Dreaming of a White Christmas

  • Posted: December 28, 2021
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Christmas shuffles the deck of our settled domesticity. Our everyday routines marking out the boundaries of good taste, ensuring a proper regard for privacy and propriety – they disappear for the duration. The Christmas season, this original disturbance in the Force, brings many things out of the closet, some good, some not so good.

One of these wild cards is the appearance of an inexplicable craving to rub shoulders with fellow human beings in awkward ritualistic settings, atavistic eccentricities hoary with the civility of medieval times. The Christmas holiday season is irrefutable rebuttal of the notion that man is a rational being. During the holidays, one finds themselves in places and situations normally avoided, avoided with good reason.

And so it was that I found myself at a holiday themed brunch in a large group of fellow Baby Boomers singing Christmas songs. Given the setting and ages of the singers, the songs were venerable classics, the old standards, whatever that might mean in Era of the Covid Discontinuity. But hooray for the old standards, at least I knew the words – well most of them anyway.

Our leader in this bacchanalia of emotive reminiscence was a skilled and proficient practitioner in the art of seducing the reluctant to abandon decorum. Between songs, he would strum his guitar and make small talk, stiffening our spines for our next venture into disharmony.  In the middle of the sing-a-long, he introduced that classic of Christmas schmaltz – White Christmas. In its intro, he reminded us of the good taste and wholesome values of Christmas past when this song was new. In particular he pointed to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the great and well remembered masters of that bygone genre.

There was a great murmuring from the audience in agreement. It may be that I murmured in agreement as well. There is something about the holidays and rubbing shoulders that temporarily disengages the brain’s editorial function, normally protecting the practicing curmudgeon from an embarrassing descent into the cloying embrace of sentimentality.

I confess some admiration for a singular fellow across the table during this seasonal hootenanny. While I manfully struggled to hit the notes and remember the words, a good fellow at home in the prevailing zeitgeist to all outward appearance, this other gentleman pursued his own course, calmly perusing his I-Phone. Perhaps his wife is more sympathetic to the manners and customs of old men than is my own.

But our Master of Ceremonies had a point. I do remember a time of good taste and wholesome values in music. I remember a time of unity. A time of unity enforced by the absence of alternative, as we had only a limited opportunity to go off the reservation. Our media of the time, tv, movies and radio, all played more or less the same songs and artists. Perhaps a bit more steel guitar or more rock guitar on one station or another, but children and parents were forced to listen together.

I do miss the good taste and wholesome values of the time, but let’s be honest with ourselves. We closed our eyes to a lot of things. It was fairly obvious the private lives of these entertainers lacked the good taste and wholesome values they fronted on radio and TV. Even as he sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, Frank Sinatra was well known as the high profile leader of Las Vegas’s “Rat Pack”. In a tell-all book by his son Bing Crosby was outed as a heartless martinet. Andy William’s wife, the winsome beauty Claudine Longet who defined the word “ingenue”, was convicted of murdering her Colorado paramour. The list goes on.

Times have changed. Instead of carefully curated entertainment suitable for all ages – our only choice, we now navigate crowded menus catering to jaded audiences. Even if we valiantly battle the seductive draw of “click bait” calibrated by the cold algorithms of our tech overlords to seduce our unconscious, we find ourselves drawn into ever more narrowly focused echo chambers.

Perhaps unguarded moments amidst our fellows in the Christmas season are an opportunity for us to see ourselves as we actually are. There is a remembered poem. In my doughtier moments I believe it speaks of my own life, ruefully confessing that belief contrary to a mountain of evidence. Despite that evidence to the contrary, I do want those words to ring true in my life.

The poem, “Invictus”, was written by one of those God and Country Victorians for which I confess an inordinate fondness, William Ernest Henley. The poem’s last two lines are justly famous, still quoted nearly two centuries later as they speak with eloquence to our prideful age:

“I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul”

In times past, I often remembered the words of “Invictus”, using them as a mantra to steel myself before walking into a conference room to meet an angry client, an aggrieved employee. The words and their spirit served me well, at least I believed it so at the time.

Those words still bring a warm glow to my heart, a taste of steel to a sometimes weary spirit. I want to believe the words true of my life. But then here I am, singing along in a Christmas hootenanny. Not only lip synching, genuflecting in a pride saving manner to social convention, but actually singing. So much for the illusion of my mastery, my captaincy.

No matter our desire to see ourselves as unique individuals, we are human beings. There is much about us hard wired, not upgradeable software – endlessly mutable. Much of our life is governed and directed by hardware, set at our birth in unchanging pattern, a river’s course fated to be followed. If such was not true, our tech overlords would be considerably poorer.

There is another poet I like, a poet of our own age masquerading as a folk singer. An understandable variation on employment in the genre of wordsmith as singers are much more likely than poets to make a living in 21st Century America. I came to Mary Chapin Carpenter late in life, as I was perhaps not ready for her in my youth or middle age.In one of her songs, The Hard Way, she provides another look at the “master of my fate, captain of my soul”. Her words have always struck me as a truer look at the circumstances of our lives:

“So show a little inspiration, show a little spark

Show the world a little light when you show it your heart

We’ve got two lives, one we’re given and the other one we make”

We have the life we are given, the circumstances of our body and mind, our family’s exigencies, our wider environment, etc. It is what it is, but we also have the life we make. From the same eggs come a tasteless omelet or Michelin rated cordon bleu. It all depends on what you do with what you have. Whether simple scow or clipper ship, we are still its captain.

It is this intertwined mix of nature, nurture and chance that confounds us. We are the captain of our ship standing out to sea in pursuit of fulfillment, but then we awake to find ourselves at a hootenanny, tunelessly warbling along with everyone else. We twist and turn the steering wheel only to find the tie rods broken, the brake fluid gone.

As we captain our ship, master the currents of our fate, it is a certainty that we will brave the rocks of fortune, of consequence. Ambition drives some to dare the Straits of Charybdis and Scylla, while others, less driven, choose more forgiving waters. But time and chance happen to all.

Those like Sinatra, Crosby, Williams, etc. were in the spotlight. They entertained us and thereby became highly visible. But back then we enjoyed their art while turning a blind eye to their faults. Is it a sign of our times or simply the mark of our humanity that as we know more we forgive less? Were we simpler back then, or were we more forgiving?

Perhaps it is because we know the inadequacy, the failure in our own lives, that we insist on something purer in others. It is not enough that our coffee taste good, we require it to be “fair trade, resource positive, carbon negative while inspiring and nurturing the human spirit”. What concerns us is not the coffee we drink, but what that coffee says about us.

Virtue signaling is the plague of our age, a pestilence cloaking the villain as it stigmates the innocent. We virtue signal for the same reason people once perfumed the dead. We seek to cover up the stench of decay, of corruption within

The Christmas season is an uneasy bargain between our better angels and our hidden demons. Christmas was born of Rome’s Saturnalia but commemorates the coming of God’s Messiah. The promise of salvation from an innocent baby lying in a Judean stable battles the clamor of commerce and non-profit hucksters.

We hold on to that promise of salvation, but we live in the here and now. We captain our ship, we attempt cordon bleu rather than burnt omelets. And in our twisting and turning of the steering wheel, we make mistakes, we are thrown against the rocks. If not us, then it is our fellow man, our neighbor whom the current drives into the hurricane.

As we sink into the comforting bathwater of virtue signaling, the outward show to our fellows that our ship sails true and straight, perhaps an incident in the life of that innocent baby might help us navigate the unbounded harmonies of the Christmas season.

It so happened that a woman caught in the act of adultery was brought before this baby now grown to manhood. Surrounding them was a large crowd eager for the opportunity to show their virtue, crying out for the punishment of stoning against this woman whose ship had run aground on the rocks.

Jesus did not rush to judgment. Instead, he dawdled. Clearly Jesus would have no future as an “influencer”. Rather than getting out in front, he sat and doodled in the dust at his feet, giving time a chance to work its magic, to allow time for reason to replace fervor, for composure to balance zeal. After a time, he looked up and offered an opinion:

“He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”

His words were met with silence. Then the crowd began to melt away, beginning with the older ones among them. He resumed his doodling in the dirt and soon there was no one left except the woman accused.

He then spoke to her: “Woman, where are those who accuse you? Does no one condemn you?” She answered, “No one Lord”. And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

No matter that we sometimes flee her embrace, age brings us into relationship with understanding. We may not have fallen into an adulterous embrace, but we have been only a chance happenstance, a careless moment, from bankruptcy, from addiction, from divorce or malicious malpractice.

If the balance tipped against us and we were thrown onto the rocks, we understand that woman brought before Jesus. And with that understanding comes a profound appreciation for mercy. We come to a deeper understanding of that beatitude – “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

To be human is to be captain of our ship. As humans, our captaincy will inevitably bring our ship onto the rocks, again and again. We hope that the crowd will remember the virtues of mercy when we fall upon those rocks. But even if the crowd forgives, we remember.

And even if we escape the rocks, we only too clearly know how close we came. It was not our own competence or virtue or whatever that saved us from the fate of the fallen, the stigma of the guilty. Even as we might watch another’s ship on the rocks, we remember the words of John Bradford – “There but for the grace of God go I.”

And so it is good for us to revisit the promise of Christmas, the light that came into the world in that Bethlehem stable. As we live with the consequences of our captaincy, it weighs us down with a weight sometimes too heavy to bear. Even as I mouth the words of “White Christmas”, I know my captaincy to be both chimera and verdict.

And so we do well to remember the promise made by that innocent babe born into the Bethlehem stable. In his final words to us, he made a promise to those whose ship has run aground on the rocks:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

 

 

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