Every once in a while, a sliver of sunlight bursts through. These waning days nearing the winter solstice in the Great Pacific Northwest can be pretty dreary. The nights linger into midday, and long shadows reappear before afternoon has had a chance to take off its hat and show its face. “It’s always darkest,” a good friend of mine said to me just the other day, in a grim twist on an old phrase, “just before it’s pitch black.” That’s how it often seems to me these days.

The past year has been a particularly dark one on the news front. Armies bearing black flags wield bloody swords from brutal beheadings in the Middle East. Outbreaks of a new, aggressively infectious disease mercilessly snuff out lives in Africa and inspire fear and suspicion of self-sacrificing caregivers at home. Harrowing predictions about the health of our environment offer slim prospects of recovery. Petty bickering and political paralysis drone on in our nation’s capital amidst immense challenges and lost opportunities. Loss of life in our cities’ streets, loss of faith in our legal and law-enforcement systems, and loss of hope everywhere. Maybe “It’s not dark yet,” as Bob Dylan ruefully lamented, “but it’s getting there”:

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some pain.

Then that beautiful thing appears. The other day, one came to me, suddenly, brightly, and electronically, in an email message from a former student—Kendra Iringan ’10. Kendra had delivered an extraordinarily moving convocation address when she graduated, was co-president of our Native American student group, and an immensely talented artist. Mainly I remember a powerful self-portrait that she painted; it captured the tangle of myths, prejudices, and truths in which Native Americans live in our culture. Kendra had contacted me once before, about a year ago, asking if I would write a letter of recommendation for her to attend graduate school. Until then, she had not pursued her art professionally since graduating but had taken a job to pay the bills when two events turned her life upside down.

First, she had been in the mall near Denver when that horrific mass shooting took place a while back, and friends of hers were in that theater of death. That dark day made Kendra reassess everything. “In the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed how the darkness of humanity can change a community,” she wrote me then. “There are so many things that run through your mind when that happens, but there are people who use their hope to pick everyone else up.” She resolved to be that source of hope somehow.

Then the second thing happened: Kendra had pretty much completely forgotten about painting when she attended a van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum:

I turned a corner and saw this little still life. It wasn’t much bigger than the laptop I’m typing on right now. Its subject matter was just six oranges in a basket. Everything about it reminded me of the act of painting. Its concentration, the feel of paint under a brush, the smells drifting up as if raised from the dead. I went home and immediately gessoed a piece of particleboard. I took a part-time position at my job in the coming weeks and immersed myself in art-making again.

The light broke in suddenly through the lens of a chance encounter with a basket of oranges. In the darkness of a theater and the light of a museum, those two events brought Kendra back to her love for art and the hope it can inspire. So she decided then to apply to graduate school to continue her painting. I wrote a very positive letter of recommendation, full of hope and expectation.

The story’s next chapter is not what I would have written or predicted. Somehow Kendra was not admitted to the schools to which she applied. (Granted, they were the most selective, but her talent really is remarkable.) Darkness in the form of disappointment fell again.

Then, light. I received another message from Kendra only a few weeks ago. In her disappointment, she explained, she had determined to make something beautiful: a jingle dress. A jingle dress, I learned, is a Native American tradition with several versions of the same legend behind it—a legend of hope and healing born in a vision. One version comes from the Great Lakes tribes. It tells of a young girl who was gravely ill and gave no signs of recovering. Her father seeks a vision to heal her. In that vision, he is shown how to make a dress that jingles and shimmers and a special dance step. The father makes the dress and then puts it on his sick daughter, teaching her the dance. Despite her severe illness, the young girl somehow manages to dance, and when she does, she is miraculously cured.

A Lakota variation on the legend has another young girl asking a medicine man for a cure, not for herself but her dying grandfather. She is given a vision of the jingle dress, with instructions on making it and performing the jingle dance for her grandfather while wearing it. She does, and the dress, making the healing sound of the wind blowing through “the leaves on your sister, the tree” as she dances, succeeds in restoring her grandfather’s health, just as the medicine man said it would.

In both instances, the “jingle” of the dress comes from its special metal adornments, devised originally from carefully rolled-up pieces of tin from old tobacco cans and made into the shape of bells that are sewn, like leaves on a tree, in a precise pattern all over the elaborate beaded garment.

Kendra called her jingle dress, “my hope dress.” For her, it was intended to heal her ailing sense of hope in a dark world that was seeking to swallow her up. She sought her vision in designing the dress not from a medicine man but a more contemporary medium:

I took various social media platforms, asking people to send me their hopes, wishes, or advice. I received over 500, most of them anonymous. They were beautiful and were the very best examples of humanity I’ve ever seen.

Kendra selected 365 of these voices of hope and rolled each one up into its own bell, which she sewed into her “hope dress.”

The sound they make as they brush and knock against each other is wonderful, as if all those voices rose together at once. I can’t wait to have a chance to dance in it.

She sent along this photo of herself wearing that dress, just 80 percent complete. Right now, she’s writing a book about the experience, the inspiration for which she attributes to her time at Puget Sound.

Puget Sound, its students, faculty, and staff have given and will always give me hope. I wanted the dress to be maroon and white for that very reason. I am currently working on a booklet containing all of the wishes rolled up inside the dress. … So many of the wishes and hopes bring such positive warmth to the human spirit, and I believe that they are the cornerstones of understanding that so many people are looking for right now.

Kendra is now preparing for postbaccalaureate programs in painting, with the van Gogh still life and the notes written in her jingle dress clearly in her mind. A weaver of hope, she is already a maker of beautiful things, regardless of where her schooling takes her next. When I first saw this image of Kendra in the dress, I couldn’t help but think of the familiar Emily Dickinson poem called “Hope,” and to appreciate its meaning in a new way:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all.

Behind every beautiful thing, maybe some pain. But in every expression of hope that pierces the darkness is a vision of light summoning us, a tune that never stops singing. For me, my renewed hope came not from a van Gogh still life or a Dickinson poem (or even, this time, from a Bob Dylan lyric). It came from the tune tapped upon the glowing screen of a laptop from one of the thousands of students whose miraculous lives and voices have brushed against mine and, together, make the healing sound of the many leaves on my sister, the tree. Every once in a while, I hear them.

It’s still dark out there, no doubt. It’s not light yet. But it’s getting there.