The Annual Theft of Lights

Our outdoor Christmas lights were stolen last Saturday evening, around 8:30 pm.  A hundred fifty bucks worth of new long-life string lights jerked off our picket fence and the blue spruce at the end of our lot.

This has happened before, and to appreciate the end of the story here, you need to know the beginning.

In 1997, our first Christmas on Cottage Grove Avenue, I hung a large wreath on our porch.  I’d made it myself while living at our prior home.  Pleased with its realistic appearance and the colored lights woven into the branches, I stood back and admired my handiwork: a nice bit of cheer, perhaps an heirloom for my kids.  The next morning, the wreath was gone.

The following year, our family still on a tight budget, I bought several strings of outdoor lights and strung them out along the chain link fence.  The tiny, brilliant points of yellow, green, red and blue really enlivened our dark street where only three other houses had functioning porch lights.  A few days later, the entire length of lights was gone.   So the next year I stapled the lights to the new cedar picket fence I’d built to replace the chain link one.

The years pass.  Its a pitched battle.  I would put up an additional string or two of lights each year, adorning the bare crabapple or a shrub or the porch.  Some years the lights would disappear, other years they’d remain.   Each year I’m partly humming Christmas tunes, and partly  wondering if the lights will still be there in the morning.  But I keep at it, partly for my own reasons (wanting to be a light in the darkness) and partly for my oldest daughter Andree, who really enjoys the annual ritual.

Andree will be off to college next year.  So this was our last last chance, perhaps, to stand ankle deep in the first snow and string up the lights.  We enjoy the time together laughing, stamping our feet and trying to get the lights up before our bare fingers go completely numb.  Andree unpacks, tests and belays the lights for me; I staple them to the fence, snap the padlock on the porch wreath and conceal the extension cords under wet leaves.  Since we’d been theft-free for several years running and the new graduate student neighbors were actually hanging out some lights on their own porches, I figured our lights would be less at risk.  So I splurged on an entire set of the new LED lights to replace the old ones.  I had to haul the extension ladder out of the basement because the spruce is so tall now I couldn’t reach the top with the ten foot ladder.  After covering most of the tree we ran out of lights, so I headed out to find more.  Just two more strings and I’d be set for years.  The yard looked festive as I drove off down Cottage Grove Avenue in the early evening darkness.  Fa la la la la…

I drove back to the Lowe’s store where I’d purchased the new set of LED lights, but they were sold out.  I drove to two other Lowe’s in Niles and Mishawaka but they too were sold out.  “Been a crazy year,” said the young store employee.  I drove on, store after store, my holiday spirit dwindling with every mile.  I’m squandering a perfectly good Saturday night searching for the right brand of Christmas lights?  I don’t even like to shop.  Eventually I found a box of matching lights and returned up my street.

But something was not right as I pulled to the curb.  The spruce was just a tall dark shape, and the fence was dark too.  A moment later I stood under the sprawling tree branches holding the shredded wires of the brand new Christmas lights.  Someone had grabbed the string and ripped the heavy 3-strand outdoor wires completely apart.  The lights on the fence were gone too, jerked clean out of the splayed cable staples.  Even the orange extension cord had disappeared.

I stood there with my precious bag of additional LED lights.  The irony was too perfect.  I had spent an entire evening of my middle-aged life driving around seeking…what?  Peace on earth?  Good will to men?   A more earth-honoring lifestyle?  No.  Decorative outdoor lighting.  Good grief.  I had failed the Charlie Brown Christmas test.  

Its difficult to describe the twist I’ve felt inside as I have discovered these thefts over the years.  A whole stew of bad feelings.  Disbelief.  Then disappointment.   Helplessness.  Then confusion.  Did the thief want lights but couldn’t afford them?  Some poor soul wanting a little beauty for his own place and kids?  Or was he just some jerk wanting to wreck a rare investment in neighborhood spirit?  Was this a full-grown man or just one of the bored, unsupervised kids that shuffle up our street every day?  Then the anger hits.  What kind of ass**** would steal a family’s Christmas lights??  Followed by distorted victimization and self-righteousness.  I’m the only guy on this entire block who cares about neighborliness and holiday spirit and now this?  Then despair.  Distressed neighborhoods are doomed to remain blighted when the residents act like this. 

I’m a bit self-conscious writing about this– the “suffering” of an educated, employed, middle-class white man whose precious holiday lights were stolen from the urban neighborhood he chose to live in.  But the ache runs deeper than that.  The annual Theft of Lights is a sharp and unwelcome reminder of the imbalance between people.  Not just here in my own neighborhood.  But everywhere: between the haves (people with lights) and the have nots (everybody else).  Driving through an upscale, hugely overdecorated suburb nearby is not an enjoyable holiday ritual for me.  Rather, it is a jarring experience of the abundance of my peers, versus the scarcity known all too well by my actual neighbors.

There’s an curious flip of circumstances here for me.  Years ago I lived as a scruffy graduate student in the garage of a retired couple in a wealthy suburb of Portland, Oregon.  Unable to afford bus fare, I walked or rode my bicycle every day to the law school.  With every Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar vehicle that passed me I felt worse, like I was not measuring up, like I was the most unaccomplished, undirected lost soul in the city.  Yet now that I live in the inner city with a functioning car, my own house and Christmas lights, I feel like one of the wealthiest men in town.  So which is it?  Wealthy or poor?  Privileged or victim?  Around here, I’m the guy Robin Hood seems to be robbing from to bring back LED lights for his poor band of merry men.

You are wondering what all this has to do with urban shamanism.   Here’s what happened the morning that followed the Annual Theft of Lights.

I went outside to do my morning Four Directions prayer, and lit the wand of dried white sage.   As the sweet, pungent smoke began to rise I couldn’t help wandering over to the picket fence to investigate the crime scene in daylight.  Sure enough, tracks were left in the snow.  And large ones, not kids’ feet.  One guy?  He (he?) had grabbed so much wire he left drag marks in the snow that trailed over to my neighbor’s house (The neighbors?  That just moved in last fall?) and then veered down to the curb.  (He got into a car?)

I stood there in the low December sun breaking over the neighbor’s houses on the alley.  The lesson.  The lesson.  What was the lesson here for me?   It obviously had something to do with not getting so attached to Christmas lights.  But the footsteps in the many people walking (slinking?) past our homes in the dark…we don’t even know they’ve been there unless there’s been a fresh snow…    Hmm.   Mmm.   Grrr.   Soon the deep swell of old, anxiety-fed bigotry started rising in my gut like a hibernating parasite, awakened and hungry for a meal.  I try to never feed the fear-and-bigotry parasite with negativity or premature judgments.  I try to educate others who make anxious, ignorant comments about my neighborhood.  But there it was: my own inner racist shrugging, “Well what did you expect in this neighborhood?  Nothing but those bad people walking around in the dark at night.  Yet I don’t have any evidence of anyone, of any color.  Just footprints.

The lesson.  The lesson.

I climbed back over my picket fence into the back yard to continue the Four Directions prayer.  As I was walking around the earthen berm by the shed, another set of footprints in the snow caught my eye.  These prints were much smaller, however.  Cat tracks.   Huh.  I stopped, bent to examine them.  Then I noticed more footprints.  A lot more footprints: the distinctive paired ovals of a rabbit hopping across the berm; the little stick-tracks of a small bird meandering over by the frozen birdbath.  All around the yard, additional animal and bird tracks stepped, hopped, stalked and rooted around through the snow and frozen leaves.  Not vandals.  Not trespassers lurking or stealing.  Just fellow creatures living and moving outdoors, day and night, largely unnoticed by us.  Pecking the snow, scratching under leaves, and sniffing out sustenance for the long winter ahead.

I found these tracks immensely comforting.  They helped me to see the other creatures  and animal dramas going on all around my house.  Not to mention the winged ones above my house and the crawling ones deep beneath it.  Yes, there’s some guy out there with an armload of Christmas lights that don’t belong to him.  But there’s a lot more life moving around at night than one big-footed Grinch.  There’s all these small spirits of innocence from the natural world, all these other beating hearts with fur and feathers that belong to the earth.  We don’t consider them our equals.  We don’t honor them or protect them.  We don’t even notice them.  But they hop and scurry about like the littlest dancers on a busy Nutcracker stage.  They are not the principal dancers.   They live and die in the shadows (and under the automobile tires) of our collective unawareness.

In the dream time of the Ballet, the Mouse King does prance the darkened stage and create problems.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Greater forces appear, and they too march upon the stage, engage and battle with the gang of mouse vandals.  Which world is the real one?  Clara’s daytime world of preening self-possessed humans, or her nighttime world of dream spirits, power animals, drama and love?

I stand under the open beams of the backyard pergola I constructed some years ago.  The dry clemantis vines rattle in the wind.  But they’re not dead.  They are just dormant.  Waiting.  I lift the smoking wand of sage to east, to the south, to the west and to the north.  Megizeh Manitou…

When I raise the sage above my head my eyes follow it upward and I find myself looking directly at the bare branches of my water birch.  Focusing, I see that each slender branch is already dotted with fat buds.  These branches are already prepared for spring, I realize.   Nature hasn’t even moved into the hard freeze of deep winter yet and every tree and shrub around me is fully expecting new life.  Already.  Such foolish hope!  Such a reckless investment of earth-resources!  The buds are a ridiculous, irrational act of nature-faith.  Faith that the loss of all the blossoms, fruits, nuts and leaves adorning these very branches a month ago was not really the end of anything.  It was the beginning of spring still five months away.  

I had to sit with this teaching all week, uncertain what to do.  If I put more Christmas lights back on the spruce they could be stolen again before Christmas even arrives.  This would be a stupid move, throwing away good money. But if my spruce remains dark, then the darkness wins.  The darkness in me.  The darkness of fear, of bigotry, of despair.

I hauled the extension ladder back up out of the basement Sunday morning, while my family was off at church.  I cut off the remaining, vandalized lights from the blue spruce and strung up the new LED lights I still had in the bag from Lowe’s.  I found a battered extension cord in the house and knotted it securely around the base of several 4×4 fence posts that sit in concrete footers under the frozen soil.  If the Grinch returns, he’s going to have to work for it this time.  I rewired the tree lights, tested them, then unplugged the cord at the house to await Christmas Eve.  I haven’t told Andree yet.

And then I walked around to the holly bushes and the bittersweet vines rooted  along my back fence.  Because the most beautiful display of holiday colors during the winter season at my home has never been plugged into extension cords.  They have been  plugged into the earth.  These annual decorations will be quite safe, go largely unnoticed and continue to shine on Cottage Grove Avenue long after I’m gone.  Because the Grinch is really quite blind, and powerless.  Unable to see the priceless beauty of the earth; unable to defeat the enduring hope of the natural world.

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3 thoughts on “The Annual Theft of Lights”

  1. Jeff, thank you for choosing to bring light to a place that can be dark and risky and needy. Again and again. Thank you for letting us walk through the latest of these thefts with your profoundly authentic and human experience of what that meant, what lesson it might propose, what discovery just might be found in beholding the “theft of lights”. May that ever powerful light of understanding and compassion, truth and fairness revealed in your reflection continue to illuminate that mystery that was also revealed by a bright light over a manger in a shepherd’s field long ago.

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