Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Benedicimus te

This year I went to the Christmas carol service at Harvard (college towns! I love 'em!) The church, as usual, was packed enough that latecomers had to sit on the floor. People come mostly to hear the excellent choir and organ, but also for the pleasure of singing through some of the carols. It's the only place I've been that expects you to sight-read Latin on "Adeste Fidelis", though they do give you a choice of German or English on "Silent Night." It's a legit church service with gospel readings and prayers, but I don't have a good sense of how many of us come for a musical more than a religious experience. Sometimes I worry that I ought to find some more secular outlet for my harmony-singing urges, but I've had no luck.

We are now in the midst of family Christmas with twenty or so of Jeff's and my family. It's a solid week of cooking, eating, board games, singing, exchanging gifts, playing music, napping, and walking around the neighborhood. Pretty much my ideal way to spend a week. I know at least three people who wandered into Thomforde gatherings and stayed for days.

At night we light the menorah. My understanding of the Hebrew words we sing is vague at best. I know they feel warm and close. I'm grateful to whatever has preserved my father-in-law and his ancestors, grateful for Jeff singing beside me.

Last night we all went to see Revels, a stage show of traditional Christmas music and dance. Revels is aimed at a more secular crowd, and is generally very good at making folk culture accessible to people who aren't normally part of that scene.

Revels also includes a good bit of participatory singing, which I always approve of. There's no sensory experience that instantly conveys "you're among friends" to me like lots of people singing in harmony. Revels ends with a stately version of the Sussex Mummers' Carol, complete with Ralph Vaughan Williams' soaring descant.

God bless your house, your children too
Your cattle and your store
The Lord increase you day by day
And send you more and more,
And send you more and more.

And I decided it doesn't much matter what the words mean. We don't have cattle, and many of us don't believe in God. It is enough to stand in a warm building surrounded by a thousand other voices, singing a blessing onto each other.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas postcards

Having exhausted my supply of decent-looking envelopes, this year I made Christmas postcards.

I recommend it as a doable way to make your own Christmas cards, as long as you don't plan to write an essay inside. Print out a bit of a carol or poem, a cut paper star or snowflake, and you're done.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

-Eleanor Farjeon

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St. Lucia Day

Happy Lucia Day! Lucia was one of those early Christian martyrs who died rather than marry a pagan. She may or may not have gouged her own eyeballs out. Naturally, we celebrate with candles and saffron buns!

It's the Scandinavians who get really into this.  Scandinavia, I can tell you from personal experience, is very dark at this time of year. So I don't blame them for latching onto a December saint's day for a woman whose name means "light".  In both homes and public gatherings, they have processions of children in white robes. The tallest and prettiest girl wears a wreath of candles on her head.

Carl Larsson, "Lucia Morning"

One unexpected benefit of winning the Nobel Prize is that during your stay in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, a procession of Lucia girls and star boys wake you with a song. The problem is that laureates are sometimes surprised to awake to coffee and pastry born by singing girls dressed in white and crowned with flame. Supposedly, one of them believed he had died and gone to heaven.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good things

Today in church the topic was the Magnificat, also known as the Canticle of Mary. I was thinking about one part, which we used to sing in children's choir:

He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Today I realized that my mental image of the "good things" is the food page from The Little Engine that Could.

"Some of the cars were filled with all sorts of good things for boys and girls to eat — big golden oranges, red-cheeked apples, bottles of creamy milk for their breakfasts, fresh spinach for their dinners, peppermint drops, and lollypops for after-meal treats."

To me, the combination of words and images invoke all that is wholesome and tasty. Fill me up!


As a social worker, I have to write things like "Patient is not motivated to maintain sobriety." That word, sobriety, sounds to me like people in gray clothes sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I'm not motivated to "maintain sobriety", so why should my clients be?

As a child in the Episcopal church, I disliked the part in the Book of Common Prayer about living "a godly, righteous, and sober life." I guess "sober" was supposed to mean "not too crazy." Quakers used to be big into sobriety, and the opposite was "gay", "vain", or "immoderate". The 1806 Book of Discipline from Philadelphia advised "that a watchful care be exercised over our youth, to prevent their going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes." "The sipping and tippling of drams and strong drink", though poetically phrased, was also frowned on. And if any Quaker should "fall into this evil practice, giving or taking strong liquors at vendues, or countenance or promote any noisy gatherings, they should be speedily dealt with as disorderly persons." This speedy dealing-with probably amounted to a concerned talking-to by some people in gray clothes, after which you would be kicked out of meeting if you didn't change your ways.

We're still using the nineteenth-century rhetoric that equates alcohol with frivolity. By the 1920s our culture worshipped frivolity, and what had everyone been taught about it? That it goes hand in hand with alcohol. If you want to be "gay" or "immoderate" (i.e. to have fun), drinking is the way to do it.

The result is that some people have forgotten how to have fun without drinking. Last Christmas when Jeff's boisterous Quaker family was gathered, a cousin's boyfriend marvelled that we seemed to be having such a good time with minimal drinking. He had never seen a family do that before.

When I dispatch my clients to a "sober house", I hope it won't be so very sober there. I hope they'll stay away from alcohol, but maybe there will be a little frivolity and even some noisy gatherings.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Last week, my dad and I were talking about the uproar about someone letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. “I don't know,” my suburban father hedged, “Aren't there a lot of crazies on the subway?”

Meaning people who mutter to themselves? Occasionally. Disheveled people? Definitely. Drunk people? Sometimes. People who strike up unwanted conversations with strangers? Sure. Violent? I did see two people get on a shoving match on a subway car one time, but both of them appeared willing participants.

But dangerous to people who are minding their own business? No. There may be other dangers on a subway – theft, sexual harassment – but I don't think mental illness has anything to do with that.

I've heard similar reactions to my landlord situation. My landlord is paranoid, and my housemates and I are the objects of her paranoia. She believes we're practicing witchcraft against her and poisoning her with electromagnetic radiation. This results in her doing things like banging on our door at odd hours, duct taping our porch door shut, and writing us letters in all caps.

The reaction from our friends: “This is beyond entertaining, and you need to get out of there.” “It is almost as crazy as she is to stay there.” “Maybe you could have her committed!”

There's a reason she hasn't been committed: she hasn't done anything dangerous. Annoying, yes. In breach of our lease, yes. But not dangerous. And people don't seem to understand that distinction.

People who have lost touch with reality are not out to get you. If anything, they might think you're out to get them. Working on the psych ward, I have not met a single patient who would hurt a stranger. Maybe the nurse who's giving them meds, maybe an ex-boyfriend, maybe themselves, but not a stranger.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Cherry Tree Carol, based on a story from an apocryphal gospel. Joseph and the pregnant Mary are walking through an orchard. She, maybe because of the pregnancy, gets a yen for the cherries and asks him to pick her some. Joseph, none too pleased with the mysterious pregnancy situation, answers,

"Let him pick berries and let him pick cherries
That brought thee now with child."

It's such a typical interaction. Joseph and Mary are both feeling wronged. He's mad because someone knocked up his fiancée, and she's mad because she wants those cherries and can't go clambering around to get them. Plus she's just been insulted.

But because this is a story, a miracle happens and settles the argument. Unborn Jesus takes sides and tells the trees what to do.

Then bowed down the tallest tree
Into sweet Mary's hand.
Then Mary cried, "Oh, see now, Joseph!
I've cherries at command."

Mary is vindicated. Joseph, embarrassed, attempts an apology:

O, then bespoke old Joseph,
"I have done Mary wrong,
Cheer up, cheer up, my dearest dear,
And do not be cast down."

Arguments in real life don't work like this, but we wish they would. I often see this in social work clients (and myself): we act like if we can just prove how wronged we are, someone will take notice and rectify the situation. We would like the universe to announce: "You are right, and he is wrong." And we make up stories where it really does happen.

But in real life, there are no trees that bow down to settle arguments. The other person's hurt is as real as our own. There will not be a divine arbitration, so we have to patch things up as best we can.

And the carol echoes this: after the miracle, life goes on as usual.

So Mary picked one cherry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary and Joseph, they walked on homeward,
All with their heavy load.

I find this the most touching, most human part of a very human carol. We are all carrying heavy loads. We are all stumbling along in the dark, groping towards each other.