Most of my days are classical music days. It flows in my blood as my family’s tapestry is woven with classical musicians; I have sung and played it, as well. There’s no escaping my enduring love of it: the stately, rich cohesion of many parts, its thrilling or delicate compositions with such variety of instruments, voices. And sacred music and hymns this time of year speak to me, yes. But there is also jazz, another mainstay of my life, a musical form that depends on a precise complexity, as well, sparked with glory of innovation. There is a fun infusion of it even in holiday tunes. And I have to admit there is very little music I don’t value. Such an abundance of choices!
Lately I have rummaged through my CD collection–I’m one who still plays them–and listening, as is typical, to more seasonal music including Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and their crowd. Singing their hearts out–they make me happy, just listening to such smooth and lilting tones. It makes me long for a stage and a swirly dress with high-heeled dance shoes, so I can drape myself over the piano when done dancing…
But today I chose another album; it weaves another enchantment entirely. It drew me as I sat waiting for words to settle and unfurl inside me, readied at my desk.
The music of Sting is emitted from my stereo, the album being “If On A Winter’s Night”. The minor keys move through the space, through me. It’s raining here, the fall of water a quietly intrusive hum under his singing. Loads of raindrops with theirs rhythmic shifting over heavy pine tree branches, silently streaming down windows. The geraniums are soaking in drenched, blustery air. The squirrels, chubby with good food scavenged, aren’t racing as usual, but hiding somewhere better. I miss our birds who today also seek refuge, fine wings tucked close.
I get up from my chair, dance slowly to the tune, steps and arms almost courtly, a drum resonant in the winding tune. Sting’s unusual tenor moves about in a tender, plaintive way. The traditional British Isles offerings are interpreted in his style and it suits me today: cool yet dense, smoothly unspooling, slightly melancholic. It travels from his hillocks and valleys to this woman in Oregon. It captures me as ordinary speech cannot. As do the moments of warmth with which he infuses the old songs– despite the greyness of the wintry mix of his album. I am easily pulled from this desk by closing my eyes.
Yes…I am leaning at a long wooden common table, on a bench with a bunch of others, a huge stone fireplace aflame with crackling fire, the room shadowed and yet so warm. We’re witness to and sharing poetic tales beloved by musicians and us. The room is close: a whiff of sweat, pungency of firewood, drinks in hand and the cooking from the kitchen has slowed a bit as cook and helpers come out to hear the music. It’s music that’s going on. It’s the core of the heart for now.
As I open my eyes, it occurs to me this music I’ve long enjoyed makes a nice analogy for this year, as well as the holiday season, at least for me. It is a unique album. It requires close listening and thinking about, for me, and still the songs reflect much of what has been and shall be. Love and loss, heartache and liberation, fears and wonders, babies and creatures hushed. Sting brings me to today’s writing.
There is a differentness of these past months days and nights. There has become a new rendition of human life pushing against dramatic constraints and then, an incremental yielding for most. I seek gentling warmth that is still is lined with an overall bittersweetness. I note a dawning appreciation of what may be discovered within new formats and boundaries. The usual manner of living has been upended, so I have had the choice of either despising it or understanding it all the best I can. Then accepting it even when not understood. Discovering the value of restriction is a challenge. This is not a new idea for me; I’ve lived in other situations that demand a more circumscribed life. I have literally been in situations where little movement is allowed. And there can be meaning and worth in some of that, perhaps oddly.
There is the simplification of daily agendas. I’m not up and running about in the same way as before COVID-19. So, less distractions. They can easily arise with more geographical movements, the body more free, a wider choice of activities. The hours flee–and before I often felt: look how much is undone! Not so much now, though there seems always more to address. Especially if one has children at home: more needs and chores. But my family has all grown up. Now these hours open up now like a long horizon, and I can paint or impress upon it most anything I want–even with several clear limitations. I don’t mean I love all this, but it has narrowed my attentions in a constructive way, too. The boundaries in which we have been living gave rise to a slower, more orderly manner of doing things. A greater meditative tone, if we recognize opportunities.
It can take not only adaptability but discipline to cope with a pandemic or other catastrophic change. A commitment to staying safe and helping others stay well, too. But beyond that critical measure in a time of upheaval and stress, time is still colored and molded by whatever else I feel and do with it. I have greater blocks of time and solitude to create. A chance to define and refine relationships better. And I have an important reason for being more outdoors. I luxuriate in the gifts of nature; being outside saves me during the worst of emotional times, and expands the best. Now, it is as if someone said, “Amid the deprivations and worry, here you go–please avail yourself fully of spiritual and physical sustenance.” And so I do. Not a day goes by without a chance to embrace virtues of nature’s earthy yet heavenly ways.
Even the cooling to chilling onslaughts of winter rains. Like today. I had tasks to do, then writing. But I stepped onto the balcony and…breathed in, out. Piney/mossy-enriched dirt and air scents. And then I saw millions beads of crystalline water adorning both stripped branches, heavier green boughs. What are those tiny jewels? Heard the call of a crow. What message goes there? Breeze gusted my hair across cooled skin. What is today’s wind song? In the far distance beyond the screen of rainfall lie hills, mountain peaks. What secrets of aged earth live and root there? It was a few moments of quiet joy. This earth which is not always easy to live on… it gives well and it takes harshly, we think. But what supreme mystery and wonder. What purity of being. The Creator: manifest in the creation right here for us.
The discipline I’ve rallied the past months derives from a significant store developed over a lifetime. I was taught very young that good things come from labor towards competence and possible mastery. Wanting and getting are two different things. Meeting one’s goals takes devotion, with an expected amount of trial and error. One must try, one must work and so I did. Developing simple habits– attention, well-used times of practice–to what lay before me aided in moving forward, and took me closer to learning what truly mattered to me. This also bred patience, which only means waiting–whether actively or passively–in a relatively calm manner for an event or its results. Things will happen; they happen as they will.
Not wanting to be self-deluded, I realized that though I may help determine many outcomes, this did not mean all. But other outcomes can be useful. Maybe surprisingly better. Not all solutions can be anticipated or even understood entirely. This isn’t easy for someone who is driven to gain solid knowledge, who relentlessly seeks the truth and its finer details. This happens even in the simplest life matters for me. But it is possible to accept outcomes not desired, scenarios not easy. I need to accept things that have finality. But acceptance can be helpful no matter what is at hand–even as I also can find ways to work with it. Bending limits the potential for breakage, after all. Then, in addition to this methodical way of approaching “living life on life’s terms”, is my natural and opposite impulse to live passionately and deeply. And that is what bubbles up–sooner or later– during hard times. My love affair with life hasn’t fizzled, it’s ongoing so why not bring it to the fore in the rougher times? It requires of me to remove preconceptions of what I think matters. And what I think is still mine to enjoy.
Does reading an interesting book matter? Does lighting a candle at mealtime matter? Humming along with or breaking into song when I hear music that enlivens me? Dancing across the room when I get up t o greet the day? Smelling lavender in the vase on a shelf, dabbing perfume for no good reason behind my ears? Siting on a mossy rock and watching the chickadees and juncos? Yes. Hearing the twins’ little voices grow bigger? Yes, please. Marc reading aloud from a book? Savoring a slice of juicy pear? All of it. Every day. And the rest which of the things I need to do: Writing poetry and stories. Taking pictures. Praying for the sick and sorrowful. Writing letters– or sending cards, just because. Seeking greater understanding of relationships. Reaching out to extended family and friends not close by. Greeting neighbors, even when they look down. Leaning more about societal upheavals and how to be a help. I care about human life, so I need to keep acting like it.
The real constraints I put on myself are not much due to the pandemic. It worries and frustrates me, as it does others. Mostly, I miss closer–actual–contact with loved ones, as people do even more these days. Yet the one thing that can trip me up is my mental framework. Sometimes, long-rooted health issues do, but so far I can push or glide onward. In the end I must overcome any vestige of unwillingness to seek what awakens me, moves me. Whatever motivates me to greater insights. I already know I can make do with less, just as I’ve made do with more if nearly overwhelmed by that, too.
It’s a matter of working with what is at hand, figuring it out. Inventiveness is a prime human feature; we are all gifted with it. Why do I-/we ever sell myself/ourselves short?
This Christmas is, for most of us, seemingly less than accustomed to experiencing. It is unusual in terms of carefree roaming in and out of festive shops; in giving of gifts personally, or gathering with others in our homes; sharing convivial feasts; and sharing prayers and praise in celebration if one is Christian, as am I. The candlelight service will be terribly missed; it is a lifelong tradition to raise my lit candle in the sanctuary of darkness with others as we sing “Silent Night.” Yet I also miss conversations with shopkeepers in brightly decorated stores. Strangers’ well wishes at a coffee shop as I slurp my peppermint mocha– without needing a mask, six feet apart from them.
I began this essay stating Sting’s album seems a metaphor for these times in my life, specifically for this Christmas season. His fine group’s performance, his singing of traditional seasonal songs with their own twist on them captivates me. So it comes down to this: Like the music I enjoyed today, I am trying to honor what is good and true of the past, engage with the present creatively, share appreciation for whatever gifted moments arrive, and accept that melancholy may tinge any triumphant moments. This is not essentially different from other years, in a sense. But this December 2020 asks me to glean even more carefully any useful remainders of life’s offerings, to well sort whatever is enhancing and enriching from the dross. To reap fulfillment of this moment, then give the best away. And I know there is ever much to learn. More to enjoy. Plenty to share from the soul’s stirrings.
The rain has suddenly slowed to a stop. The night has begun to spread its magic over the woods. The candles are glowing, casting changing shadows over walls and ceiling. Quietness envelops me, another kindness, now that the lovely music has ended. I am glad I heard Sting winter music today and evening. And blessed to be sitting with a good peace this moment. May there be greater peace for all beyond this room.
And meantime, I’ll be listening to Handel’s “Messiah” and more exquisite–or fun–music soon. May you find your musical sustenance for the holidays.
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