Following the Light

     Even locked within the cold and snow this winter in Maine, there has been sunlight. And all the snow makes things even brighter. This was a revelation to me years ago when I moved east from Cleveland. I grew up oppressed in winter by Lake Erie's endless brooding cloud mass. It was intolerable. I left. Here on the coast of Maine, the sun shines in winter. And now, as the last days of February are before us, the light is carrying more than balm for the soul, it's carrying promise.
       My natural history calendar where I've recorded seasonal changes for more than a decade says that we may be seeing the first returning migrating birds any day now.  These joy-producing sightings are neither robins nor bluebirds. No, these heart-lifting rays of hope, the first winged travelers from the south, are turkey vultures soaring in their V-shaped flight above the highways, looking for road-kill. You can start peering out your car windows now, here in northern New England. If you're looking for spring, the turkey vulture is your best friend.

Turkey vulture. Melissa BoyceBright
     What? Vultures gross you out? Bare-headed carrion-eaters, devoid of color and song? How can this creature be the one that leads us into the light?
     I have two responses. The first is that, ecologically speaking, there is some evolutionary advantage or ecological niche that their early arrival enhances: they win by being first. But metaphorically speaking, wondering about this question can open some powerful insights.
     If everything is always sunshine, if we wear optimism to shield ourselves from the ugly or the painful, then we miss one of the most important pathways into light that living offers us: the path of darkness and shadow.
     Stuff happens in life that is bad. Pieces of our world that we rely on fall apart. We get sick, sometimes very sick. We slide down the slippery slope of addiction. We are spiritually seduced by charismatic people: friends, teachers, lovers, co-workers or employers, and they take advantage of us while we are either blind to their faults or we doubt our own intuitive whispers of alarm. The bad stuff is ugly. It feeds on dead meat. It is dark.
     And it also can show us how to follow the light.
     I have not been hit by all the rocks that life can throw at me.  But I have my scars, many from the list above. And I've stood beside friends and family suffering terribly from the horrors of war, from mental illness and from life-claiming disease. 
     Somewhere in the darkness -- or beside it, in front of it, behind it -- is light. They are never not together. But the journey to the light is through, not around, the dark. In Christian theology, there is a concept called the Via Negativa, which essentially says that since God is so indescribable, so ultimately unknowable, we can only describe God by saying what God is not. In a similar way, I think the bad stuff in life can help us find our way to our enspirited selves, and to the life forces connecting us. Not because the darkness contrasts with the light, but because together, the darkness and the light make a whole.
     I am not a natural Eeyore. Neither am I a Pollyanna. Sometimes it takes the distance of time, an act of forgiveness, or a recognition of my attachment to either an expectation I have or my own self-righteous victimization to see through the darkness. Seeing clearly what my responses are to the bad stuff is how I can begin to move with it and through it. I need to become friends with the vulture.

     I love the humor of the universe. The earth is tilting on its axis so that we in the northern latitudes will -- eventually -- experience melting and new life. The first sign of hope is the carrion eater, whose scientific name Cathartes aura means "golden cleanser".  I look forward to seeing his beautiful naked head. 

Turkey vulture. Roy W. Lowe

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