We Need a Little Christmas

Recently, I walked into our spare bedroom in search of something, and there stood the music stand and the little gadget we used to hold our cell phones to record singing videos during the pandemic. I hope we never, ever have to do that again.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am ready for real holidays this year. It feels like it’s been too long since we’ve been able to enjoy December without conducting a home lab test every time we sneezed or coughed. 2020 was horrible. Sitting in front of the TV on Christmas Eve watching services being streamed to empty churches. Recording (with much angst and frustration) a few anthems at home so they could be uploaded to a video our Chorale produced since we couldn’t do a Christmas concert. Putting a still-warm Christmas dinner in plastic containers to take to a nearby relative, who was quarantined in her retirement community. Earnestly decorating the house even though no one was going to see it except my husband and me. And even last year, Covid was still very much here. We sang Christmas concerts masked and barely got them in before a resurgence of the virus that would have canceled our performances. We attended Christmas Eve church socially distanced and with masks but couldn’t sing in the choir because of a Covid outbreak. We were still cautious about going anywhere indoors with other people.

I know, what we experienced was minimal compared to those who lost loved ones and who fought the battle on the front lines of the medical and business community. But if nothing else, the pandemic holidays were a harsh reminder of how much we take for granted. How we assume that we’ll always be able to do whatever we choose and whatever we’ve always done before. Until we can’t.

So this year, I’m ready for all of it. Let’s haul out the holly and sing the Hallelujah Chorus and do whatever else brings the spirit of the season. For us, that means making plans and filling up our December calendar. We’re singing as often as we possibly can, even if it means still donning the occasional mask. We’re attending concerts and saying yes to invitations and welcoming friends and family into our home again.

But the Covid scars remain—the plastic screens at check-outs, the mask requirements at medical facilities, the number of people still contracting the virus which is, thankfully for most, more of an inconvenience than a crisis. All of the holiday hoop-la is still tinged with the memory of the last two years. Which makes me appreciate the season all the more—from its over-the-top commercialism to the humbling and profound faith journey through the darkness of Advent to the light of Christmas.

This year, more than ever, we need a little Christmas.

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.

Grand Pause

I haven’t sung since the second week of March. Well, that’s not completely true since I recorded (with much angst and frustration) a piece for a virtual choir and a few hymns for a friend’s church service, but that’s it. This is the longest stretch in my adult life that I haven’t sung. When I try to sing along with the hymns and familiar liturgy of live-streamed worship, my voice sounds the way I feel, which is miserable and sad. Those of us who sing are stuck in one Grand Pause—a seemingly eternal fermata of silence.

I know there are far worse situations in the midst of this pandemic than not being able to sing. I know there is unspeakable suffering and catastrophic financial hardship and whining about the loss of music-making seems petty and self-serving. But until it was taken away, I don’t think I realized what a huge role singing with others plays in my spiritual support system. Choir is part of who I am, and I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling.

I miss being shoulder to shoulder on the risers. I miss the intensity of watching the director and keeping my head up out of the music and fighting that fourth line D which is my break note and feeling the hair raise on my  arms at the sound of the organ introduction to a favorite hymn. I even miss the annoying stuff–the hokey church anthems that inspire eye-rolls, or the dress rehearsals where your feet go numb and your shoulders ache from hours of standing and holding a folder. Right now, I’d give just about anything to sing a lame anthem or endure a grueling dress rehearsal.

And yes, I read the optimistic posts about virtual choirs and being creative and singing with masks and rehearsing outdoors but the harsh reality is we’re stuck in this nightmare until there is a vaccine. That which so many of us love either as participants or listeners and which has lifted us up out of the muck so many times is now forbidden because it’s dangerous. Take the hymnals out of the pews and don’t even hum along behind that mask. No singing with your favorite group in a sold-out stadium filled with adoring fans. No live singing for weddings or funerals or even family birthdays. I simply can’t  wrap my head around that. The loss of the human voice raised in song, whether it’s on the Broadway stage or in the elementary classroom, leaves us bereft and grieving.

Part of what makes this so hard is the not knowing. If we knew that as of a certain date, this would be over, it would be a little easier. We could check off the days on our calendar, like a child anxiously waiting for Christmas. But right now that’s not a realistic expectation. We remain stuck in this purgatory, hoping and praying for a vaccine or a treatment that will eliminate the fear of creating and enjoying live music.

A Grand Pause in music indicates the musician is to rest indefinitely. Everything stops, and the choir stands frozen, waiting for that pivotal moment when the conductor’s arms come down and his or her face lights up and we are released to sing again. The music always comes back after a Grand Pause, no matter how long it lasts.

Should Have Been

My husband and I should have been singing our spring choral concerts this weekend. Should have been describes all of our lives right now. Should have been getting married, running a business, taking the trip, going to the gym. Should have been visiting family, watching a ball game, graduating from high school, dining in a favorite restaurant. The list, like this quarantine time, is endless.

Our calendars are virtually empty except for the harsh lines crossing out the rehearsals, meetings and  appointments that comprise our retirement life. As a Type A person who constantly looks ahead to the next thing, seeing that blank page on the calendar is disconcerting. I feel cast adrift without the anchor of having to be somewhere. I’m grateful to not be one of those who must provide care or food or community safety, on whom our survival depends. I realize it’s a privilege to sit in my nice suburban home and navel-gaze about not having enough to do, but it’s an odd feeling for someone who thrives on showing up and fulfilling obligations.

So as my world shrinks, I try to adjust my vision. Those who know me know I am not one for waxing poetic about spiritual practices. I have a low tolerance for the word “mindful” and don’t even get me started on  “intentional.” But I will admit to having developed a deeper appreciation for that which is right in front of me, that would have just whizzed by the window in my frantic rush to be somewhere I should have been.

The hummingbirds who graciously showed up the day after I hung the feeders. The long-simmering essay I finally submitted to a publication where it will probably be rejected, but I know it’s some of my best work and will eventually find a home. My almost child-like delight in walking into the dining room to see how my vegetable seedlings are doing. The elderly and chronically ill dog we keep alive with expensive drugs and gourmet meals who rewards us by toddling out of his crate every morning, waiting to be lifted into our bed for a snuggle. A good read on the porch in the afternoon and Netflix at night without guilt. An out of town shopping trip to a favorite grocery store, a walk in the local park, a deliciously gossipy two-hour phone call with a church friend.

These small things are life rafts keeping me afloat in the unrelenting tidal wave of the pandemic. I find myself grabbing the phone every time I hear a push alert from the local TV station, thinking, “My God, what now?” The constant bombardment of grim statistics followed by everyone shouting at each other on social media keeps me in a roiling sea of fear and anxiety and yet it’s like an addiction. I crave the fix of the latest news.

Tonight my husband and I will order take-out meals from a local restaurant and settle into our TV chairs. We may stream The King and I from Lincoln Center or watch another episode of The Wire. It’s a far cry from stepping into formal concert clothes and singing exquisite music we worked months to prepare and that makes me sad. I miss all the should-have-beens, but they will come back. In the meantime, appreciation for what we do have, for what makes our lives richer and better right now, is enough.