In a Certain Light by George Merrill


To live a long life is a blessing. Too bad we forget so much of it.

Scattered memories remain, however. Typically, those of annual holidays- Christmas and Thanksgiving. Fragments of the holidays appear in my mind like lingering embers of a once hearty fire; some glow brightly, others faintly. To which log did any of the lingering embers belong, I wonder?

At Christmas, I imagine colored lights at night. At Easter, it’s the daylight, bright, dazzling and always yellow. Daffodils were in bloom. My ancestral home shaped my sense of Easter. We were typically home at Easter.

The picture accompanying this essay is the house I was born and raised in.

The particulars of the house shaped my lifelong romance with light. The house was a Tudor, with timbered braces, a hip roof with slate shingles and windows everywhere, it seemed. I had a keen sensitivity to light and shadow which found expression in my early interest in photography. I was taking photographs and processing them at age eleven.

In the house, I recall light vividly; the lighting at night in the living room was illuminated by the flame shaped bulbs in brass sconces secured to the walls. The sconces cast light on the stippled plastered walls revealing the course texture which was not apparent during the day. In late afternoons, the large French windows in the living room emitted an explosion of light. For me, the house captured the visual delights of day and night.

A sense of place is a particular feeling a locale has or once had for us. It’s a mixture of temperament, experience and mystique. Thirty years ago, my brother, sister and I returned to our childhood home. As we went from room to room, my siblings talked circumstantiality about the things we did as a family, citing occasions that stood out in their minds.

My siblings thought the house seemed smaller. I didn’t. It looked about the same to me. There had been interior alterations, not the least of which for me was the removal of the sconces and the stippled plaster walls. The walls had been replaced by smooth sheetrock. Inset lighting in the living room was installed in the ceiling. It was cool light and not like the soft, warm glow from the sconces.

If I had to summarize my impressions of “going home” it was how the daylight fell in every room, shining through small-paned windows. In the house, most windows were alike.

The feeling of intense familiarity came through my perceptions of light. As a child, I’d look out into my immediate neighborhood through these windows as if they were coordinates, the meridians and parallels sectioning off my world into discreet divisions. The windows were my first instruments for being oriented to my place in the world, like navigators who, seeking their location, fix their whereabouts by latitude and longitude.

The light from these windows influenced how I try making sense of my life. The making of photographic images was one exercise; one photograph, single framed like a window pane, was a search to see what its relation to the larger window of my experience might be – like we might see where the odd pieces fit in a jigsaw puzzle.

The word ‘home’ is emotionally loaded.

For those with no home, the thought of going home is a persistent ache; it’s a tenuous hope to be realized in the future. I see street people and media pictures of migrants. I imagine that they are hoping that one day they’ll find a home with the belonging and safety they crave. And, there are some like my neighbor whose home recently burned down. The lost home feels like a sudden death in the family. The family gathers to grieve the loss – like mending a broken life. They struggle to salvage what they can from its ashes.

Today is Easter Sunday here in the Christian world. The discovery of an empty tomb begins while it’s still dark, and for Christians the event releases divine light into the world. Easter celebrates Jesus resurrection from the dead.

In a curious way, Jesus speaks of his death, not only as leaving but returning. “In my father’s house, there are many mansions (homes). I go to prepare a place for you.” I understand this as a preparation for our ultimate reconciliation with God and with each other.

Among Christians, the concept of heaven is by no means the same.

Some see it as a kind of family reunion. Obituaries refer to the deceased as having “gone home.” Some think heaven is here on earth and we create it for ourselves or we don’t. Others regard heaven as a kind of gated community; only the right kind of people are permitted entrance. Others see it as our ultimate reconciliation with each other, to God and to the world. Many people who report near death experiences will tell us they saw a bright light at the end of a tunnel.

Bodily resurrection while explicit in scripture, is not universally held by Christians. Because the idea is so counterintuitive many Christians struggle to believe it literally although they continue to practice Christianity, faithfully.

I understand death and resurrection as transformation. To what I don’t know. But I know that matter – and I believe spirit, too, cannot be created nor destroyed, but only transformed.

It’s a mystery for sure, but perhaps the poet T.S. Eliot put it best when he wrote:

“. . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.”

It’s about seeing home in a certain light.

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