TCWC Concert and the Fight Against the Season

On Saturday, I sang 2 concerts with the TCWC; it was our usual “Illuminations” concert we do in lieu of a more traditional holiday concert. The music this time was STUNNING.

We opened with different settings of the words attributed to Chief Seattle (though not really said by him; thanks Snopes!):

This we know.
The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.
This we know.
All things are connected like the blood that unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
This we know.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
This we know.

We sang songs about the earth, about stars, about the moon, and about the rise of the sun. The words from one of them, “Cycle Four,” made me cry EVERY DAMN TIME I sang them:

The earth itself is a spaceship; the crew rides on the outside in everlasting orbit around the sun.
Seen from the moon, it is so tiny and fragile.
I wish leaders from every nation could see the world from here.
Those precious borders are invisible.
The brilliant globe is surrounded by blackness and turns serenely in the sunlight.
Viewing our planet from the moon, I cry.
The pristine blue and whiteness I see is an illusion.
Hiding beneath it I know there is an ever more senseless ugliness.

And we did the Randall Thompson version of “Choose Something Like A Star” whose words by Robert Frost are, I think, truly inspirational:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud;
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

I’m not going to link to this song, but I’m sure you can go find a version of it on YouTube if you wish, and I highly recommend it; it’s truly beautiful.

(Also, it goes HIGH. I mean, I’m a high first soprano and it can be exhausting after a while. This whole concert was that way, though. My poor vocal cords were DONE on Saturday night. Anyway.)

The thing about music at this time of year is that, while I am tired tired TIRED of Christmas carols, pretty much all of them, I love the music that fits the season without being about it. I love the music about the darkness that gives way to light, about people making their everyday lives about joy, about hope and rebirth and kindness and generosity.

The winter tests people when it comes; the cold and dark and early sunset push against the shadows in our minds. I am typing this now at 4:01pm Central Time, and already the sun is gone from the sky. Night will fall in a matter of minutes. It was dark when I left the house for work and it will be dark before I get home. The shortest day of the year up here in the north is truly short.

Sometimes I think we fill it up with a false cheerfulness from the holidays, the blaring bouncy songs on the radio and in stores, the aggressively green and red decorations, the screaming lights. Sometimes I think this whole Christmastime bustle is one big fight against the darkness that closes in on all sides and heralds the cold and ice and snow to come.

And you know what?

While I am SO TIRED of the overplayed music, and I roll my eyes at the commercialization, and I get irritated by the false cheer and kindness that melts away on December 26th when it should be a way of living year-round — in spite of all of that, I find it deeply appealing to live in an entire culture basically telling the dark and cold and gloom and despair to go choke on a Christmas tree.

“Yeah, yeah, dark and cold and blah. I’ll show you! I’m going to put up the most OBNOXIOUS lights I can, deck my house and my store and everything with as much gold and red and green and silver as I can lay hands on! You think the wind and snow will keep me quiet? How loudly do you want to hear my music? You think you can make me stay home and sulk? IT IS SHOPPING TIME.”

I don’t really think it’s intentional, but I do think that’s what happens. I think the year closing to the winter solstice is one big drain, and the way we fight it is with light and laughter and parties and singing and flowers and bows and good food and sappy movies. I think it’s an entire people using the same tricks I use against depression to hold back the season.

And it does work.

Even if I’m rolling my eyes while it goes.

But then, I usually appreciate a good show of defiance. As soon as you tell me that I need to bow down and let shadows fall, I usually start thinking about ways to light a candle. As soon as you tell me that being cold is an inevitability, I promise you I have figured out how to keep warm.

The thing we need to work on overall, as a society, is to quit thinking that giving and cheer and kindness and smiling at strangers is only really a ‘thing’ in December. Charities need money and supplies every day of the year. People need music and lights and that uplifting display all the time. Smiling at people on the street or in the store should be the default, not the exception.

Kindness and generosity should be everyday miracles, not Christmas miracles.

I actually get weird looks sometimes when I do that sort of thing. I got glared at in the grocery store last week because I was making eye-contact and smiling at people, or gave a sincere, pause-rather-than-rushing-off-with-my-stuff thank you to the person at the register. More than one person gave me a look that should have been withering. Should have made me back off letting my own light shine.

But. Um.

That’s not…really how I roll.

Uh, at all.

Ever.

If I have light, when I have light, I share it. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m FOR.

And you know what? For every variation on a glare, I got a smile in response. Tired smiles, surprised smiles, grateful smiles. I don’t expect any cashier to remember me, but I do see them breathe a little easier when I greet them cheerfully rather than with a dour or gruff look.

But maybe that’s the advantage, if there is such a thing, to living in a world of competing opposites. Of living day to day not knowing when the happiness and light are going to bleed from my soul and the cruelty inside my own head will start whispering again. When the energy I have to offer is poisoned and stripped until it is me who is needy with nothing left to give.

When you know the meaning of permanent, waiting-to-strike sorrow, maybe you know how precious it is to share joy when you have it.

When the mob in my head is swayed, I choose the star of kindness and defiance to set MY mind on, and I am staid.

For all the ugliness in the world, there is beauty, too. We have to look for it sometimes; we have to seek it out and draw it forth and wave it like a sword in the face of the advancing armies of darkness — but it is there.

And this is something I know.

Whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves. Whatever I can put into the world will happen to others, those around me and those I’ve never so much as seen. When I vibrate the strands that connect us with a smile, with light, with laughter, I have to trust that my offering is reaching others. And know that theirs will come back to me.

We are all connected shouting against the winter dark in anticipation of the light. We are all one voice singing, sometimes aggravatingly, about joy and cheer. And we can’t stop the dark from falling, any more than we can — or should — stop the world from spinning.

But we can stop it from falling on each other and let it stay up in the sky where it belongs.

And that is a real miracle.

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Thanksgiving!

This week is Thanksgiving for those of us who celebrate it.

Thanksgiving means all kinds of things to different people, and it has meant different things to me over the course of my lifetime.  As a child, it was a huge gathering of my paternal grandmother’s whole family, her sisters and their kids and all my cousins gathered around long tables with folding chairs and everybody bringing at least 2 more dishes than we really needed.  It meant hiding in Grammie’s back room, making houses out of boxes, or piling in with all the kids of a like age to see if ANYBODY could get past the 3rd level of Battletoads on the NES (spoiler alert — we couldn’t).  As I grew older but still lived close by, I really began to enjoy Thanksgiving with that extended family.  I started helping out with dishes more, or serving more, and I started to learn why it was interesting, not boring, when my grandmother and her sisters gathered around a table with mugs of tea just talking.  (The football watched by the men was still boring until I met Sarah and she introduced me to OSU.)

Living in Minnesota necessitated many changes on my part when it came to traditional family gatherings.  Some years, I’ve trekked back to be part of Thanksgiving, but it isn’t the same.  A lot of the relatives whose presence I most enjoyed have passed since then.  Now, the gathering, when it happens at all, is smaller, mostly populated by my generation and my nieces and nephews.  Grammie still makes the best stuffing and mashed potatoes in the family, though.

The years that I can’t or don’t go back to the land of my ancestors, however, I host Thanksgiving myself.  Now that I have a home of my own, I make a point to open it for Thanksgiving to anyone who wants that same connectedness and closeness I do.  It’s my very-firmly held belief that no one should be alone on Thanksgiving who doesn’t want to be, and that everyone should have the option of a warm, inviting, loving atmosphere in which to spend their day.

Thanksgiving is often my favorite holiday of the year because of that.  I get to open my house and invite in whoever needs or wants that shelter, that fun.  Some years we’ve had lots of people; some years we only have 4.  This year, I’m going to be hosting between 9 and 11, which is just enough to make the house seem really full (and just enough to necessitate bringing down the second table).

It’s always a big event when we host a party like this.  For Thanksgiving I almost always do turkey because, obviously, but some years I’ve added a ham as well depending on the crowd.  Last year’s turkey was ALMOST a disaster and required a 5am run to a grocery store which I never ever want to do again.  This year, with only 1 meat, I’m less likely to end up in panic-mode at 5am.  I hope.

If it DOES happen, this time I’ll take pictures.

I always brine my turkeys, which, the first year was HILARIOUS because I didn’t have a pot big enough so I, uh, kinda made one.  By taping paper bags to the outside of my pot and putting the turkey and the brine in a brining bag and kind of…propping it up in the fridge.  It DID work and it did NOT spill all over the fridge, and it was epic.  Now I have a proper brining bucket.

(I have searched for a few hours for a version of the picture of my epic paper bag brining solution and I can’t find one, unfortunately.  Otherwise I would happily provide the photographic evidence of its hilarity.)

I’ll also be doing squash and pudding, and Sarah’s handling the stuffing.  Others bring the green beans, the potatoes, and whatever else they like the best.  We’ve had everything from tempura to khir at our table, and it’s all welcome!  We set it all out along the kitchen counter like a giant buffet and leave it out all afternoon.

Because once the food has been eaten, it is time for games.  Board games, card games, pen-and-paper games — depending on the crowd, we play.  (I usually miss this part.  5am does NOT get along well with me and I end up napping most years.  Last year, post the run to the grocery store and the emergency backup plan, I napped so soundly I didn’t realize everyone else had done all my dishes for me.  My friends are AMAZING.)

Some years, we open our house again a few days after Thanksgiving to celebrate with those friends who spend their holiday with their other families.  This year, we’re a little too busy to pull that off, but we might yet have what Sarah calls Pie Night another time.  Possibly for NYE.

But the “when” isn’t really the part that matters.

The part that matters is the part where I get to sit around a table with family and friends.  Sometimes the family is related by blood/marriage, but more often, it’s those people who are family of the spirit.  The part that matters is being together, sharing food, snarking at each other, telling stories, laughing, being safe, being welcome, being wanted.  It’s no different from what I knew every year at Grammie’s house, even if I didn’t understand while I was building a train out of cardboard that *that* is what made the day so special.

Thanksgiving is when I get to spend special time with the people who make life worth everything, and when I get to remember how very, very thankful I am for every step that led me here.  For attending Carleton and meeting Sarah.  For stumbling into the TCWC and finding a choir family.  For being invited to perform at CONvergence, and then wandering up looking to volunteer, and being drawn into a community and a fellowship.

Every step, wrong or right, backwards or forwards or right off the path, has carried me until I’m standing here.  And I cannot, cannot imagine my life any differently.

So I’ll spend Thanksgiving a little teary-eyed and a little overly sentimental.  Because I am so very thankful.

Also, because of the parade.

I have THE BIGGEST CRUSH on one particular float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, folks.  No, seriously.  It’s been my favorite for as long as anyone can remember.  And I have watched the parade EVERY YEAR without fail.  When I’m not hosting, I tend to live-blog it (hosting makes me too busy, to say nothing of being high-strung, for that).  I watch it, and I laugh at the silly things, and I rag on the bad commercials, and I cheer at my favorites.

But I always start to cry when I see Tom Turkey.

I have to think that at least part of my extreme love of the parade is that it heralds a season of family and a season of humanity.  It’s the time when, for about a month, people become what they pretend to be the rest of the year.  It’s the time when we think about each other a bit more, care for the little things a bit more, notice each other more.

But there’s also an inherent value and charm to the parade itself as well. Maybe it’s that sense of commonality that I always feel, just as I did with the Olympics.  Thanksgiving morning, 3.5 million people don’t care about political parties or artificial divisions.  They just stand there on the sidelines screaming for the people who come by.  Everybody along the sidelines becomes about 10 years old, enchanted by the simple magic of giant balloons, joyful kids, and thumping music.  For that morning, in that place, people become the community they want be.  And that means something very real to me, too.

And Tom Turkey?  To me, that crazy float has become the icon for all the good things of the season.  I think he is to me what Santa Claus is to lots of kids — he’s the hero of the season, the one who makes all that goodness possible.  He brings the parade, heralding the holiday season and all the things that come alive with it.

And once I’ve seen Tom Turkey, I know everything’s going to be all right.  Even if MY turkey goes horribly awry, I’m going to be spending my day in laughter and love and welcome joy with friends and family, and no amount of disaster measures up.

But if there IS a disaster, I’ll let you know next week.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Indigenous Peoples Day

For this, I would like to refer to far wiser words than my own, written by someone with the genuine authority to say them.

From the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, by Jeremy FiveCrows:

Indigenous Peoples’ Day gives us the opportunity to honor the millions of citizens with indigenous ancestry, to celebrate their culture, and to reflect on the evils, sacrifices, and struggles their ancestors were forced to endure. It also gives us the opportunity to educate the citizens about what can be gained by a greater understanding of indigenous history. By learning about the native cultures of this place and what the first residents knew about living here, the country is enriched with a greater understanding of its shared history, understanding of the ecology, and the philosophy of stewardship that could help heal the nation’s environmental woes.

The land upon which this nation is built molded the cultures of the tribes who called it home, just as it continues to mold the culture of the United States today. The tribes believe that we are of this land; this is true for everyone on earth. For all of us, this land is both the source of our strength and our greatest responsibility. This might be the most important teaching that the modern world could learn from indigenous peoples’ cultures and experiences. Of all changes the message of Indigenous Peoples Day could bring, perhaps the most important would be the realization that the native people’s story is part of the nation’s collective story. We are all connected to one another and to this place we call home.

 

Today, please make room for these stories told by those who were here long before the rest of us, and whose voices we should respect and honor every day.

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St Patrick’s Day

I have a strange relationship with this particular celebration of Irish heritage and also green doughnuts.  Which, by the way, — no.  Seriously.  We have green milk, green rivers, green beer.  Not EVERYTHING needs to be green today!

Anyway.

When you’re born and raised anywhere near the East Coast of the US, you have at least some connection to St Patrick’s Day.  I remember being in elementary school and there being a regular game of pinching anyone who didn’t wear green.  I also remember one friend of mine getting out of a day full of pinching by virtue of having green eyes.  Then we had green cookies and milk at lunch and made shamrock cut-outs and, you know, all the kid stuff.  I don’t think I knew how much else went on, from dyeing the Chicago River green to the parades and general revelry, until later, though.

I do have a fair amount of Irish heritage, though nobody seems to know exactly how much because both sides of my family approach any study of genealogy like they are considering riding on some sort of horse/cougar mix — they’d just rather not.  But my grandmother can tell stories about the Irish women she heard stories about back in our bloodline somewhere.

My other connection to St Patrick’s Day comes from a religious source by way of YA fantasy.

Among the most formative books I ever read as a kid was the Time Quintet series by Madeleine L’Engle.  Particularly the first three to be published — A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet — made their marks in my mind and my soul.  The last of these is the adventure of Charles Wallace trying to rewrite history so that the world can be pulled back from the brink of nuclear disaster.

Along the way, he makes use of what the book calls “Saint Patrick’s Rune” which is really a poem derived from the more famous Lorica, or Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.  It reads:

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

This rune has been with me for the majority of my life, and I’ve always found it helpful to recite in times of stress or irrational fear, like taking off in an airplane or facing down a bad storm.  Whether it has any empirical effect, it’s always helped me center myself, reorient myself in the scope of the world, and find the inner balance to keep going.

So I owe a lot of inner peace and fortitude, especially in my younger years, to Saint Patrick of Ireland.

I’m not nor ever have been Catholic, but I feel gratitude that one person of that order penned (or, allegedly penned) the full Lorica, which is a powerful, swelling recitation that, to a person of the Christian faith, must be like sounding the ultimate anthem of courage and victory.  Even I am moved by its power and its intensity.  Get that thing going, rev it up, and you could take on the world.  For me, it’s been a light of prayer even when I didn’t pray, and I’m grateful for that.

So, between my innate, if muddled, Irish ancestry and my personal appreciation for this work of Saint Patrick, I “do” St Patrick’s Day.  I wear green, usually various pieces of different shades of green.  I will not eat the appalling green doughnut or bread or whatever awful thing someone’s stuck dye in this time, though.  There are LIMITS, you guys.

(Also, I don’t, I DO NOT, attempt a Lucky Charms-like accent or throw around the ‘faith and begorrah’ nonsense because YUCK.  Anti-Irish racism was (and still is?) a thing, you know.  So is cultural appropriation.  And that’s BEFORE you start tossing around problematic stereotypes.)

This is my perfect example, though, of my expression of St Patrick’s Day:


On the one hand, my American, commercialized version in the bow I actually do have in my hair.  My proof of being what amounts to a “Plastic Paddy,” since I truly never have been to Ireland and it would be disingenuous for me to claim to *be* Irish, but my pride in the Green all the same.  And on the other is this pendant which was given to me by my grandmother which she received from one of her own Irish relatives.  The pendant is pure nickel and is based on an Anglo-Saxon or Hiberno Norse long cross penny from a thousand years ago.  Though nobody can really figure out what it says.  The words don’t QUITE match up to the originals.  But this pendant was carried by my bloodline long enough to make it an heirloom, to make it real.  Even if it isn’t “genuine” by any technical definition.

A person can be a lot of things.  I am American, but I am proud to have even a trace of Irish ancestry.  I wear my green in ignorance of what it really means to a person actually from/in Ireland, but I also wear the memory of my family which traces its roots to somewhere in Ireland’s history.  The affinity is real, even if the lineage is lost.  And the respect is real either way.

Happy St Patrick’s Day, everyone!  Enjoy it however you like.

…Even if you like green beer and greener doughnuts.

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