Comprehending the Light

Winter solstice prompts Amy Wink to consider the vibrancy of color, language and writing.

December 21, 2006

In the waning days of autumn, as the light moves further from us, color rises in the trees if the nights are cool and the days clear. One autumn, when I lived in Kansas, the silver maple outside turned such brilliant shade of golden yellow that my whole living room glowed in its radiance. Every afternoon for three weeks, I was awash in indescribable color and the memory of yellow warmed me through winter. Though we don’t get that kind of autumn display in Austin, I can still revel in the colors we do have: the waving hillsides of pale mauve grasses, the jade of Austin’s river-lake, the deep bright blue of the late November sky. Perhaps these colors become more vibrant in the days of retreating light, as we move toward the solstice, toward the moment when in it seems the sun may not return, and we celebrate to draw it back.

I have built a life around words, teaching literature and writing, to support my own writing. I can lose hours in the thesaurus or dictionary, distracted by nuanced and intricate meanings. My students know I can be equally engaged, and distracted, as I teach a poem or any example of language inventively expressed. I recently burst out with delighted laughter when a colleague described the process of “sales” as “buying facilitation," happily pondered the tiny shift of meaning in those words. But I often turn wordless during the dreary days of our winter, as a field lies fallow, resting before the spring. In my head, the poetry of the writers’ saint, John the Apostle: “and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Waiting, I play in color, the play of light.

As our trees’ show of autumn color ends and the cedars’ rust with pollen, I look for natural color where it does not fade. As my black cat stretches under errant sunbeams, his coat glitters like a prism, becoming all colors other than black. In my horse’s plush auburn coat glint copper, gold, and brass. The subtleties of more intricate design appear in the feathers of the chickens my friends keep. Red Joe, the named rooster, bears a wondrous palette of russet and chestnut, with green-black tail feathers. Looking closely, I see the tiny dart of green centered in each feather draping his neck, a detail lost on less observant eyes. His flock of hens is no less brilliant -- amber, wheaten, and russet, and a the solitary Barred Rock a simple black and white, until the light hits her and she shimmers with serpentine green. Even while shopping, abundant color dazes my distractable eye, from the vegetable stacks of crook-neck squash, and bell pepper, to the subtle shadings of apples in reds, golds, and greens. I find myself standing in a stupor of color.

Eventually, I will be saturated and begin comprehending the light in new ways, moving from observing color to creating with color. Instead of writing, I start to conceive visually, exploring color and light, and exercising my creativity by expanding the territory in which I create. This play is essential to my writing precisely because it is play. There are no goals or desires other than creating visual beauty.Creating visual art employs a whole new portion of my brain and while my writer’s mind rests, my creativity is strength-training. Because I am not a visual artist, my play can produce whatever work I like, as simple as watercolor sweeps on paper. If I open a box of Crayola Crayons®, the scent returns me to a primordial state of exploration and creative chaos. With crayons, there is no grammar.

In this play, I achieve the “flow” Mihaly Czsikszentmihalyi notes is essential aspect of creativity, just as I also do in my writing. “Flow” is particularly powerful when I work with shards of cathedral glass, designing an ornamental piece like a puzzle of color and shape. Concentrating intently on how the pieces fit, the shapes I must cut to place in the design, how the colors balance and work together, I can lose myself for two or three good hours in each piece, and when I finally look up, my play has produced a piece to capture the light shining in darkness.

Like light refracted in a prism, separated into the different lengths of colored beams, delving into the visual is a way I can refract creativity. The long blue beam of my writing is complimented by the array of other colors, other expressions of creativity that balance and enhance my work by allowing me to explore new ways of seeing and re-creating the world in which I live. To enhance their art, painters might dance, musicians might paint, writers might sculpt, and then bring all those shades of creativity back to the art of their choosing. After my winter play, my words are strong and vibrant, rested and basking in the return of the strengthening sun, ready for the work of writing, but my crayons also stand ready.


Amy Wink teaches at Austin Community Colleges. She is completing her second book, Their Hearts’ Confidante: The Diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree and Tennessee Keys Embree, 1853-1884, for University of Tennessee Press.


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