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Poem: "Lighting the Darkness" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "Lighting the Darkness"

This poem came out of the November 5, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from technoshaman.  It also fills the "telling a story" square in my 10-6-13 card for the Origfic Bingo fest.  This poem has been sponsored by technoshaman, Anthony & Shirley Barrette.  It belongs to the series Walking the Beat, which you can find via the Serial Poetry page.

Lighting the Darkness

It was the first holiday season
since Dale's injury and retirement.
Neither Dale nor Kelly had family
in the city or even nearby.
They had been celebrating holidays
with the police department,
which was no longer an option.
It was hard on both of them.

As the end of November approached,
their walks through Jamaica Plain
grew a little slower, their faces a little longer.
They turned up the collars of their coats
and kept their hands in their pockets,
thinking much but saying less.
Even thin, skin-tight gloves
made it harder to sign, but
they didn't feel like talking anyway.

People noticed, of course,
and asked if Dale and Kelly were all right,
if there was anything they could do to help.
"It's just the time of year," Dale said.
Holidays, Kelly signed.

When Will discovered that they had
no plans for Thanksgiving dinner,
he invited them to his house.

"Do Quakers even celebrate Thanksgiving?"
Dale asked.  "I never heard of that."

Will shrugged.  "Some do, some don't.
I believe in expressing gratitude
for blessings received.  It's nothing fancy."

"We can't really make any commitments,"
Dale said.  She shifted in place,
her leg aching in the cold.

"No pressure," Will said
as he laid a hand over Dale's wrist.
"I just thought you could use a friend."

Later on, Kelly stopped to read announcements
outside the Nehar Shalom Community synagogue.
Rivka came out and invited Kelly and Dale
for Hanukkah, which overlapped Thanksgiving this year.

"You do know we're not Jewish, right?" Dale said.
"I know," Rivka said.  "I think when people
stay too much apart, it makes them fight more.
Better we should share each other's celebrations,
and comfort when the hard times come."

Kelly pulled her hands from her pockets
and signed, We'll think about it.
Dale translated and added thanks.

Thanksgiving dawned cold and gray,
with a steady rain streaking the windows.
Dale lay in bed, warm between flannel sheets
and the softer heat of Kelly's limbs
spread over her in sleep.

Dale didn't feel like getting out of bed,
but when Kelly stirred, she sat up.
In the shadowy bedroom,
it was hard to see what Kelly said.
Finally Kelly reached out
and signed Good morning
into Dale's hand with tactile signs.

Kelly wanted breakfast, so Dale
dragged herself into the kitchen
to help make the pancakes.
Coffee too.  Coffee was good.
Eventually Dale's brain
began to wake up.

Do you want to stay home,
or go out?
Kelly asked.

I don't really want to sit and mope all day,
but I'm not sure I can deal with people,

Dale replied slowly.

Let's try going out, Kelly signed.
If it feels good, we can stay.
If not, we can come home early

So they washed and dressed
and ventured out into the driving rain.
The streets were clogged with holiday traffic
and slick enough that Dale drove with extra care.

Will was delighted to see them
for dinner (that was more like a late lunch)
and happily waved them inside.

He had a few other guests, mostly
college students or recent graduates.
Dale recognized Eryn from the coffee shop,
her blue hair done up with silver combs
and her typical punk outfit replaced
by a gray woollen sweater-dress.

The kitchen smelled of turkey and sweet potatoes
as everyone crowded around the little table.
The chairs didn't all match, but the food looked good,
and the company was less stressful than expected.

Will coaxed them into holding hands as he said grace.
"Eternal God, source of all created things,
we would give substance to our thankfulness
by resolving to make right use of the gifts
we have received from thy bounty.
With thy gift of the senses we would
fashion and preserve a world of beauty for all ..."

Dale translated the prayer for Kelly,
and nobody stared or made smart remarks.
In fact, Dale realized as dinner progressed,
it was quieter than usual.

Will didn't seem inclined to fill the air
with idle chatter, and others followed his lead.
Eryn talked a bit about their ongoing efforts
to encourage community art,
but there was no pressure to join in.

Kelly told a story about her family tradition
of making cranberry sauce from scratch --
which evidently nobody wanted a translation of,
trying to figure it out from her signs alone,
which was always fun to watch.

Gradually Dale began to relax,
and by the time Eryn put out the crenshaw pie --
similar to pumpkin, but paler and sweeter --
Dale felt comfortable enough to ask Eryn about it
and listen to the recipe as they ate.

It was a good visit, peaceful and soothing.
Dale and Kelly felt glad that they came.

They thanked Will for the invitation
and Eryn for the delicious pie
and everyone for their company,
then headed back to their car.

Ready to go home? Kelly asked.
Maybe.  Maybe not, Dale replied.
What do you think?

It's still early, Kelly signed back.
We could go to Rivka's for Hanukkah.
Dale climbed into the car, saying,
I think I'd like that, at least for a little while.
So they drove across town

Rivka's home was as boisterous
as Will's had been quiet.
Rivka's son Mendel was there
along with his girlfriend Devorah,
a dozen other adults of varying ages,
and five children who didn't know Dale
but did recognize the titanium cane
that had once belonged to Rivka's husband.

Candlelight from the menorah
flickered and danced in the living room.
The children sat in a circle on the wooden floor,
spinning an odd square top in some kind of game.
The light glimmered on the gold foil
of the chocolate coins they used to keep score.
It looked interesting.

"Do you want to spin the dreidel?"
asked one little boy.
"I don't know how to play," Dale said.
"We can show you," he offered.

Kelly was already sitting down,
so Dale joined her, and together
they learned to play a new game.
The children happily shared their candy coins.

Devorah passed around a platter
of tiny bagels and several soft cheeses.
Kelly nibbled just enough to be polite,
but Dale liked the mellow flavors.

After the candles had burned out,
Devorah came back and said,
"We're about to make sufganiyot --
jelly donuts -- if you want to watch."

Kelly scrambled to her feet,
signing, Yes, please, on the way up.
She looked at Dale.  Coming?

I'm comfortable here, Dale replied.
Kelly would be fine without her,
and Dale didn't feel like piling into the kitchen
the way half the people in the house were doing.

Two of the older children stayed with her,
redividing the pile of golden coins again.
"You don't keep the candy?" Dale asked.

"When it's time to go home,
we take whatever coins we have then,"
the girl said.  "Hanukkah is about sharing."

They played until Kelly came back
carrying a plate stacked high with jelly donuts.
The children took some, but Dale shook her head.
The pie earlier had been enough sweet for her.

With the kitchen emptying, the living room
got crowded again, but quieter than before.
"It's time for another story," Rivka declared,
and everyone settled into place.

Rivka told the tale of Yehudit,
who saved the town of Bethulia
from the cruel general Holofernes
by getting him so drunk
that she could chop off his head
with his own sword.

Dale had never heard it before,
and she couldn't help smiling a little
at such an old story of a strong woman.
She rather suspected that Rivka
had chosen it for her sake.

After the storytelling, the conversations
turned more lively, and so Dale
found herself drifting toward the edges.
She looked at the ornate candleholder
and remembered how it had shone
through the window to the street.

"Hanukkah is about hope, really,"
Mendel said as he came up beside her.
"It's about purity and faith, too,
but the heart of the holiday
is lighting the darkness."

"It's beautiful," Dale said.
"I'm glad that Rivka invited us."
"We're glad that you came,"
Mendel replied.

Dale felt tired but happy
as she and Kelly said their goodbyes
to Rivka and her family.
The children insisted that the two women
keep their share of the chocolate coins.

What Dale remembered most
as they drove slowly home
through rain turning to slush
was gratitude for the presence of friends
and faith that no matter how dark things got,
someone would come to light a candle.

* * *


Depression can come from changing seasons, holidays, retirement, disability, or many other causes.  You can see how stacking factors could contribute to a low mood for Dale and Kelly.  There are ways to cope with depression.  Start small, try to stay engaged with other people and activities, but don't exhaust yourself.

I found this lovely essay on celebrating a Quaker Thanksgiving.  Here is the prayer that Will says.

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday.  You can read about it and how to celebrate it on many Jewish websites.

Tactile Sign Language is a way of communicating for deaf-blind people, but also used by some deaf people in conditions where it is not easy to see the signs.  There are multiple approaches to doing this.

Crenshaw or cushaw is a winter squash with a bulbous body and a neck, white with green stripes, and creamy flesh.  (This is not the same as crenshaw melon, a sweet summer fruit.)  It can be prepared in advance for baking into a pie similar to pumpkin pie.

A menorah is a candleholder, and in American English usually refers to the kind designed for Hanukkah.  The more precise term for this holiday fixture is Hanukkiah.

A dreidel is a traditional Jewish top.  Hanukkah gelt may take the form of money and/or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

Sufganiyot are jelly donuts fried in oil, a popular Hanukkah food.  Other favorites include latkes and cheese.

Storytelling is one activity enjoyed at Hannukah parties.  Read some holiday stories including the one about Yehudit.

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11 comments or Leave a comment
thnidu From: thnidu Date: November 10th, 2013 07:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, lovely!

Technically, I think a menorah is any candelabra; I know the term also includes the seven-branched one in the Temple. The nine-candle kind used for Hanukkah is also specifically called a hanukkiah (rhymes with Maria). But that's just a footnote: in American English "menorah" is the usual word, and it's totally in place in this family.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 10th, 2013 07:45 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed this. I have expanded the vocabulary note accordingly.
From: technoshaman Date: November 10th, 2013 08:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh. Today I have learnt something! thank you.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 10th, 2013 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)


I'm always happy when I can help make that happen.
From: technoshaman Date: November 10th, 2013 08:10 am (UTC) (Link)
*smiles* Yeah... and you put a wrinkle in, giving them a new Friend, as it were... I know a couple of Quakers, one on each side of the pond, and they're among the more interesting folks I know.... :)

I don't know if this is the first you've written of Kelly and Dale in private, but I love how you handled it... :)

And... you and endings again. Stupid monitor. Blurry around the edges. :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 10th, 2013 08:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> *smiles* Yeah... and you put a wrinkle in, giving them a new Friend, as it were... <<

I first introduced Will (along with Eryn and Devorah) in "If You Want to Make Peace." I wanted to show a little more of the cultural diversity.

>> I know a couple of Quakers, one on each side of the pond, and they're among the more interesting folks I know.... :) <<

I've known several, and I agree. Some, though not all, tend to be on the quiet side. And you absolutely do not want to fuck with them, because once they've asked God a question and gotten an answer they will NOT budge. I used to stand in peace vigils with them. Powerful stuff.

>> I don't know if this is the first you've written of Kelly and Dale in private, but I love how you handled it... :) <<

I think it is. Getting into the colder, darker part of the year seemed to call for a quiet domestic moment to contrast with all the cheerful public activity from earlier.

>> And... you and endings again. Stupid monitor. Blurry around the edges. :) <<

Aww! *wink* Maybe you need windshield wipers for the monitor.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: November 11th, 2013 01:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

I've known quite a few Quakers, especially during my grad school days at Stanford in the early '70s. Powerful stuff indeed -- those were interesting times.
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: November 11th, 2013 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Aw, yay! More Dale and Kelly in JP! Also, anything that references Judith and Holofernes makes me happy.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 14th, 2013 11:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed this so much. I got a kick out of the Holofernes story.
tigerbright From: tigerbright Date: February 18th, 2014 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I missed this one originally! I really like it.

Links to two more retellings of the Judith tale:
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 19th, 2014 01:53 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed this so much.
11 comments or Leave a comment