A Poet Laura Pays Tribute to the Lauras Who Bring the Light
My mother lit an oil lamp daily—in the morning, and again in the evening just before dinner. Deftly, she rolled cotton fluff into a wick with her fingers, threaded it through the cylinder, doused it with homemade ghee, then struck a match to light it. As with many rituals in an Indian household, it was so routine that it faded into the background.
Almost. For me, an immigrant child in America, cultural traditions never fully faded into the background, as they contrasted wildly with midwestern life in the 80s. In other words, why are we doing this? was a question frequently heard in my home.
She answered my questions, including those about the oil lamp, patiently. It’s a symbol, she explained, that light always triumphs over dark. The idea comforted me as a child—that a very small thing (a lamp) and a very small act (lighting it) could face down and ward off what frightened me.
When I was older, I learned some of the deeper significance behind lamp-lighting. Most importantly, the ritual is a reminder that a single lamp can ignite an infinite number of others, without ever reducing the clarity and brightness of the light.
In October 2016, I was thrilled to learn that an essay I’d written had been accepted by Tweetspeak and slated for publication in January 2017. A Courtyard in Queens described how our immigrant family had been welcomed and embraced by a small, multicultural New York City neighborhood. It shared my appreciation of American open-mindedness and open-heartedness, which helped counterbalance the more challenging and painful aspects of our immigrant experience.
The following month, the national election results shocked me for a number of reasons, but mostly because I suddenly felt wrong-headed in my perception of America and my place in it. I’d assumed that the hatred and invective I’d heard during the campaign, the divisiveness being deliberately cultivated, and the disinterest in decorum and decency, all sprang from a small segment of the population. Given the final results, though, I had to wonder: am I truly accepted here?
I felt profoundly shaken.
And my little essay? Suddenly, the piece I’d written seemed naive, foolish.
I even wondered whether it ought to be eliminated from the publishing slate. After all, how could the story of a young child embraced by her neighbors have relevance when incivility and vitriol were dominating public discourse? Perhaps this was a time for a different sort of person to speak, with a different kind of message.
Instead, and to my surprise, Laura Barkat, Tweetspeak’s founder and managing editor, advanced the publication date to immediately after the election.
Laura’s response to what was happening in the world was to send a message into the ether: a hopeful story about human connection, anchored by a child’s experience of living in the multicultural mish-mash of Queens, New York. A story about a child who found shelter from the rain.
It was a gesture that showed me how I could conduct myself in an increasingly complicated world: steadily, calmly, and with grace. It also showed me that our “small” acts are not so small—they have power and heft. By chipping away at the great pain and ignorance from which so much of the world’s ugliness spores and mutates, those acts chisel and shape the world around us. They nudge our collective consciousness toward the light.
I often call myself an aspiring optimist, which makes it sound like I’m close to achieving the title. I’m not.
To me, pessimism feels like a comfortable blanket, easy to pull around me and offering easy explanations for the pain and cruelty in the world. But I also know that pessimism unplugs my energy, saps my initiative, and steals my ability to see the beauty around me because I’m too busy confirming my negative biases.
It occurs to me that the best way to earn the title of optimist, short of a personality transplant, is Laura Barkat’s way: the way of small and deliberate acts of beauty and kindness, deployed continuously with compassion and wisdom, ease and joy. Laura has created an entire arena—the Tweetspeak ecosystem—in which we can battle the current realities with lovely words and exquisite poems and heartfelt, heart-deep connections. It is a space that is soul-satisfying, soul-lightening, soul-brightening.
When Laura first spoke to me about the role of Poet Laura, I worried it would be another aspirational title for me, just like optimist—one better suited for a creature of joy and light, one I might never be able to earn. When I shared with her my fear that I was immersed in darkness and sadness after my mother’s passing, she convinced me I’d find my way back to light, one thought, one idea, one poem, one essay at a time.
Here, at the half-way point of my Poet Laura “term,” I thank her for offering me this opportunity and pathway to joy, play, and lightness. And in gratitude, this month’s post is dedicated to Laura Barkat, whose actions, philosophy, and way of being light up the world, and inspire others to do the same.
It is also dedicated to all those engaged in this difficult enterprise of facing down the seeming monolith of unkindness, cruelty, indifference in the world, yet who put the best of themselves, the best of humanity, into the Universe every day, with kindness, good humor, and love.
It is for poets and artists of all kinds, for Tweetspeak’s superlative team of editors and contributors, and for readers who engage with and respond to such work. If I may, it is also for my mother whose daily lamp-lighting mirrored the way she, too, existed in the world. In my view, all of these folks are “Lauras,” too.
Gratitude: a tribute to Laura Barkat and all the “Lauras”
How can I explain this?
If you look at me closely,
you won’t see my arms, legs, torso, feet.
All you will see is a great bowing-down.
All you will hear is
Oh, how beautiful you are in this world.
Everything I do carries your light.
Now I live as thank you.
—Dheepa R. Maturi
As an adult, I, too, light a lamp in the morning (or, most mornings, I should say). My wicks come pre-rolled from the local Patel Brothers grocery. I pour my oil from a bottle and use a little butane lighter because I tend to singe my fingers with matches.
Despite these shortcuts, the gesture—once a background ritual to my childhood—feels richly meaningful to me. It reminds me that, in this cruel and complicated world, I’m not ineffectual, not powerless. Rather, every small thing I offer—every act, word, deed, thought—can ignite an infinite number of others. Each one can light up a dark world.