The Christmas Carols

When I was a girl, my mother had a song book of Christmas carols.  Every year around this time, we would pull it out and beg her to play the songs within its worn pages.  The book was filled with illustrations, mostly of angelic children with bright red cheeks and ruby lips, and its edges were gilded in gold.  My mother would pound out the melodies on our worn upright piano, while we children jostled for a spot close enough to read the words and look at the pictures.  Mom would bravely work her way through the book of carols, while we elbowed each other, each trying to sit next to her on the piano bench, each trying to find our favorite carol.  Playing with one hand and swatting at my dueling brothers with the other, Mom would deliberately play her way through the book, the older kids singing, the middle ones pushing each other, the little ones crying because they were left out

When Mom was too busy to play piano, my sister Robin and I would sit together on the couch, turning the pages of the book, choosing which of the illustrated children we wanted to be.  We would take turns- hoping to be the first to pick the angel proclaiming “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” or the child stepping in the footsteps of “Good King Wenceslas” as he trudged through the snowy wood.  Robin resembled the cherubs in the illustrations, with her huge round eyes and fair skin, and because she was much smarter than I, had figured out how to time her turn to choose the favorite picture, time after time.  I never really minded, though.  Somehow, sharing a game with a cuddly little sister on a cold snowy winter provides more comfort than competition.  But soon we would tire of the game and beg our mother to play to us from the gilded book.

When I think back to those days, I wonder how we actually sounded. The piano was a cast off, a huge out-of-tune monstrosity.  Several of the keys were missing the ivory overlays- their wooden surfaces grinning like so many missing teeth, and a few of the notes failed to play, no matter how hard they were struck.  And although the children in Bing Crosby Christmas movies always sang sweetly in tune, I suspect that my mother’s rambunctious brood fell a fair bit short of Hollywood’s cherubic crooners.

Years later, when my children were toddlers, I bought them Kathleen Daly’s “Jingle Bells,” a Little Golden Book about a sleigh full of animals who sing as they travel for a Christmas celebration.  As an ostrich climbs into the sleigh, she very loudly sings a verse from the song.  As I read to my children, the following line burned in my heart, and is imprinted there still.

“She doesn’t sing very well, but nobody minds, because it is Christmas.”

Immediately I thought back to the scenes in our old dining room.  To be sure, we were no competition for the von Trapp family, but this is the way I learned the classic carols, and how I learned to sing harmonies.  I always envisioned the melody line to be like my mother- strong, steady and predictable, and the harmonies to be like her many silver children, tripping around her in unexpected dance steps-straying just so far- only to rejoin her at the end of the stanza.  Those chaotic choral exercises were the training ground for me to help put myself through college singing in local pubs and coffee houses.  But more than that, the memories of singing the carols from that old book are a glowing Christmas gift I enjoy year after year. The memories begin in my heart, bringing warmth and smiles, and tears of joy that spill out like silver and gold harmonies that bring warmth and smiles and tears of joy to others.

And now I understand.  How we sounded mattered not at all.  We didn’t sing very well, but nobody minded, because it was Christmas.

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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!
~Oliver Wendell Holmes

My son Gabe recently posted a song on YouTube:

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5JGruIzNDM

His song speaks gently, but powerfully about the pain that those suffering from mental illness  endure.  I am amazed at his insight and touched by his tenderness.  But I am not surprised.  Music has been a part of his life since he was a toddler.  When he was two, he listened to the opening chorus of a Winnie the Pooh record so many times he wore a hole in the vinyl.  As a preschooler, he would frequently hum bars of music under his breath while playing with toy cars and Lincoln Logs.  In elementary school, he arranged books on his bed as a makeshift drum set and pulled elastic bands over tissue boxes to form a guitar.  When he was an awkward, tongue-tied teenager, he wrote lyrics instead of doing his homework, allowing the poetry to speak words that his mouth could not. 

In our home, music was at the core of most activities.  I cried while slicing onions and listening to “Aidia” and “La Boheme.”  I danced with newborns to Hayden and Beethoven, and polished furniture while singing along to “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent.”    The children fell asleep most nights while listening to their dad play scales on his guitar, and chased each other under the pews of our church sanctuary while our worship team practiced on Saturday mornings.  To them, music is as automatic as breathing, the moments of their lives set against an ever-changing sound track of notes and lyrics.

Still, when I hear them create new melodies and pen their own poetry, I can’t help but marvel that they have not only appreciated the talents of other musicians, but have dared to share their souls with others.  They bare themselves, removing the distance that protects them from their critics, and allowing their innermost feelings to lie exposed, open to harsh comments carelessly hurled in their direction. 

They know that eras in history are earmarked by the songs that are popular with the masses.  More importantly, they understand that music is a powerful medium that can catapult society into an environment of change.  They know this because I introduced them to Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.  They show this because they introduced me to Damien Rice and Sufjan Stevens.

I believe that when God gives us gifts, He gives us the responsibility to use those gifts in a way that makes this planet a little better for those who inhabit it. 

Thank you to those who shoulder your responsibilities and share your gifts.  If you don’t mind, I’ll sing along.

Friends

 I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my friend Mary today. We sang together in pubs and coffee houses during college during the 70s.  She was my suite mate- my first encounter after my father kissed me goodbye and left me standing alone in a barren dorm room.  While her mother sprayed everything in sight with Lysol, she introduced herself.  She had a warm smile and sparkling blue eyes.  She played guitar and she sang like an angel.  My harmonies blended with her melodies and our friendship was sealed forever.

 

Somehow, we lost touch after graduation.  Husbands, kids, jobs, dogs… the excuses were louder than the bidding to keep the friendship alive. Our paths briefly crossed once and then again diverged.  Another eight years passed and suddenly, there she was, a face on a website.  The same sparkling eyes. The same warm smile.

 

Emails ensued and the reunion planned.  I was terrified.  My voice has lost its elasticity, and my singing is now confined to the privacy of my car.  My once willowy frame now bulges from the ravages of pregnancy, childbirth, and too many cookies.  I have few credentials to boast- a salaried job, a sunny apartment, a blue sedan that bears the scars of teenagers learning to drive, a broken marriage.

 

But then, there she was, striding down the hall to my open door. With one embrace, thirty years disappeared and we were eighteen again.  We spent a delightful day, not talking about what we do, but sharing who we are. 

 

Friends don’t read your resume.  They don’t notice your gray hair.  They don’t care if the carpet is stained or the back seat of the car is covered with dog hairs.  Friends cup your chin when the water is rising over your head. They hold you tight when the storms of life blow so hard you think you cannot stay on your feet a moment longer.  They bring salve for your wounds, a blanket for the cold and a candle to carry you through until dawn.  They encourage you to forge forward, to redefine your life, to remember the things that are good. 

 

Welcome back, Mare. I’ve missed you.

 

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