Enlightened by a Kenyan in Maine

The snow falls. It never ceases. The sky all day is sheer with snow, the sea gray with its invisible drift. The cove looks like a mere crack in the white.

Our Kenyan exchange student, Kimani, now used to our family and going to high school here, has had enough of snow. Looking out the window, he asks again, "How long does it stay?"

The sparkle he had when first arriving six weeks ago is dulled. "Long time yet... We all get cabin fever. Fresh air helps," I say, knowing that home on the equator, Kimani has never been without sun. There, the days are even and light-filled all year in perfectly divided halves of night and day.

He's a quiet young man and grows more so. He doesn't want to sled anymore or snowboard. The first night he came from Africa, I worried about how he would face such cold, such utter whiteness, until sliding down the hill by our house, he whooped in absolute glee. But six weeks of white glee is enough.

As with most of us Down East, his premature questioning was a sure sign of February, a month on the calendar I'd paint not Valentine red but blue, because of the relentless tenacity of a winter we no longer want.

Lately, even I've felt the first wistful glimmer of wanting grass and wind that smells of earth, even though I've lived in Maine all my life and know very well how long winter loves to stay.

"Sometimes it snows in May," I tell him. "But you can begin wishing more in earnest in March. It might start melting then." I don't try to translate "slush" into his language. He'll find out himself about the long ending of winter.

In his village in Africa, the people are praying for rain so the corn will grow. They depend not on computers or vehicles, clocks or electricity they don't have, but wholly on earth, rain, and sun.

It is a long winter, a winter where I don't call anyone or go anywhere much or want to. I've burrowed, losing friends who need more than my hibernation will lend.

Kimani slumps in a chair. Unable to convince him to come outside, and unwilling to be closed up inside the house myself, I go out. My son and I furrow paths through the snow, blue with dusk.

When we look back at the house, we see Kimani outside on the upstairs deck. "Mmm," I say, puzzled that Kim has unexpectedly come outside.

He waves, then stoops.

Suddenly, the outside tree, forgotten since Christmas, springs alive, white lights glowing beneath snowy branches. He shouts, "Hurray!"

"Leave them on!" I shout back, wondering why I ever turned them off. They are the perfect antidote. We whoop, glad of light and of the way lights reassure us of warmth, of happiness. Something in me brightens, making less burdensome old mistakes, this winter's steadfast falling, its length, these long days of thinking about what I want and I'm not going to get, of who I want to be and I'm not.

He lights the tree, and we let it stay lit, this boy far from his home on the equator, figuring out how to celebrate darkness and snow and how to make do until spring.

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