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In midst of despair, darkness, we paddle toward the light

On windless, moonlit summer nights at the lake, my husband and I like to take our canoe out onto the water. We launch it anywhere along the beach, but once afloat we know where we are headed. The moon illuminates a gleaming path to aim towards, a...

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On windless, moonlit summer nights at the lake, my husband and I like to take our canoe out onto the water. We launch it anywhere along the beach, but once afloat we know where we are headed. The moon illuminates a gleaming path to aim towards, a path of moonbeams waiting to be sliced with the bow of our canoe.

There's something enchanting about paddling into the light.

The ways we live with light and darkness in all their manifestations-particularly metaphorical-have been on my mind after the death of a childhood friend. We grew up next door to each other, our parents were good friends, and our younger brothers, who were in the same grade, were then and are to this day best buds. She was in my wedding; I was in hers. We shared the same first name. Even after both our 16th birthdays were seen only through life's rearview mirror, I still called her "Jane Elizabeth" and she still called me "Jane Ann," our own terms of endearment, I guess. At least I can't think of anybody else who addressed us using our middle names.

Krista Tippett, the radio host of "On Being" (formerly, "Speaking of Faith")-a program devoted to philosophy and religion-said in an interview that her "radio conversations teach [her] that people who bring light into the world wrench it out of darkness, and contend openly with darkness all of their days ... flawed human beings who ... simply don't let despair have the last word."

During this past year I've decided that flickers of that light have been wrenched out of the darkness by some of my friends who were thrust into darkness they could not anticipate. At times the light is brief and unsteady, nothing more than a spark, a momentary gleam; other times the flicker becomes a glowing ember of understanding deep and wise, the warmth of goodness rising above pain.

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And yet darkness hovers

Over the last decade my childhood friend who died at the end of November had plenty to despair about, and she certainly had to contend openly with darkness every single day. She had Huntington's disease, which is an inherited neurological disease causing the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain with broad impact on a person's ability to move and to think. It is brutal. There is no cure, although drugs, physical therapy and talk therapy are helpful in managing symptoms, particularly early on.

As an inherited genetic condition, Huntington's disease is what's called autosomal dominant. In practical terms that means there's a 50 percent chance children will inherit the gene from the afflicted parent, and if the gene is passed on, the child will end up with the disease, usually in middle age or slightly before. In other words, if the gene is passed on, the disease will assert itself. Period. Autosomal dominance also means sufferers usually have had to watch one of their parents deteriorate and die from it before their own symptoms begin. That was true for Jane Elizabeth and her mother.

When I think of light wrenched from darkness, I think of her practicing a list of 200 words each day so her grandchildren could understand her and they could talk to each other. I think of her trying to smile.

The unsolved questions of life's unfairness in disease and untimely death are exasperating. Indeed, darkness affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. (As another friend puts it, "Life is good; it's not fair.") Still, the desire to connect with something transcendent is universal.

The early 20th century poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But we can look for light and paddle towards it.

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