For as long as I can remember, my father’s piano playing, self-taught and imperfect, accompanied the hymns at our Quaker service on Christmas Eve. Ours is not the most tuneful congregation, but it matters —theologically, even — that the hymns are created together, and not delivered to us from some perfect choir. Dad’s piano formed a line, a cord, over which we draped our ragged voices, as we together unfurled the songs.
This Christmas Eve, without his piano, the songs had no center. Raw and uncertain, our voices never settled on a single key. Others may have found that a joyful noise, but I did not. I could not. Though I will consider it a fitting noise to mark last winter, when so many of us found ourselves missing the comforting center we used to believe we had.
My parents were committed news watchers (my mother still is), and last July, during my father’s final hospital stay, he kept up that habit. Each night, he watched talking heads present the events of the Republican National Convention, and for my father that monstrous pageantry did not end when he turned off the television. As he slept — fitfully, alone in a hospital, aware that he was at the end of his days — Donald J. Trump haunted his dreams. Trump was, if not quite my father’s worst nightmare, perhaps his final bad dream.
I do not often rise to anger. But in my parents’ house one of those nights, I decided to watch the convention myself, and I felt my anger rise to disgust. A white man on stage promised law and order to an almost all-white audience , living in a nation with falling crime rates. A black man labeled his fellow black men and women rioters and anarchists because they had the nerve to declare that they deserved to live. Meanwhile, the police department led by that same man was under investigation for killing an inmate through “profound dehydration.” The water had been turned off in his cell. I had to turn off the television.
I was much calmer a few weeks later as I read an essay at my father’s memorial service. It centered around a line from Wendell Berry’s poetry: “the dark conceals all possibilities.”
I meant that line to honor my father’s investigations of the unknown: his scientific research; his world travels; even his work in his garden, dipping his hands through the darkness of dirt, which, through the only magic I believe in — the only magic I need — converts the putrefaction of death into new life. I meant to find a way to see death as a darkness that could also give us hope.
I did not know that I was already living in a different kind of darkness. Most of us in that room, during the memorial service, were. Three months later, as we watched the election results pour in, we learned we had not known the world in which we lived. I had to turn the television off again.
The next morning was in some ways harder for me than the morning my father died. I was more beaten; I was more dismayed. My father had been dying, first slowly and then quickly ; when his death arrived, I had known it was on its way. But I had failed to imagine the reality of a President Trump. I know I was not the only one. Now I see the election as a kind of reminder: we always live in darkness, and darkness conceals all possibilities — and not all possibilities are good.
My family’s arrival at Christmas Eve service used to be a production. Dad would squeeze in a few last minutes of practice at home, and then we’d stuff a lamp into the trunk of the Prius so he could read the music in the dark meetinghouse, and then we’d hustle off, to ensure an early arrival and seating close to the fire at the front of the cold meetingroom.
Last Christmas Eve, I arrived just as the service was starting, and sat alone near the back. I tried — hard — to find beauty in the tuneless, unaccompanied singing. On a pop record, you’ll hear the off-kilter harmonies of a children’s choir, intended to convey an innocent joy. Perhaps others could hear that on Christmas Eve. At best, I could tell myself that despite the gloom, despite my father’s absent through line, still we continued to sing.
I slipped out as soon as the service was over, so that I didn’t have to answer questions and greetings from acquaintances whose names I couldn’t remember. As I left, I visited the permagarden my father had helped plant behind the meetinghouse. Nothing was blooming, of course, and it was dark anyway, so all I could see were the gravestones rising in the night — old, old gravestones, which predate the construction of the meetinghouse. Though my father is not buried there, those markers reminded me that there are plans to name the garden in his honor, that this is where we plan to scatter some of his ashes (which still sit in a box in a closet), that this garden is where I will need to come whenever I want to feel a physical proximity with my dad. I rarely cry: once or twice every few years, though lately, if I watch a sentimental movie, I can feel tears close. Standing in the garden, tears finally came.
My mother and sister stayed home, not ready for hymns without my father’s accompaniment—thus my lonely presence at the back of the room. Why put myself through it? I contemplated that question the next day — Christmas, of course — as my family, diminished by one, spread ourselves across a trail in the woods.
Hiking is one of the few group activities that we all enjoy, so whenever we’re home for the holidays, we head for the woods. I walked ahead, unspooling this essay in my mind — the trail, like my father’s piano, becoming a line over which to hang ragged words and ideas.
In the months since my father’s death, I’ve arrived at a metaphor for my heart, which of course is already a metaphor. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve packed the harder emotions — anger, sure, but sadness most of all — into a black box, which I then lowered into the depths of my gut. It all occurs somehow beyond my command, beyond even my knowledge. The box sits down there, hiding its contents, which is why I went to the service: I wanted to dredge up the black box.
Yes, the dark contains possibilities. In the months since my father’s death (and in the months since the election), I have found myself becoming the person I have always intended to be. I have stopped driving so much and ride my bike around town, just like my father did. I have planted a garden, a memorial, though it hasn’t always bloomed. I have quit my job, and now when people ask me what I do, the answer is the precise dream of my childhood: I am a writer, I tell them. This flourishing is what I spoke of at my father’s memorial service: Death is difficult, but death is the price of the wildness that makes life worth living at all. The dark contains all possibilities.
But that means the dark contains too , as Wendell Berry admits in the poem I quoted , death itself. It contains despair. It contains — in my father’s last nightmare come true — the stink of despotism in our beloved democracy. But we would be fools to pretend that the bilious possibilities now exposed are novel; we were fools not to have seen them before.
This all sounds grim, but it also reminds me that in that tuneless, unaccompanied Christmas Eve singing was a kind of light: light shining down onto my heart’s black box. And there is light in our election, too. If the dark conceals all possibilities, then the light wakes us. The light clarifies. The light, I hope, can show us the way out.