Christmas Eve

December 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

everett shinn
Painting by Everett Shinn, 1952

We went to the Washington Square Park Christmas Eve carol sing-along, led by the Rob Susman Brass Quartet, set up under the arch. It was just dark, the tree was lit, children in Santa hats sat on the ground in the front, and the rest of probably a thousand people crowded around. We got there too late for one of the complimentary songbooks from the Washington Square Park Conservancy, but I know these songs. Of course Charles started laughing as soon as I opened my mouth.

It was just as cold as it should have been, and there was only one person talking on a cell phone, and only for a few minutes. The old man in front of us had a lovely, deep voice that reminded me of childhood; I’m not sure why because none of the (very few) men in my family sang like that and we didn’t go to church. But that gravelly baritone made me happy, and Charles too. We told the man how good he was, how much we were enjoying him, and he was far more delighted than one would expect. He kept smiling and patting my shoulder. “I’ve been singing in choirs all my life,” he said, so maybe that was what I heard: the decades.

People were singing carols in this same spot a hundred years ago, probably two hundred years ago. I could almost see them—the women in their long dresses, cloaks and boots, the children wrapped in scarves and mittens. You know the scene: it’s in black and white, snow is falling, there’s a tree in one brownstone window, with a star on top; and beside the well-dressed folk is the little match girl. I don’t usually feel the past in places. I adore the remnants, landmarks and ruins, old houses and cobblestones, churches, but the living past, what I find in books and enter seamlessly, is rarely present to me geographically. But tonight it was. I felt like a New Yorker who could commune with any generation, past or to come, though in truth communing with my peers is often a struggle.

I hope New York lasts another two hundred years and more, that the sea doesn’t rise, or bombs fall, or ancient gods rise to tear us apart. I would like to know there will be singing under the arch for another dozen generations; and that I can be one of the ghosts, in a down coat trimmed in fake fur and down-at-the-heel black boots, whispering of how I once lived with a guarded flame of joy in my heart; how I loved my neighbor and so, for a while, could love or at least be cordial with myself; of how I sang of riding in a one horse open sleigh, but never did.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy


December 21, 2013 § 2 Comments


The longest night of the year suggests more hours reading in bed, or stitching Christmas stockings by candlelight, or making babies to be born at harvest time, or dreaming unlikely futures. I’ll stick to the first activity, with a cat tucked under my chin and another sprawled across my legs. I like being furniture.

Last night we went to the Paul Winter Consort Solstice Concert at the Cathedral. “This is what cathedrals are for,” said Charles, stunned by the power of the event, and though I think they are for lots of things, there’s no question that the union of Paul Winter and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the happiest blend of old and new American culture—which for all its occasional insularity, usually ends up embracing if not embroidering the world’s art.

The Consort was joined by the Forces of Nature Dance Company, gospel singer Theresa Thomason and Brazilian singers Ivan Lins and Renato Braz. The evening was dedicated to Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who died in September. The Brazilians sang songs of Christmas, longing and exile with tenderness and that cool-warm charm for which they are justly renowned. Paul and the dancers presented a piece for the Grand Canyon (“We were recording out there and we found a small side canyon with the same 7-second reverberation as the Cathedral, so now we refer to the Cathedral as the Grand Canyon East”). Winter, looking like a druid priest as imagined by a star-struck NYC kid raised on the Nutcracker, was surrounded by the spirits of rock, air and light. It was mesmerizing theater, glorious sound and the beautiful animal grace of bodies on our blue-green planet.

A tribute to Nelson Mandela, by the Forces of Nature, was the kind of outpouring that gives one faith in the human race. A couple of dozen laughing dancers in colorful costumes were playful, joyful, sexy and acrobatic as the drummers beat a rhythm to wake the dead. That this never works is not and has never been the point.

Who am I to feel negative (where my spirit still pulls me) after watching such ebullience in honor of Madiba? It is a privilege to be alive, to have seen as much as I have of the earth, to be surrounded by talent and drive, endurance and kindness; and to know that there are still, if not for long, elephants, honeybees and tigers.

That twilight. That darkness. It’s not all there is. I feel profound guilt and shame for what we have taken from the creatures, whose lives are utterly their own, who cannot be assigned value. But I can’t stop connecting with people, though I often want to hibernate, and not only in December. “I love your hair,” shrieked a woman in the elevator this morning, “I’m going to let mine go like that!” My hair is long and multi-colored-—brown, gray, silver—and today was frizzy and barely brushed. “I look like a witch,” I said to Charles.

“We like witches,” responded my husband, patting his bad-tempered mouse-gray and rust patchwork cat, eating the banana-pecan bread I baked instead of working. I have to write about the Cathedral. Well, I am. I’ll get to the professional stuff later. This is my personal Cathedral: stone in memory of stone, throngs of people, light always.

Paul’s young daughters danced the old year out and the new year in, and in an inspired bit of showmanship, the lit-up globe came down the aisle and was lifted above the stage, already graced by a Christmas tree decorated with cymbals. There were wolf howls and “Silent Night” in Portuguese. We walked to the subway glowing with Christmas, with the gifts of the Solstice and the season: Winter’s gifts.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

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