Cap’n Jack on Christmas morning, thanks to Santa Paws.
The slideshare embed isn’t working, so for the series of pictures go to . . .
Cap’n Jack on Christmas morning, thanks to Santa Paws.
The slideshare embed isn’t working, so for the series of pictures go to . . .
Years ago I started listening to the live BBC broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College Chapel Cambridge via my public radio station. A couple of years ago I tuned it to find my station wasn’t picking up the feed and I was devastated . . . until I realized I could listen to the live stream on the internet. So here I am, in Chicago on Christmas Eve, and thanks to BBC4, I am also present in the worldwide audience for Lessons and Carols yet again, and all is as it should be.
I always get choked up thinking about the boy sopranos as they wait for the nod from the conductor, all (hopefully) prepared for the Once in Royal David’s City opening solo. I wonder though, are they all nervous, or are any of them thinking “There are x sopranos so I have a 1 in x chance of being chosen so I won’t worry about it.” Is it better not knowing, or better knowing it’s not you, or, even better knowing it is you?
I went caroling myself yesterday afternoon for the first time in years. It was a perfect day. Cold enough to be winter (it had been almost 50 degrees the day before), snowing, and intermittently sunny. We had glögwein beforehand and practiced “Baby it’s Cold Outside” and “Christmas time is here” and “Jingle Bell Rock” and other songs that I’m not sure could actually be called carols. I think the only carols we actually sang were “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles.”
We sang “O Christmas Tree” to the lonely Christmas trees yet to be adopted from the Christmas tree lot. We sang in the hardware store and the shoe store and the toy store. We caroled for an expat Welshman, and his daughter came out in stocking feet holding a large plate of cookies, shivering but refusing to budge from her hospitable duty until we had all taken one. We got a kick out of singing “Here we come a wassailing” for someone who actually know what wassail was. At another house a Japanese woman giggled with delight and grabbed her camera, having been told people come to your door and sing but never having seen it. She requested “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and brought us chocolate. We returned cold in body and warm in spirit and celebrated with more glögwein and rum cake.
It’s been a wonderful, creative advent, and I’ve felt the Christmas spirit for the first time in years. I had a run of life trauma around Christmastime for a few years, and, combined with being single without kids, Christmas left me. Well, not Christmas itself, but the trappings of the Christmas that had been traditional in my life left me, and it’s taken awhile for it to come back.
This evening I go to my mom’s house. Tonight I carol and worship at church. Tomorrow I go to my mom’s house, and for one of very few times in life my brother and I won’t see each other on Christmas day. I always woke him up, in person at 4am in childhood, so we could meander past the booby traps to the tree as soon as possible, and later over the phone, telling him to get over to my mom’s place so we could open presents as soon as possible. Last year we got in a big fight and this year my mom figured we should just stay apart. That’s been fine with me up until now, but for some reason, as emotionally distant as we are, Christmas is the one day it feels like he’s supposed to be there. The Christmas spirit must definitely be back.
I got my tree yesterday, one that smells like a tree. I figured if it didn’t smell like a tree I should just get an artificial tree and scented oils. It’s more expensive but one of few things I do for me. Single and living alone, I still deserve a Christmas tree and a houseful of decorations.
My friend Virginia helped me this year, and took her job seriously. I laughed as she told me where certain ornaments would go–several of them, she insisted on the mantle instead of the tree. I’ve never decorated my mantle with anything other than the cards and a couple of candles. Now I have lots of little scenes of animals and snowmen and Santas.
Then my friend Mary came and I let her put the Virgin Mary ornament on the tree. Virginia and Mary are appropriate names for this time of year!
Memories merge at this time of year. Each Christmas becomes every Christmas and I’m every age I’ve ever been with every person I’ve ever known. From a 1989 Christmas letter:
This year we got a real Christmas tree and have decorated it with lights and ornaments from around the world and around the generations of our families. As the sky darkened this afternoon we sat and listened to Paul’s high school choir’s Christmas album and just looked at the tree. Our own tree. Not our parents or siblings’ or friends’ or parents of friends’ or schools’ or churches’ tree. It was a comforting as well as scary feeling of rootedness. New tradition grafted onto lots and lots of old ones from around the world and around the generations of our families. And I smiled.
And another from our Merry-Christmas-we’re-getting-a-divorce letter in 1992:
Ritual is salutary. Each year the sights and sounds and dramas of Christmas take me back to every Christmas before. I remember who I was with, where I was, and what I was doing. I remember the interminable Christmas eves of childhood, and the interminable Christmas eve when I traveled by subway, train, airplanes and car from Germany to Brussels to Chicago after my term in Italy. I remember the first snows during reading period or exam week in college that somehow broke the stress of the time. I remember Christmases with my dad, now gone for two years, and Christmases without him. This year I remember Christmases with Paul, in Chicago or Mexico or Minneapolis. We developed our own rituals over the years that are as much Christmas to me as the Jackson Five Christmas album has been for most of my life. I remember because we are celebrating our last Christmas together.
So this year I visualized the metaphor, tessellating photos of my trees of Christmas past and present into one giant everytree, as this Christmas becomes yet another giant everyChristmas. Amen.
It’s been really icy here in Chicago lately. I’ve spent quite a bit of time sliding along in shoes-as-skates trying not to fall. I was talking to my chiropractor, Dr. Johnson, today and he said “The best way to maintain your balance is to be dedicated to your direction.”
After a moment I said “You know, that’s actually a wonderful metaphor.” He told me he hadn’t thought of it that way–and he didn’t really seem to think that way even after I mentioned it. I think he deals more in the actual than the metaphor, which is probably a salutary thing for a doctor. I, however, am a poet, and a mathematician, and an artist, and all deal greatly with metaphor.
Many people ask me– especially now in my unemployed state, and at other times when I was looking to move into something new–“What do you want to do?” And, you know, I rarely can answer that question with a vocation or even a specific job. My 22 year old idealism is still active at 44, and I want to do interesting, creative, and challenging work, with interesting and creative people, that makes a positive contribution to people’s lives or the world.
That doesn’t narrow things down much, and, as you may remember from a few posts back, I don’t want to define myself by “not”s, either essentially or experientially. So obviously I was slipping around a lot on the icy option-laden surface my life, having a heck of a time trying to maintain some balance.
Last year, as my most recent vocational struggle was beginning, my friend David Rapier told me, “Backup plans are called backup plans because they may you back up.” So I detached the tether and I am now taking the time I need to sync with my internal compass, choose a direction–be it in process or destination–and move forward.
This morning as I was walking Cap’n Jack, I met a friendly labradoodle sporting a smashing Harrod’s collar. We owners asked after each dog’s breed (Cap’n Jack is a French bulldog/border terrier mix), and I mentioned the collar. She laughed that I was the first to notice it, and, somewhat embarrassed, told me her kids insisted on buying the dog a present in London. We started talking about our respective trips to London (hers this past summer, mine in 1983), especially the fun we had just hanging around, watching people, visiting churches and free museums, riding the tube and double-decker buses, and relaxing in the parks. I loved afternoon tea; her kids were “underwhelmed.”
So today I share a painting of a field in or near the Lake District, and a song I wrote when I was about to leave. I apologize that I was losing my voice at that point in the show . . .
Here’s the audio introducing the song (immediately following as song about Italy which I’m talking about at the beginning). It sets up my life immediately before that summer, which made that trip so transformational for me.
Some memories are indelible.
A little over 25 years ago I traveled to Heidelberg with a friend. One night we two Americans, and one Austrian we met at the hostel, went to see a Brazilian mime . . . in Germany. I remember being amazed by the universality of the non-verbal languages of mime and music. On the way “home” to the hostel, we got lost; and out of the darkness arose the words “Hey, you guys!” We turned to find a friend who I had last seen two years before at her going-away party. (I didn’t even know where in Germany she was going.) She had just taken a train back from Yugoslavia, and she was walking a route home that she had never taken. So there we all were, meandering toward our respective temporary homes a half a continent and an ocean away, only to discover, for me the first time, that the world is actually quite small. The next morning, we hiked up the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s way) in an eerie fog, and I took this picture. At the top we mused about and toasted to coincidence with my first glass of glüwein.
I learned the hymn, Lead, kindly light by Cardinal John Henry Neuman, 24 years ago. I was on a work abroad program in England for the summer. I went to a different Anglican church every Sunday–several in London, in Cambridge, in Rye, in Carlisle, in York, in Newcastle, in Exeter, in Dalston, in Mousehole . . . and I sang from the Anglican hymnal for the first time (not too many Lutherans over there). It was the transformational summer of my twentieth year, with rich memories still stirred by Anglican hymnody, Turner landscapes, and Monty Python.
I put these words and pictures in together in my head, and have held them there for about 23 years. Today, I put them together with my hands, and will now have this mantra ever before me.
Things don’t take forever to do, just as I don’t need to know forever to live. I just have to keep taking that one step.
(Even if I do take it a quarter century later!)
As a child, the defiant songs
of the 60s and 70s declared
we could change the world.*
As an adult, the songs
of the 80s and 90s mused
“If I could change the world.*”
Now, in passive voice I hear
“I’m waiting, waiting on the
world to change.**”
Were there never things we could fight for, but I thought there were?
Were there things worth fighting for that no longer are?
Are there things worth fighting for that I don’t have the energy to fight?
The “truth” that Harry Potter (and now The Golden Compass) suggested to me is that only youth truly believe they can change the world. Eventually we “grow up” and try to protect what we have and who we have—and look many other ways than the uncomfortable truths. Youth hasn’t given up yet—there’s a fire there that hasn’t been squelched or stomped or merely faded to embers for lack of more fuel.
I once read a quote: “Will all those who feel powerless to influence events please signify by maintaining your usual silence.” At the time I felt it convicted others. Now it convicts me.
And as tired as I am of the tagline of the college where I taught–having seen it “thumbprinted” in so many places that it made me sick–it is positively provocative: create change. Creation is change. Seedling as it may be, it can grow. So I’ll sow.
*Eric Clapton, **John Mayer
“Liberals hate it”
shouts the red-white-blue billboard,
Talk radio claiming fame
for who’s not listening.
“Anybody but “Bush”
chants the red-white-blue electorate
Elections fought solely on
who should not lead.
Liberals as non-conservatives
Conservatives as non-liberals
Independents as neither-nors
All swim in their own
Being this, makes me not that,
yin makes me not yang.
This binary world,
forsakes polynomious “ands”
for monomaniacal “ors.”
Lost in Zeno’s paradox
We stand for
standing for standing for standing for . . .
something infinitely removed
from collective conscience,
something long-corrupted to self-survival
in a zero-sum world.
Even as “This I believe”
is resurrected for NPR,
to parse the pervasive logical “not”
for singular statements of conviction,
some still spurn the positive and declare
what does not exist.
Even as my world
seems an abyss of what is “not right.”
I search for something dimly there
to help fire my soul to be:
and find I at least believe
As a child I was quite adept at saying “look at me–look what I did.” Now I whisper it, tentatively, hoping that someday soon I’ll again shout it, and mean it.
You’ll find my web 1.0 at my Jewell Gems site, designed in 1999. Now I need to move forward, and give myself permission to continue to create and to share the next version of the web and past, present and future versions of me.