes open and arms held wide.
And I know this: Someone has come. Someone is coming. And every day brings us more.
I want more.
I want it for myself. I want it for this whole beautiful, broken world.
Advent cannot ever be fully practiced alone. Like the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and their two unborn sons, our hope and expectation are meant to draw us together.
I am doing this again. Advent every day.
Will you join me?
You can find my previous Advent introductions here and here.
Find links to each Advent post on facebook. You can also subscribe and receive each Advent post in your email inbox.
Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – “The Dead”
Find earlier recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.
A prayer for the first Sunday of Advent:
Father in heaven, you came to earth in the person of your Son, Jesus Christ. …
Fill, we pray you, our every moment with his threefold advent. As then he came and now he comes and will one day come again, awaken us to the then and now and one day of his presence in this present moment. As we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, may all our time be clothed by eternity until we find ourselves at last in the home you have prepared for seekers and searchers who, in our seeking and searching, were hopelessly lost. Give us, we pray, the grace to surrender to being found.
This we ask in the name above every name, the name of Jesus Christ.
Amen. Let it be.
– from a prayer by Richard John Neuhaus, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas
Read Advent 2011 (Day 1) here.