The king of Vegas rockabilly, Elvis Presley, once sang this refrain, “we’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” He was one of a number of artists to sing it. I mention it because it is a song of unrequited love, specifically at Christmas time.
If ever there were an emotionally heavy-handed time of year it is Christmas. As early as September we begin to see the familiar commodified images of sleek, effeminate reindeer, suspiciously rosy-cheeked Santas, Hallmark this ‘n that, and the tsunami of stuff we’re meant to buy to help us feel how we’re meant to feel.
It’s a construct and we know it. Well, at least the shiny baubles, taut packages ‘n bows part. But, lest I find myself on the receiving end of Scrooge-comments, let me say that I’ve loved this time of year my entire life, in spite of working outrageous hours as a church music director. I love the ambience. Sometimes I don’t even mind its rom-com, syrupy-saccarine motif falsely imaged and poured over us like a jolly-happy goo.
The whole thing smacks of an out of control Norman Rockwell painting, replete with the expectations that we all play along with the happy themes. We’re supposed to be joyful, full of gratitude and happy family times, with family-dog-stealing-roast-beef-off-the-counter type fun. Why wouldn’t we, right?
Quite often, it’s not that simple. For those who have lost a loved one, a parent, a friend, a pet, heaven forbid, a child – this can be an especially difficult time indeed. The ache of loss still fresh in their mind pinches their guts and narrows their emotional field of vision. It can almost feel like an insult. All these happy faces everywhere and not a hint of respite from their pain on the horizon.
Tonight, our congregation chose to remember these people, to bring a light into dark places this Advent-Christmas. More metaphor than Elvis, we called it, quite simply, Blue Christmas.
Rather than barrel through the weekly lighting of Advent candles, special readings and prayers and favourite songs we thought it best to stop. Stop, to remember those faces no longer in our crowds. The missing pictures on our mantelpieces. Our family gathering a little less Rockwell and a little more Orwell. We spent silent time memorializing them, lighting a candle in their honour. Maybe crying just a little.
Wherever you are in your journey, maybe spend a few moments this season just quietly remembering those no longer there to taste your grandma’s apple pie or mom’s Yorkshire Pudding.
Such a sad irony given the need to remember when I recall so little so much of the time But, I remember as much as I need to for right here. Right now.
I remember all that I’ve been given – and I smile.
I remember that I get to sleep with someone who loves to be with me, who chooses to share my life, even the dark places – and I smile.
I remember, through that same love, two babies, now young men, came into the world if for no other reason than to taunt my lesser joy with a still greater one – and I smile.
I remember the man I call brother, the woman I call sister, the man now dead we call father, the woman upon whose shoulders and within whose heart we all dwell, we call mother – and I smile.
I remember that I’ve been entrusted with notes, lines, hands, and voice, and then charged and blessed to engage in it, both as a living and as hobby – and I smile.
I remember the sight of candles burning, a dark and peaceful sanctuary full of singing voices, and the strains of “Silent Night” – and I smile.
I remember that I am given poetry and words to share with the weary world, much of it published, and fulfilling whatever destiny for which it has been prescribed – and I smile.
I remember the incredible home we call our own, poised handsome and stoic on a proud hillside where it stands year after year, waiting for the valley to breathe in and out each new season – and I smile.
I remember that, as a man of fifty-four, I am healthy enough to run miles in double digits – and I smile.
I remember the touch of cold hands in mine as she congratulates my choice of hymns, the hearty back slap as he celebrates “this young man” – and I smile.
I remember the ache of loss for faces of those once bright and full, now gone and buried, the sound of tears, the taste of mourning, the honour of sharing it – and I smile.
I remember the seraphic sound of my choir as they collude together in happy voice to mirror the world’s unreasonable beauty – and I smile.
I remember the one God of One in Three; eternal, but who once had an address, now forever bearing the scars of his coming, who is my friend – and I smile.
And, though I never knew their names, I remember their sacrifice, caught in whirlwinds not of their choosing. Sometimes they were sent by selfish kings to do the bidding of empire. They went anyway. Sometimes, they were thrust out to defend the lack lustre and apathetic against the threat of unknown horrors. They went anyway. Mostly, they went because they believed it to be their best legacy. This I remember – and I smile.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.
The next few blog entries are taken from my journal notes of last week’s sojourn at a Benedictine monastery.
* * *
Only the slightest whisper of a breeze caresses the ferns outside my window. Although barely 4:30 in the afternoon, the slanted, abstruse light lends a touch of whimsy to the failing day. Evening begins poking her nose around, making her presence known in a clear air, embroidered in light green leaves.
Here in this place I will spend the next three days in silence and contemplation. St Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington. My intentions are simple – complete silence, largely in preparation for a vocal procedure on Thursday morning. But, coincidentally, serendipitously, providentially, I avail myself of this calm serenity at a Benedictine place for prayer, discernment and listening.
To silence the tongue from speaking is in great measure to silence the mind from fretting, the heart from hunting, the brow from frowning, the soul from hungering. It is genuinely remarkable the amount of stress one accumulates through constant chatter. I use words in a thousand ways I never even consider until they’re removed from my agenda. Then, I see just how often words take their place among a virtual hierarchy of internal chaos. I use them to hide both from others and from myself. I use them to impress, to seek validation, to reveal my devastating charm, my stunning facility with any imaginable topic with which I am, of course, an expert. I use words to create pictures of how I want people to see me; how I choose to see myself and the world around me.
James, a New Testament writer of the letter that bears his name tells us how the tongue is a serpent and a raging fire, ever full of destruction. He suggests that it acts as a very small rudder to a very big ship. As is generally attributed to Abba Arsenius, “Oft have I been made the fool having spoken. Never have I been made a fool having remained silent.”
I’ve just returned from a short time away. A fuller version of my silent retreat at St. Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington is forthcoming. Until then, may this Friday be the kind of day where the scale tells you a fairytale and not the truth, you are complimented at least once, and nothing rides up.