Go to almost any shopping mall and you’ll see them–those Glee-graduate carolers dressed in Dickens’ wear offering up near perfect harmonies. They’ve got their lyrics memorized and although they may not have made it on Broadway, they made it into the community chorus (which is far more competitive than you might imagine).
That wasn’t us.
And we weren’t singing at a shopping mall either. I believe they’re self-referentially known as Entertainment Destinations. The biggest and brightest offer the most materialistic slathering of iconic Christmas imagery known to Western man. The writer in me is saying, “Use your words Ruth, use your words,” but heck – if you follow this link and look to the lower right for the Cadillac sponsored “Watch The Tree Come To Life” video – and click on that, you’ll get a big mouthful of all the holiday magic money can buy. (There; now I’ve sponsored Cadillac, too.) Nothing says “Christmas” quite like mass retail; no better place to partake of the festivities than the mall.
We weren’t there.
We were a random gathering of people with one guitar and about 50 song books. We divided our time between the local V.A., centers for people recovering from addiction, and a convalescent hospital. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. It wasn’t merely a good time. It was transformative.
I learned that the music that makes me want to carry weapons when I’m peeking over the sale rack at Coach and still consider the prices to be too high, the music that I avoid singing publicly because the last thing I ever want to do is push my faith on anyone, the music that can make any wait in any line of any sort seem like a bad day at the DMV, that music, I learned that in the right context, that music really is miraculous.
I don’t even know why this came as a surprise to me. Years ago, I found that having practiced some basic Buddhist meditative exercises, suddenly some of the old fashioned Christian hymn lyrics starting making a lot more sense. It’s no wonder, really, when you believe that everyone (from all places and points in history) who tries to communicate about an authentic experience of the divine is trying to describe the same thing, someone was bound to have done a good job at it.
I think it just takes hearing the songs with a new ear. And hearing them in the right places.
Like being at the nursing home last night. Singing our way through the hallway, we paused outside of one woman’s room. All I saw of her was her blanket covered feet at the end of the bed. She had a toe tap going, offering silent percussion. It was the first time I’ve ever sung, “tidings of comfort and joy,” and meant it.
Earlier, in the crowded dining hall at the addiction recovery center, the men were so welcoming – warm, really. I made sure to hold my book low and keep eye contact with as many people around me as I could. Almost everyone sang along to every tune. Despite all the laughter, I never got the sense that we were being laughed at. It wasn’t a show as much as a mutual serenade. A-sing-along.
Every pause between carols brought cheerful hollers of song titles. It wasn’t all Rudolphs, Frostys and Jingle Bells, either. Surprisingly, over half of the requests were for the more religious carols. Imagine Hell’s Angels calling out for “Joy to the World”; Public Enemy-looking-guys yelling, “Away in a Manger.”
During, “Oh Holy Night,” when we got to the last half of the fourth line, “. . . the soul felt its worth,” I felt an unexpected surge of emotion rise up over my chest. Pushing it back down took effort.
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The soul felt its worth. Could I? Could I ever learn to even identify, let alone feel, my worth? The man, eight feet away, holding his song book just like he might have back in 2nd grade, looking every bit as happy as a seven year old anticipating Santa’s arrival, could he? Could he feel his own worth? The dozens of men around him, resolved to twelve step meetings every day for the indefinite future, could they feel their worth?
I’m not talking about the billions of galaxies in the universe sense of worth, or the trillions of years in eternity kind either. I’m talking about the worth of being someone’s baby boy, or someone’s father. The worth of looking at a stranger across a room and smiling for just one second. I’m talking about a sense of worthiness.
The soul felt its worth. I sang that line and I wanted it. I wanted a sense of worthiness for myself and for each person in that room: our guitar player, and her grand nieces, the Public Enemy-looking-guys and their temporary roommates. I wanted it for the woman with her tapping toe in the convalescent home, and for each and every person in any V.A. across the planet today or tomorrow or next year. I wanted it for the Dickens-dressed sextets singing in the damn awful shopping centers all over the country, and I sure as hell wanted it for the shoppers, too. Because one thing I know for certain is that it can’t be bought.
We sang on, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” . . . And that’s when the transformation really happened. My want turned into hope. Not quite a “thrill”, but hope, nonetheless. It was like being inside of the happy climax to a melodramatic movie.
Only this was real life: these men were surviving and healing and singing. I was surviving and healing and singing. Our songs were new and glorious. Divine.
This post selected by a panel of readers for “Best of Holidialies ’09“.
Thanks, Chip & Jette!