My friends and I, the five of us, communicate most often by group e-mail. We are scattered geographically and are physically in the same spot only once or, at best, twice a year. Those e-mails, the ones that are written in a unique vernacular developed over years, keep us close, remind us of who we are and where we’ve been.
This week one of us, the one who spends her days riding trains and mucking about bogs, shared recent adventures with her grandchildren who live in south Alabama. She, her daughter and the daughter’s son and daughter were frolicking on Dauphin Island when they encountered a crab who was, as Annie put it, “hopelessly entangled in seaweed and fishing line.”
Hiking mountains and mucking about in bogs have turned my friend into someone who is not going to walk past an entangled crab, so the four of them began the difficult task of freeing the crab from her imprisonment. “We've all seen the photos of sea creatures tangled in plastic and such,” she wrote. “This was my first real life encounter with it and I was so angry. Crabs have eyes, you know, and this one kept looking at me, angry, confused and suffering. We thought we lost her twice before finally getting the last knot undone.”
My imagined vision — the four of them hovering intently over the small crab — brought to mind a gold chain I had not long ago retrieved from my suitcase and which, despite my careful packing, had knotted itself into a limp mess of shimmering links. I held it in the palm of my hand for a few moments, staring with great intention as though my gaze could magically unloose the knots, and then, forced to acknowledge my impotence, sat down at the kitchen table with a straight pin and set about the laborious task of eliminating the tangle.
I slowed my breath. I steadied my hand. I took my time. Link by link the necklace spread. Loop by loop the knots loosened.
The two images froze side by side like a split computer screen. Annie and her family on one side, me on the other. A sunny day on the beach, a sunny day in my kitchen. Four blonde heads, one brunette. And then I saw it. The similarity. The sameness. The common element between the events.
The work, the undoing, the redemption was happening in shadow. In both cases, bent heads and hunched shoulders had formed a circle within which the bright light, light that can be blinding, had been filtered just enough to make the problem three-dimensional, just enough to give depth and heft to the work at hand, just enough to ensure that the liturgy, the work of the people, would result in salvation.
That is an important thing to remember. We are told so often to be the light, bring the light, live in the light, that it would be easy to forget that shadow has its place as well. Hostas, hydrangea and coleus grow best in shade. Photographs are developed in a darkroom. Seeds sprout underground.
Annie finished her story by telling us that when the final knot was undone, the crab skittered off. Out of the shadows, into the sunshine, into the water. “I assure you,” Annie said, “she stopped, turned to us, and waved that claw before leaving.”
I believe her.