Two times recently I’ve had the opportunity to turn on a light for someone who was reading; it’s odd, but in both cases that simple act gave me tremendous pleasure. Why is it so satisfying to do this—to turn a simple switch and create greater light, to aid someone in her efforts to absorb the printed word?
First it was a student at Moravian College, where I teach, who was making up an exam for someone else, probably in the Philosophy Department; their offices are right next to mine. She was at a desk in the college writing center, which I direct (and which is right outside my office door). The center was closed by that time, and so all the lights were off. There was winter daylight coming in through the windows lining one wall, but still the room was dim, and so when I saw her, hunched over her blue book, I simply turned on the switch. She looked up and smiled at me, then said “Thank you” with such warmth.
Why hadn’t she turned on the light herself? Why don’t we turn on the lights? (I think of my mother following me around when I was an adolescent, turning on a lamp beside me, wherever I’d plopped myself down and started reading without bothering to turn on a light myself.) In this case, she’s a student, it’s a public space at the college, she thinks maybe she shouldn’t—perhaps. Or she’s eager or nervous about this exam, there isn’t time to turn on a light, she has to start writing immediately. Who knows? But I liked thinking that when the light came on, she saw the questions and her own words more clearly and felt better, felt empowered, felt that someone wanted her to do well. And I liked thinking that she did do well.
The second time it was my daughter Anna, sitting in our living room with one of the pile of Christmas and Hanukkah books we have out for the season, reading along on her own in the near dark; only the Christmas tree lights were on, and it was late afternoon—once again that gray winter light, with a few dots of color added by the tree. It was an illustrated copy of The Night Before Christmas that she had in front of her that afternoon, and when I turned on the lamp next to her she didn’t even look up. And I felt such happiness! Here, of course, it was the happiness I feel any time I see my daughter reading. But it was more than that too.
Wondering about this got me thinking about illuminated manuscripts, and then the whole idea of illuminating, giving light. It’s that season, of course, and as always, I’m influenced by the Quakers here too—the Quakers with their quest for the light within us all, with that rich understanding of God that so works for me. But it’s light together with words that I’m taken with right now: helping someone see the words. The way the gilded illustrations on illuminated manuscripts work. That sudden pleasure and clarity. “You want to help me see this? You want to help me read? Thank you!”
I do want to help, yes. And I’m still kind of amazed by the simple, but immediate and profound, pleasure it gave me to turn those two switches recently.