Virtual Choir

As I listen to the organ introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful, I’m nervous, as though I’m about to launch into an aria from the Messiah. My singing voice, mostly unused since March, sounds dry and pinched against the subdued strains of the organ coming through the headphones. It’s like an athlete gone to seed, sitting in the bar reminiscing about the good old days when it was scoring touchdowns.

I struggle with all this equipment needed to record. I simply cannot keep those damn little earbuds in my ears, so I appear in videos with gigantic headphones looking like I’m ready to flag planes into the airport. I open sound files on the phone or laptop while my husband operates the high-tech recorder we bought so these home productions would have a decent quality. I listen to the introduction, make sure I’m on the correct verse, and try to time my entrance to coincide perfectly with the accompaniment, which doesn’t always happen. The recordings are merciless—they expose me in all of my musical ineptitude. I sing alone without the comfort of other voices blending with mine in the sometimes flawed, yet glorious tapestry of sound that is choir. And then there’s the uploading of files– are they going to the right place and will they open and, if they do, can my mistakes be edited out?

As I record carols that are as familiar to me as my own name, I try to picture the church on Christmas Eve instead of worrying about the dog barking or singing the wrong words. The jostling bodies and excited anticipation of lining up at the back of the sanctuary as sneaker-clad acolytes light the tapers and the crucifer stands ready, waiting for the precise moment to lift the cross and start up the aisle. The procession moving past pews packed with parishioners and their family members home from afar along with those who only show up twice a year. Our voices, perhaps tired from earlier services, but still singing festive anthems with gusto. The banks of poinsettias and candlelit Silent Night and a few of us altos bravely scaling the heights of the soprano descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

This year, hearing those carols through phone and laptop speakers will have to suffice, and I suppose in time I will become less anxious and more adept at singing virtually. We’ve ordered Bluetooth earphones that may fit me better, and I could (and should) practice more frequently to keep my voice in condition. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me I can get used to almost anything. It’s also taught me how much I took the gift of singing with others for granted. I’m tired of singing alone into a machine. I will be so grateful when I can raise my folder, take a deep breath, and see reflected in the eyes of my fellow singers, the joy of once again making music together.

My Grandparents’ Creche

I always put up two creches at Christmas. The one in our family room came from a 1960’s Woolworth’s, where it was displayed in the same aisle as the plastic window candles and aluminum trees. Some of the figures still have price tags on the bottom that say twenty-nine cents. A few of the lambs are amputees and the original cardboard stable has long since disintegrated, but this is the creche I grew up with, and I still cherish its delightful tackiness.

My other creche is a work of art, one of the things I would save if the house was on fire. My grandmother “did ceramics” as it was referred to in those days, and hand-painted each figurine in exquisite detail. She dedicated countless hours of tedious work to create a gift for my grandfather who built the stable. The wooden box he designed is as solid and unblemished today as it was that very first Christmas. Inscribed on the bottom of each piece are their initials, like teenage lovers’ names carved into a tree, “ALD to JDD, 1959.”

On Christmas Eve, I would walk a block down the street to their home, carefully remove the baby Jesus from his bed of tissue paper in a Carolina Soap box, and gently place him in the manger, followed by my grandparents and me standing in front of the fireplace singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As staunch Episcopalians, we believed in liturgical correctness, so the baby never arrived in the manger before Christmas Eve, and the Magi were always strategically placed, approaching from the east.

After my grandparents passed away, the creche moved to my father’s home. Even in his last years, he insisted that it be retrieved from the cupboard beside the stairs and set up in the same place as its predecessor from the five-and-ten. And when the creche finally came to me, I wept as I placed Mary and Joseph in that simple wooden stable on my grandmother’s desk, now in my own living room.

Every December, when I unwrap each piece, I marvel at the rich purple colors of the kings’ robes, the almost lifelike eyes of the human figures, the wonder on the face of the kneeling shepherd boy who has earned a place of honor inside the stable itself. I run my hands over the texture of the saddle on the camel, the pointed wings of the angel with her “Gloria in Excelsis” banner, the empty indentation of the manger bed, waiting for its holy occupant. I place that same soap box with the words “Baby Jesus” scrawled on the lid in my grandmother’s handwriting, into a cubby of her desk where it waits, like the rest of us, during the dark weeks of Advent.

I picture my grandmother, in her ceramics room filled with paint-spattered card tables, crumpled rags, and brushes soaking in peanut butter jars. I imagine her sitting there in her smock, deciding on the colors, using that miniscule brush to outline the eyes of the figures and the words on the angel’s banner, applying the extra coat of glaze to give a sheen to the animals’ coats. I think of my grandfather, puttering in his basement workshop after a long day of seeing patients, selecting just the right pieces of wood, cutting, and sanding and nailing them together to create a perfect miniature stable. I think of the joy and pride they must have experienced on Christmas Eve 1959, seeing their gift to God and each other, displayed for the first time between two miniature evergreen trees on the mantel above their fireplace.

The people who celebrated Christmas with me as a child are gone now. But in the ritual of the creche, I feel their presence. Their hands guide me as I unfold and smooth the green fabric that goes under the stable, position the light to shine directly down on the manger bed, and make sure the angel is properly anchored on her little hook. In that creche, I smell the pine branches and the wood smoke from the fireplace as I walk into my grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, wearing my new velvet dress with the pink rose, ready for my first ever midnight mass. I taste the eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg in my grandmother’s antique crystal punch cup. I hear my grandfather’s slightly off-key singing and years later, my dad’s weakened voice on the phone, asking when I’m going to stop by and set up the manger for him.

I spend Christmas Eves now surrounded and loved by other people. People for whom my grandmother’s creche is simply a beautiful decoration. We arrive home from church each year energized by the glorious music and the excitement of Christmas coming once again. We chatter about the service and what time to have dinner the next day, as I pour cups of eggnog spiked with rum and set out plates of homemade cookies.

Before I go to bed, I walk into the darkened living room, lit only by window candles and the lights surrounding the manger. On top of the desk is a picture of my smiling grandparents, standing in front of a Christmas tree, arms tightly clasped around each other’s waists. I still miss them. I close my eyes and thank them for magical childhood Christmases and for teaching me that this creche, made with their own loving hands, is at the center of it all.

I reach into the cubby in the desk and pull out the Carolina Soap box. I remove the baby from its tissue paper womb, and my hands, now speckled with age spots like my grandmother’s, once again place the tiny baby in the manger as I quietly sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

I Need an Advent Calendar this Year

I think I might need an Advent calendar this year. Not those lovely ones made for adults that hold tiny bits of chocolate or miniscule bottles of wine behind each door. I mean the old-fashioned kind, with doors opening to reveal a simple toy or Christmas decoration printed on tissue thin paper—the ones that don’t provide a tangible reward for getting through another day. The kind with beautiful snow scenes showing rosy-cheeked children gathered around the village Christmas tree or manger scene.

When I was a child, Advent calendars taught me patience and the value of waiting. Now that I’m many years a grown-up, I need to be reminded of those lessons. This has been a hard year of waiting. Waiting for our political issues to resolve, waiting for relief from the terrible scourge of this virus and as the holidays approach, waiting for the time when we can once again gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate and break bread together.

This year’s holiday season looms like one long Advent. In order to be safe, we must keep our lamps lit to prepare for the coming of better times and they will come, but not as quickly as we would like. But for now, we have to rely on opening doors to the simplest pleasures—an outdoor visit with old friends on a balmy November day. An unexpected gift of freshly baked bread from neighbors we barely know. A new appreciation for having fewer places to go, although I long for the days when we can once again roam freely without fear of infecting ourselves and others.

I will cook a small Thanksgiving dinner this week, we’ll deliver it to a relative who lives nearby and then all eat together via Zoom. There will still be the smell of roasting turkey and grace said and conversation at our respective tables. We will still decorate for Christmas in our usual over-the-top way even if no one sees it except us and the pets and the neighbors. We will surround ourselves with beautiful Christmas music although the day I can once again put on choir vestments or concert attire and sing with others will be one of pure joy. We will still celebrate Christ’s birth although this year it will be from our living room in front of the TV instead of in a packed candlelit church.

I see all of these little scraps of normalcy as gifts hidden behind the Advent calendar doors. They’re just pictures and reminders of the real thing, but they are enough to get us through and give us hope. I still think I want a calendar this year, though, because every time I open a door, it feels like progress toward something better.

November Perspective

Quiet Sunday, as most of them are these days. No rushing off to church and choir practice or drum corps rehearsal. A lot to process as we trim back bushes and shrubs and clean up pots of fading annuals which have given it their all since May. As the hibiscus and mandevilla continue to push out a few token blooms in the seventy-degree weather, it’s hard to believe we’ll be hanging Christmas lights in a few short weeks.

Recent days brought stress and shock and relief and joy all co-mingled together and sometimes changing by the minute. A sleepless night glued to the television watching election results. Constant worry about the impact of this raging virus. Talking with a friend who is dealing with her elderly father’s illness from 800 miles away, after burying her mother in June. Feeling grateful for another year of normal mammogram results, over which the shadow of my mother’s death from breast cancer always looms large. Cautious optimism that there will be different and better paths ahead for our country.

When the news broke on Saturday, I was sitting with two former teaching colleagues enjoying an outdoor lunch. One of us, someone I have known and respected for many years, said truly terrible things about the election. He spoke as calmly as if he were talking about the weather, I suppose assuming that we were all on the same page. The cruelty of his words took my breath away. I wanted to get up and leave or make a scene and shout back at him, “How could you be an educated person and caring teacher and say things like that?” His remarks went way beyond disappointment that his candidate didn’t win or that his side of the issues may not be supported. His words cut deeply, making ugly and false generalizations about entire groups of people.

I immediately changed the subject and we talked about music during Covid and dealing with aging parents and, to be honest, I don’t even remember a lot of the conversation because I was in such shock. It is one thing to experience hatred on our screens but quite another when it comes at us from across the table when we least expect it. I don’t know if not engaging was the right thing to do. Looking back, I wish I would have told him how much his words hurt me personally. He needed to know that. This business of justifying any twisting of the truth along with the blanket disparagement of anyone who does not agree with us as a means to an end is not the way to heal and grow as a country. Or as human beings.  

I’m writing on the porch the way I sometimes do in the spring and summer, except it’s November. Despite the balmy weather, winter birds cluster at the feeder and the goldfinches have exchanged their bright yellow plumage for drab gray-brown. The vegetable garden is bare except for a few cauliflower plants and a stalk or two of brussels sprouts. Colorful leaves still remain on some of the trees but the majority cling to our shoes as we traipse into the house. I am glad to see this year of illness, political rhetoric, tragic loss and violence, and blatant racism creep inexorably to its end. I cling to the hope that by the time spring returns again, we will have found a better way to be with each other. We must.