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Good Letters

Every year after the clocks fall back, I read Lia Purpura’s essay “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie” from her collection On Looking. In the essay, Purpura is concerned with the space created when one looks into another world: the panorama built inside a sugar egg, a snow globe, a “horse’s scummy water trough,” cells massing to fight infection inside a boil, a peep show.

Also: “Frog spawn, those clear little globes of life, each with a pause and breath at its center, a comma thrashing, growing its thought…. A house lit from within at a distance—no. A house lit from within at a distance, in winter—yes.”

I read it every year because it reminds me how lovely it can be to be outside, in multiple senses of the word, looking in. How the lights in the darkness create universe upon universe, a magical glee that sparkles irreverently through the dark’s sorrow, until I can almost believe in infinity.

I like the night that falls at 4:30 p.m. For miles, there are fresh pine boughs on gates and people spraying down outdoor rinks and lit-up trees that make me think of pink-sprinkled sugar cookies. It’s cold and foggy and romantic. It’s easy to be anyone you want, to imagine a different life in the dark.

How extraordinary it can be to observe and not feel a part of the world one watches. I consider occasionally whether or not I am lonely, and I think that if I am, it is in an intrinsic way that is a key and unchangeable part of myself, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t give it up if I could.

As the light falls, my fellow Swedes and I get ready to remember that it will soon return by celebrating St. Lucia’s Day, on which the eldest daughter wakes at dawn, dons a crown of lit candles (battery-operated these days), and brings her family saffron cakes and coffee.

I didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday. Like a lot of families in northern Minnesota, my grandparents were torn between holding fast to their culture, discarding what made them different and contemptible, and letting slip away anything not connected to warmth or belly.

What were left were vestiges: lutefisk jokes without the lutefisk, dala horses and rosemaled breadboards, the diphthonged vowels emulated so heartily on Fargo, and the understanding that December 13 was Lucia’s day and ours as well by right of heritage, though the idea of running through the old-country motions was preposterous.

It’s so strange for a country of Lutherans to celebrate a saint. The closest things we might have are the smallfolk, or tomte, and my father says we only believe in them so that we don’t find ourselves blaming God for all of our misfortune.

Though here is Purpura again, muddling the saints and the smallfolk: “Elves can be spotted if you stay very still. (I don’t actually use the word elf. But I know what I mean: a being aligned with a place and its story; a keeper of atmosphere, tonality, sensation, and the certainty he’s there, unseen).”

Lucia’s story is vestigial in its own way, a patchwork of unknowns, though the theme of violence heaped on violence is retained in all of its permutations: Lucia who refused to marry and was prostituted by her suitor. Burned Lucia. Lucia with her throat slit by a jealous man. Lucia who carries her gouged-out eyes on a platter.

Her miracles were that she lived through most of it. Some say that Swedes love Lucia because Sweden is dark and needs a saint who will bring the light, but I think it is because winter is dark and we must learn to love the darkness. We need to struggle with a story like that, in which brutality heaped on a woman who chose her own path is both familiar and incomprehensible.

Purpura writes of looking into the dioramas her father constructs: “[W]hen I think I know his intent, his desire, find a flare of intuition I think I recognize, I always look away. I turn back to the box itself, enter, and wander there. More than anything, I do not want to be outside, thinking.”

I think that talking or writing about God moves me farther from him. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. I’m interested in the distance between the watcher and the world she can’t grasp, in what is illuminated and what is left dark. In silent containers of infinity pocketed throughout the early night. Purpura calls the pleasure of these spaces “sanctuary with no purpose.”

After Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the pulpit, he famously wrote, “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching,” which many take to be evidence of a loss of faith. He may have lost his faith, or a part of it, but it seems to me an obvious statement of why one might learn to love a God by gazing into: the hush and the illumination, the space empty but not quite, the space without you, a held breath.

Faith is strange, for who could love a boring God? Faith is a walk in the dark where you stumble over wet leaves and icy uneven concrete, where you refuse all but the most distant lights, the ones that illuminate nothing but their own promise of mystery.

Faith is Lucia, brutal, familiar as the stories we tell again and again, abhorrent in all her truths, and beloved. Faith, too, is enlightenment, where the light falls not to reveal but to invite all outsiders into the strangeness of the dark.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Natalie Vestin

Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

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