A love letter to Kansas friendship lamps and a resolution for 2022

January 8, 2022 3:33 am

Friendship lamps offered a way to stay in touch with family during the challenging year of 2021, writes Tai Edwards, when reassurance could seem far away. (Tai Edwards)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Tai Edwards is a historian and educator in Lawrence.

For many of us, 2021 was a year of recovery. And recovery — as we have experienced — is slow, uneven, and frequently painful. It’s also lonely, especially in the pandemic.

Last summer, after I was vaccinated and commencing my recovery, I visited one of my oldest friends in Colorado. She introduced me to Filimin’s Friendship Lamps, made in Wichita. In addition to buying herself a lamp, my friend gave lamps to her mother in Leavenworth and her brother’s family in England as a way for everyone to stay connected beyond the usual phone, text, and video chats.

The lamps are connected via Wi-Fi, and users assign each lamp in their family or friend group a color. Pink for one household, blue for another, and green for a third, for example. When someone touches their lamp, all of those in their group turn the color associated with that lamp. If someone in the first household touches their lamp, all three turn pink; when someone in the second touches theirs, all three turn blue, and so forth.

Founders (and spouses) John Harrison and Vanessa Whalen created the first lamps to connect with their far-flung family members. They specifically created the lamps to operate by touch, rather than by button or click, because they wanted interaction that was “more sensory and magical” yet also involved “vagueness.”

Touch can signify so many kinds of support, from hugs to thinking of you to I miss you to I love you, and beyond.

Filimin has partnered with the Wichita Women’s Initiative, International Rescue Committee, and Saint Francis Ministries to employ women working toward financial independence after surviving domestic abuse and refugees resettling in the area. The light shining from their lamp doesn’t just represent family connections; it’s also a testament to restorative and compassionate practices embodied in the company’s operations.

As soon as I returned to Lawrence, I purchased a set of lamps for my family, including my parents in Hutchinson and my sister in California. My lamp is prominently displayed in the living room, and I touch it every time I see it any color other than mine. Sometimes our family gets into lamp-offs, when we’re all touching the lamps and changing the colors in rapid succession. Now my house is filled with ambient love.

We all need love, compassion, and restoration, especially these days.

One of my colleagues recently told me: “The pandemic has weakened me in every way.” I share her sentiment. Yet the pandemic does not exist in a vacuum. It is layered over the world as it existed before spring 2020. Difficulties in accessing health and mental health care (especially in a state without Medicaid expansion), financial inequalities, limited trust in government, discrimination, burnout, climate change, and more informed people’s experiences with coronavirus and vaccines.

All of our contradictions and challenges were brought together. We have experienced confusion, fear, disbelief, and grief. Where do we go from here? How do we re-center optimism and hope? How do we model for our children how to overcome the problems of today and prepare for those in the future?

Perhaps we need to remember our successes. When COVID vaccines for children aged 5 to 11 were approved, I took my kids to one of our county’s clinics. They had performers and gave out free shirts and stickers. My kids — and many others — laughed while watching a mime entertain them with slapstick humor.

My son declared: “That was the best 15 minutes of my life!”

What if it was?

It took months of work by federal, state, and county government along with a significant dose of compassion to bring this vaccine experience to my kids. We were touched.

As a new year dawns, we need time to restore; to touch and be touched. Many obstacles and conflicts await us in 2022, including the ongoing pandemic; struggling children, schools, and educators; overwhelmed health care and essential workers; another likely contentious election; along with fatigue and anger.

What we need to further our recovery is a reserve of compassion for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our state. Cultivate it in this new year.

As friendship lamps demonstrate, centering care and love in our work and relationships has significant ripple effects. Let’s make ripples, Kansans — maybe even waves — in 2022.

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Tai Edwards
Tai Edwards

Tai Edwards is a historian and educator in Lawrence. She is a member of the Women for Kansas leadership team and serves as W4K's Northeast Chapter co-leader.