Ways of Seeing, Rebecca Kneale Gould: Many traditions light up the winter’s darkness
The sun is going to set at 4:15 tonight — or, more precisely, this afternoon. However you parse it, that’s way too early for me. But while it is tempting to resist this basic fact of December life, I’m not sure how much sense that actually makes. Let’s see, me versus the tilt of the earth’s axis … Who should cry “Uncle” first?
Now that we have this question of planetary power dynamics out of the way, how might we move on from here? How do we manage these oh, so short days and these ever-lengthening nights?
For everyone, it is different, this managing of darkness and light. Whether solar or political, the time of the sunset or the latest tax bill, it takes creativity and fortitude to make our way through this season. In the face of December’s darkness, one approach I take is to embrace whatever music and light I can find in any available holiday context. In my own multi-branched spiritual family tree, Christmas, Chanukah and the winter solstice all have their roles to play, and as adults, my siblings and I have each woven new traditions shaped around the partners, children and animals that are in our lives. My mother, for instance, loves to sing through the Christmas Eve service at Emmanuel Church in Boston, but she also always makes sure that the “Chanukah Elf” makes his way annually to our door with a box of rugelach and bagels from Zabars. It’s confusing, I know. Should I try to explain further? I think not. For the Chanukah Elf needs no explanation or justification and if you ever have the good fortune to meet him, you’ll understand why.
What most unites my family across our various holiday traditions is a shared love of music. My sister likes to go caroling with friends. I lead a Hebrew chant group. My partner plays French horn all over the state of Vermont — and in the living room. And I scarcely have to close my eyes to conjure up an image of my tall, slim brother in high school conducting the marching band and sporting the fuzzy, white drum major’s hat that earned him the nickname “Q-tip” (not the rapper). Meanwhile, my 82-year-old (going on 65) mother currently sings alto in a well-known Boston choir. This is in addition to playing the cello, which she took up in her mid-sixties. We even have a video of Rachel our sheep playing the garden chimes.
It is to my music-loving family and particularly my mother that I credit my love of Handel’s “Messiah.” In these last two weeks, it has been singing “Messiah” — along with the anticipation of the Chanukah Elf — that has preserved my spiritual light in this time of seasonal and political darkness. It is, in fact, entirely worth it to be doing my grading (and finishing this column) in the wings of the Barre Opera House just to get a chance to perform with the Vermont Philharmonic Chorus, under the brilliant direction of Lisa Jablow.
Music and memory are so deeply intertwined that one never knows precisely when one leaves off and the other begins. While intensely rehearsing this last week, I found myself remembering how cozy and magical it felt to fall half-asleep in a warm pew during a “Messiah Sing” (I must have been around nine) surrounded by grown-ups who seemed to thrive on singing endless cascades of sixteenth notes in the same way that I thrived on baseball and ice cream. Soon I, too, would come to add sixteenth notes to my list.
At our performance last Friday, while galloping through the thorny rhythms of the final “Amen” section — sometimes hanging on for dear life — other memories flashed through me. I paid mental homage to wonderful choral directors I had sung under in high school and college, teachers from whom I learned precision, discipline and the cardinal rule of never taking your eyes off of the conductor. My high school and college conductors deployed a stern sense of discipline, but they were also softies underneath. Their strict devotion to discipline was always in the service of ultimately having a fabulous (Baroque) time. Thank you, Beverly Taylor and Mrs. Di.
It is easy to get Grinchy when the days are short and holiday commercialism seems to lurk on every corner. And my own thoughts, indeed, went back to politics when the baritone soloist intoned, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.” But music, and the collective creativity it takes to produce it, carries me through the deep midwinter every time. May it also carry many of you.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and associate professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton, where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.
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