On Being Asked for A Light

“Do you have a light?” That’s what the guy who cleans our street asked me, a cigarette dangling from his lips, flexing his thumb as though he was giving a lighter a flick. “No, I don’t,” I said. “Sorry.” I don’t smoke, never have, and don’t carry fire about on my person. Sometimes, though, the simplest questions can get me thinking. After I answered him, I thought about the more literal, or maybe more metaphorical, meaning of his query. The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had a thing about fire. He made a trip to Vesuvius once, walked all the way up the rim, and the bubbling volcano made a deep impression on him. He bought a cheap print of Vesuvius in Italy, which still hangs in his house in Concord, Massachusetts, which is now a museum. Fire was an image of creativity and spirituality for him. In his essay The Poet, he wrote: “We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan, to be carried about.” So I asked myself, Do I have a light that I carry about with me?

Everybody has a light. I don’t mean some vague spiritual concept, or aura, or anything at all nebulous or New Age-y. I mean a person’s ambiance, the first impression a person makes on you, the sense of clarity or obscurity you get from speaking or interacting with a person. I mean something very tangible that you can see immediately, part of the complex set of conscious and unconscious perceptions that makes you intuitively like or dislike a person. Some people can strike us as shady, for example, as having veiled motives. Others impress instantly with their brightness, a kind of light that ignites whatever it touches. Others seem to have too much glare, as if they cast a spotlight that they both pointed at themselves and managed to stand in at the same time. Others seem to conceal their light, whether out of fear or shyness or prudence, the kind of people Jesus advised:

Don’t hide your light under a bushel.

Each member of my family has a light. My wife’s is a soft glow that seems to emanate from under her skin, kind of like the light given off when you held your hands over a flashlight as a kid—your flesh pulsed with a lovely golden red phosphorescence. My eldest son has a dazzling light, like the reflections glancing from one of those mirrored disco balls at a party. My other son is a slow burner, something molten is always smoldering behind his eyes. Watch out when he erupts. And my daughter is like a firework, one with a very short fuse that is always showering sparks; she never really goes out, just sometimes shines more, sometimes shines less.

It’s not easy to see your own light. And it can be a hindrance. It’s difficult to radiate if you’re standing in your own light, checking on your luminescence. You cast too many shadows. And whatever light you have, you always have to tend it, feed it, make sure it doesn’t go out, make sure it doesn’t get swallowed up by neighboring blazes. I used to have a preference for distant fires; they are always so hopeful. But it’s impossible to warm yourself beside them. And it’s very hard to keep them going; you have to forage far and wide for kindling. Much better to have a roaring fire close to home, I think. Pile the logs up high and let them burn. That way you can see clearly what you are doing, while the glow tends to attract like-minded folks. And there’s always an extra light to give to people in the street.