The Other End of the Light

Looking for everyday mystery and magic in the living world.

It’s a new year … or is it? If you’re like me, you may be feeling some trepidation about the year ahead (or the month or week or day). I don’t want to mince words, dear reader. To be honest, these past two years have felt like one continual déja vu where I feel like I’m lost in a sea of endless grief, struggle, loneliness, and anxiety with no end in sight. Loss and upheaval is real, y’all. And the hits, they keep on coming.

Tootsie Tomanetz standing in front of a kitchen stove.

Tootsie Tomanetz shares her journey of loss, grief, and ultimately, transformation through her practice of tending the flame on Chef’s Table BBQ. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

So as I sat binging my latest Netflix series (Chef’s Table BBQ), I was struck by the story of Tootsie, an 85-year-old pitmaster in Lexington, TX who shared her own journey of loss, grief, and ultimately, transformation through her practice of tending the flame. In her words, through her work and the love of people who came from near and far to sample what she was throwin’ down, she found “the other end of the light.” The place where possibility resides. Where life continues and the heart can heal and joy sings in the everyday mystery and magic of living in this world.

With Tootsie’s wisdom in my back pocket, I went looking for some mystery and magic (albeit virtually), scouring the headlines on my computer. I didn’t have to go far down the rabbit hole. The first story to catch my attention was about the stunned researchers who, in January, found a colony of ice fish in Antarctica. Not just any colony, but an entire new ecosystem where 60 million fish with transparent skulls and no red blood cells are thriving and surviving on about 93 square miles of ocean floor. It’s believed to be the largest fish-breeding ground in the world. Those fish are doing their thing, in spite of, despite, well — everything. I imagined the researchers experiencing that rush of dopamine — the thrill that comes from seeing something new for the first time. That reminder that, in a world where we humans tend to put ourselves at the center, along with all of our trials and tribulations, life continues to amaze in all manner and form. Whoa.

I was on a roll as I continued to search for the “other end of the light.” Imagine my surprise when I found folks who are literally looking for that light — in outer space. I have a special fondness for astronomer Carl Sagan. So, when I heard about the James Webb telescope that launched on Christmas Day from French Guiana, I knew he must be grinning, wherever he is. This is, as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk put it, “to boldly go where no one has gone before” and then some. If all goes as planned, this telescope, which cost ten billion dollars and took twenty years to build, will be able to tell us something about the oldest light in the universe: the place where galaxies are born. Say what? I felt at once small and expansive, all that I know dwarfed by all that I don’t know. Scared, but so curious. And filled with a sense that we might be ready for something more. That we are so much more than we imagine.

Sometimes, that capacity for being more is reflected in everyday acts of connection. The story that brought me to my knees was the news about the death of Ndakasi, the mountain gorilla at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo who passed away in the arms of André Bauma, the ranger who had cared for her since she was found orphaned at just two months old. Everything about the story moved me: the journey of Ndakasi and Mr. Bauma from a tragic and violent beginning (Ndakasi saw her mother murdered in front of her) to her moment of death 14 years later that they experienced differently, but together. The beauty of their relationship, commitment, and love across difference. And Mr. Bauma’s clarity and character revealed in his words — “We must justify why we’re here on this earth. Gorillas justify why I’m here.” In that moment of deepest grief and loss, an explosion of light was exposed by their capacity to love. In spite of.

So, bring it on, 2022. I’ve got Ndakasi, André Bauma, 60 million fish, a miraculous telescope, and a thousand other stories waiting on the other end of the light.

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