IT'S been a tough year. Really tough. From war and grief to politics and closed plants, it's been a long 12 months. As December comes to an end, we'd like to forget the pain and pressure of the recent past, but we can't.
Yet on this darkest of days, the winter solstice, lights can still shine their brightest for weary souls seeking temporary respite from heavy thoughts.
Sometimes the tumult at home and abroad can seem not only oppressive but unrelenting. Obviously, the warfare raging in Iraq is on many minds. It weighs on the nation's collective conscience just beneath the seasonal display of merriment. I've said most Americans have no personal connection to the savage slaughter in an ancient land, and it's true. But they may know someone who does.
Four of my nephews are in the Navy, one enlisted and three either Naval Academy students or graduates. One just got his wings as a naval aviator and another will soon graduate from the academy as a Marine officer. It is possible all will be put in harm's way before their discharge.
Their welfare and the welfare of all the troops now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or other perilous destinations around the globe should make every American passionate about where and why forces are deployed in our name. A friend of mine is bracing for her husband's third tour in Baghdad after Christmas. She is all too aware of soldiers who never survived their first or second.
The families left behind may force themselves to string lights at Christmas time or hang ornaments on a tree as if life goes on. But it doesn't seem right. And those who have a relative waiting for deployment or currently ducking incoming artillery are more prevalent than you think.
They could be standing in line with you at the grocery check-out counter. They could be working in the cubicle next to you at the office eagerly awaiting e-mails from a loved one a world away.
People who know war's personal sacrifice don't usually make a show of their patriotism with multiple flags or metallic ribbons. They don't usually stand on political soapboxes spouting opinions about the circumstances that sent their kid to war.
No, they just worry quietly and wish it were all over so life could get back to normal.
Yet nothing is normal in the Middle East anymore, and it's getting worse. The President is supposedly waiting until after the holidays to deploy more troops to Iraq in what some say is a futile attempt to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.
But the whole region teeters on terrible at the moment. Iran has a president consumed with Israel's extinction. The Jewish state didn't help matters with its crushing military failure in Lebanon and costly assaults in Gaza, where another anti-Israel government is threatening war with those who seek peace with Israel.
Meanwhile regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria are siding with disparate Iraqi factions and raising the stakes even higher there.
It is a dark time abroad and at home. This December finds too many Americans struggling with the consequences of corporate shortsightedness. The marketplace seems to offer fewer and fewer jobs, and at less pay.
And the growing ranks of those looking for work puts many of the employed on edge. Some still receiving paychecks wonder if they're next to go. Slow business in significant sectors of the economy means nobody whose livelihood is linked to faltering industries has a lock on job security.
Every midterm politician who swarmed through city and countryside this year promised to turn things around for ordinary Americans sick of war, of corrupt public servants, and of not knowing what the future holds for themselves and their kids.
But politicians, being politicians, already have their sights on 2008, and what transpires in Washington over the next two years may well be more positioning than progress.
So where does that leave us at the end of a tough year with the winter solstice stealing what little light we have?
It leaves us either in a state of expectation that the next Christmas light display will be more spectacular than the last or despairing that nothing will ever be as bright as selective memories recall.
When my dad died this year I seized the latter sentiment because it was more comfortable than hope. Today, when the manufacturing engineer would have turned 77, I remember how he fought to hang onto hope through hardship, because to despair would have been unproductive.
So I will try to anticipate with joy another sweet Christmas concert at school, my kids bouncing off the walls as the big day approaches, nonstop holiday music, cards, presents, warm wishes, good friends, family, - and lights. Lots of Christmas lights piercing the blackness of the silent night and lifting tired souls who need a break.
Here's hoping the brightness this year will be more spectacular than the last.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org