Playing Marco Polo: Naming the Dark in a Season of Light

Photo: Marybeth Bishop



“Polo! Polo! Polo!”

I remember playing this game as a kid. It’s typically a pool game; part of the point is that there is only so much area to cover with your eyes closed. You can cling to the wall, the concrete under your bare toes is solid and gently sloped, and you remember exactly how deep the water gets because it was marked in giant black stenciled numbers along the edge.

We didn’t have a pool, so we played in the lake. In a lake, the boundaries are too distant for young legs to measure. There are slimy-smooth weeds, nibbly fish, leeches, sudden drop-offs, sharp stones and shells, trippy driftwood, and occasional rusty bottle caps. Voices all sound small and distant, competing with wind and waves and wildlife, no comforting concrete to assist with a feeble human version of echolocation. In a lake, Marco Polo can easily lead to doom.


“Do you just want me to move these boxes back out to the garage?”

The question was gentle, not accusatory. My husband was trying to alleviate some of the guilt he could see I was feeling for all of my not-doing. Typically I have the house completely decorated by the first day of Advent, and I have a plan for all of the baking. So. Much. Baking. But here we are, a week before Christmas, and not so much as a shepherd has made it from the Christmas storage boxes to the mantle.

I am not seeing the light.

We’ve had great Christmases, and difficult ones. We’ve had sleepless Christmases, and a few that felt care-free (before kids). But I’ve never experienced one when I really, truly couldn’t see the light.

My eyes work. I can see the candles aflame in the Advent wreath—three of them now, the glow growing stronger. The tree has been up since late November (thanks to my husband and kids), and my husband hung string lights all through the kitchen, living room, and dining room. I see them; they’re beautiful. But I don’t see the light.

Photo: Marybeth Bishop


As if the universe itself needed to drive the point home, earlier this month I posted a picture of my parents kissing on their wedding day. My sister-in-law messaged me quickly, “I think it was February 7th?”

I glanced at my calendar to confirm, then sighed, thinking how exhausted she must be from her recent move, and messaged back, “Today is February 7.” I briefly pictured her forehead-slapping at her error when it dawned on me. I was sitting near the lit-up Christmas tree. My phone was resting on a bright red tablecloth with snowflakes all over it. The calendar I just checked says DECEMBER at the top, with a picture of Scotty dogs and wrapped presents. In my foggy head, I had skipped two months. Two months which include Christmas with all of my kids under the same roof (a rare treat), and our own upcoming anniversary.

A week earlier I’d been sitting on an ornate couch in a small, quiet office.

“So, looking at your symptoms, I would give you a diagnosis of clinical depression.”

There is a long pause. It doesn’t even occur to me that I’m supposed to react at this point.

“Are…you surprised?”

I wasn’t failing to respond because I was shocked. I was just weighing whether the therapist would want to hear either of the things going through my head:

  1. What kind of asshole gets diagnosed with depression during Advent? (Answer: me.
  2. Hearing the words out loud sounded like an official Naming of Things in the Room, like a sick, fallen parody of Adam sizing up Eden. “Lamb. Lion. Fig tree. Serpent. Couch. Depression.”

It seems both contrary and fitting in this season of light to finally give a name to the darkness. I’m sure it’s a first step, or something like that. I’ve gone through this for others, sitting by them on similar couches, many times. I could write myself a how-to pamphlet: It will take time. It will take effort. Therapy plus maybe meds plus hard work plus time will make it better, though it may never go away. Be patient. Keep going. Etc., etc. Yes, I know.

I’m lucky; I have tremendous support, and access to doctors. There are many who do not. In my head I keep going back to those games of Marco Polo, and to my family’s habit of changing the rules of any given game when we got bored. I’m picturing myself back in the Giant Lake with Questionable Motives, calling out “Marco.” But instead of swimming off behind weeds and rocks, reveling in their ability to see hiding places while I fumble around blind, my family and friends answer “Polo” by swimming close, holding my hand, and staying near until I’m able to open my eyes again.

It’s not a bright shining star leading me to a manger, but I trust that those things are still there too because my “Polos” say they are. It will do for now.


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