The Twelve Joys of Christmas:
The Joy of Song
*A guest reflection by Megan Adams
Editor's Note: Ben Camino was on a road trip yesterday, visiting his high school mentors, Father Walker, Father Davis, and Father Levy at the Madonna Residence for retired Oblate priests in San Antonio. OK, well he also slipped in dinner with high school buddy, Steve, and a boring old NBA game. That doesn't sound as meaningful though.
So, I needed someone to write a guest Joy of Christmas reflection. Also, frankly, I was a little sick of Ben's overbearing voice (can't imagine what y'all all feel). So I asked Megan Adams if she'd like to give it whirl. And, I think you'll agree if you're human, that it's a heartbreaking beautiful whirl. I had no writing guidelines except to write about the joy of song and include guts and blood. I've added a brief bio of Megan at the end of her piece, but, enough for now to say, she has an ear for language, a voice for song, and the soul of a highly-evolved mammal.
So, take it away Megan:
Christmas time is hard for me. Well, "the holidays" are hard. I’ll admit it. Singing during the holidays is even harder.
Especially when it feels like the only songs on the radio are "Last Christmas" and "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" over and over again.
My vision of the past, the “good old days,” of families gathered around a crackling fire singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," has been violently replaced by today’s families tackling each other in the Walmart parking lot over a Barbie doll to the tune of "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Mall parking lots overflow with moms, dads, friends hungry for anything that will appease the gifting gods. Greed, envy, and dissatisfaction have been sugarcoated with a sprinkle of holiday cheer, making everything seem okay.
But underneath, we’re all still hurting, making the aftermath of the holidays one of the most challenging times of the year. The false sense of belonging we get when purchasing the newest piece of technology must mean something deeper about our longings. We long to be together truly and deeply, not in some materialistic, superficial way.
And you’ve heard all of this before, right? We talk all the time about the true meaning of Christmas, the reason for the season, the importance of simplicity and the danger in going overboard. We talk about how love is the most important ingredient for a "happy holiday." And yet it persists, this ache that we cannot fill, this ache that we try to push away with stuff and more stuff. The stuff overwhelms the song. Heck, the songs overwhelm the song.
I scanned countless Christmas decorations as a cashier at a craft store over the holidays, the sound of "Holly Jolly Christmas" blaring in my ears eight billion times a day. Customers would sing along to "Jingle Bells," even as their credit cards got declined, their children screamed from the cart, their precious coupons had expired. It was more of an unconscious act I guess. They weren’t really thinking about the meaning of the words, their voices were off pitch, the tempo was delayed. And still they sang because what else was there to do? The Christmas Spirit and all that.
My sister and I sing together every Christmas, one of the few times we see each other each year--old hymns mostly, with some folky Christmas songs tossed in. "O Come O Come Emmanuel" being one of our favorites, right up there with "Silent Night," "Amazing Grace," and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Because our voices are so similar, I've got to admit that the harmonies echo through the halls of our house pretty beautifully. I’m not saying we’re star-worthy, but the melodies intertwine in a way that seems to mean something I can't describe. But I think I’ll always remember it for as long as I live.
Singing connects us, overshadowing the distance that separates us most of the year. We’ve both been through a lot throughout this season of discovering ourselves, most of which we’ve chosen not to share with the other. There has been heartbreak, confusion, loss, and despair. There has been questioning, disillusionment, and awakening. But in that moment, in that song, two souls meet.
The best song session I’ve ever been a part of was in an empty Cracker Barrel dining room. We asked the waitress if we could bring in a guitar. She was so cool, she said yes. Without anyone listening, except for the friend sitting across from me, I sang a song I had written from a very deep part of myself. I cry-moaned to the stars, pleading for relief from the lonely that had permeated every space in my soul, every word of the song. I ached in each and every bone, wondered if life was even worth it. I questioned and I doubted. And I sang.
Then I listened as my friend sang a song crying out for that same relief, moaning about the same soul chill. And, strangely, in that moment, we found joy. Not any sort of frolicking through the sun-patch happiness. Something more like . . . Joy. We connected in the depths. We learned each others songs and discovered they may have been the same one, just with different lyrics. And I hope God, or whoever is up there among the stars, called it good.
Song touches people at that spot where truth and beauty come together, that turbulent place where everything in this tragic world feels real and good and unimaginably difficult at the same time. Music, some music anyway, seems familiar to us even though we've never heard it before. It both awakens and sometimes satisfies (or at least touches) some kind of unspoken longing. It can somehow unlock the chain attaching us to our everyday problems, even if just for a moment.
I know I’m supposed to talk about the nativity and the birth of Jesus and all that, and I promise I’ll get there. But first, I want to look at another spot in the Bible--the scene in the prison cell with Paul and Silas (Book of Acts somwhere, google it).
In the middle of the night, the cells were probably cold and dark. Besides the moaning of the other prisoners, it was probably pretty quiet. Until two men started singing. The text doesn’t specify what song they sang. Perhaps it was a song of lament mixed with praise, like one of David’s psalms when he was hiding out in a cave from people who wanted to kill him. But whatever the song, it worked in an amazing way. At least according to the story.
The walls started shaking and chains became undone. The captives were free. That must have been some song. That story reminds me of a verse from one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Oh Holy Night.”
Chains shall he break,
for the slave is our brother
And in his name,
all oppression shall cease.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in God dear reader [Editor's Note: Editor inserted last two words], oppression ceasing sounds pretty good, right? And there’s a deeper hope in that line. It’s not a sunshiney, cute, ignore the sadness, "don’t worry be happy" line deliverance. It acknowledges the reality of the chains, acknowledges the slavery and the oppression. The abuse. But it also says that maybe it will end someday.
Now, I’m not saying that singing is the magical cure for all of life’s problems. Far from it. I just think there is so much beauty in being able to look life square in the eye, really staring it down, and responding in song.
Sometimes, though, we can’t respond in song. Or sometimes, all the songs start to sound the same. Every good thing feels pointless. The flavor of every little thing disappears.
A few months ago, I was overwhelmed by a belief that nothing I did would ever be good enough, that any love I had given or taken was wrong, that the world would be better off without me. I was sure that I had no one who cared about me, not really. The exhaustion, the ache, was unbearable. The soul chill insurmountable.
Music didn’t fix it this time, no matter how much I listened to. I dreaded waking up, wished for any kind of release, tried to drink away any semblance of self. And I ended up in the hospital, pleading with God or whomever to just take me up into the stars already.
As I lay in the creaky, crunchy hospital bed, still not dead, I heard the nurses in the hallway singing. Of course now I can’t remember the exact song, but I can remember their voices, hanging in the air like some kind of prayer I couldn’t pray for myself.
And maybe that’s what songs, at least some of them, do. Allow us to speak for those who cannot, pray for those who can’t believe, ache for those who ache. Those moments in the hospital room in the middle of the night were so beautiful, even though they hurt like hell. Because those two things can coexist, pain and beauty. In fact, they must.
Later, during my week-long stay in the psych ward, another song session took place. Simple, meaningful, amazing.
The other patients and I were eating yet another meal of mac and cheese and stale bread, the white walls staring back at us on all sides. All of a sudden, someone just mentioned a line of a pop song on accident and the room erupted. The song descended like a wave on the minds of everyone in the room and we all joined in, singing and laughing together at the sound of our disjointed voices becoming one. The choir of the crazies.
I have never heard a song so beautiful. Meth addicts, former prostitutes, abusers and the abused, suicidal survivors--all members of something larger than ourselves. Grateful, even for just that moment, to be alive. And to share a song.
Songs saves us (and, of course, can hurt us too, but that's not what I'm writing about). Despite our individual messes, we bleed the same blood, cry the same tears, hurt the same hurts, share the need for song.
When the music takes us out of ourselves, some amazing connections take place. Some holy moments happen. And in those other moments, when we ache alone, the memory of those holy moments and the hope that they will come again can keep us going.
Even now, as I write this, I lament the loss of so much this year, so much of this life. I lament loss of innocence as I mature and reflect, the loss of so many friendships in this transition time, the loss of depth in family connection. And I listen to Glen Hansard yell for me, Julia Stone mourn my loss alongside me. Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, and countless others - they seem to know what the empty feels like and they meet me there. Darkness is real, probably the realest thing I know right now. But song is one of the most powerful things I can think of to combat the darkness.
There’s a musical I must admit that I kind of hate called The King and I. But there’s a song in this musical about whistling when you’re afraid to make the darkness disappear. I always thought that was kind of stupid until I faced the darkness head on and the songs of the everyday saints in my life carried me. How bold it is to create music, songs of honest despair or songs of honest hope, when faced with something colossal and challenging. How bold, how courageous it seems to me now just to keep singing.
My favorite poet, John Keats, wrote a poem called "Ode on Melancholy" that elaborates on the idea that those who have the greatest capacity for sadness and suffering also have the greatest capacity for joy. He who can taste the deepest sweetness of joy can also see the sovereign majesty of melancholy in her holiest shrine. And although it hurts, although it seems unbearable at times, I think I want my life to reflect a song of depth, a refusal of the shallow.
Singing is breathing long and deep.
Singing is wonder vocalized.
Sometimes singing is an act of release, of reckless abandon--blasting some 80’s rock ballad and belting it out at the top of your lungs flying down the interstate. Sometimes singing is an act of trust--sharing some personal song lyrics with people who love you. Sometimes singing is an act of faith - praying through your guitar strings that the holes in your heart and other hearts would heal.
There at the manger (told you I'd get there), Mary probably sang a lullaby for her newborn baby. The Medieval Christians must have thought so, because they sure have lots of examples.
I guess this song could have been some combination of joy, release, trust, and faith. This baby, the object of her song, had been long awaited these past several months. Something so precious and yet not completely belonging to her. Something so fragile, so vulnerable, and yet, if the prophecies were true, so much more. Something so tiny and yet the Son of God.
I wonder what song she sang. She was probably afraid too. Afraid of how she would do as a mother. What it would be like for her son to grow up under the hated Roman occupation. Whether they would be able to provide for him given their humble means.
Of course, we can relate to that. We are afraid. Maybe we’re not holding the Savior of the world in our arms, but we do have countless things to fear in this world. The bills pile up as our bank account dwindles. War, prejudice, and hate surround us. Our kids learn how dark the world is as they become ever more a part of the humanity that populates it. Daily routines become manacles that tie us to a pace we never chose. Hurt happens. But that’s where the greatest songs are written, from that pain. Somehow, at least sometimes, they even wring joy out of that pain.
In this season of "post-holiday blues," of going back to the day-to-day routine, of wishing for change in a new year, may we be singers of light, singers of the darkest depths, singers of truth. May we find voices with which to sing songs that matter. May we allow the Joy of Song, like so many of the Joys of Christmas, touch us at the place where pain and hope meet.
The chains are real. The blues are not an illusion. But neither is the communion, the connection, the wonder of our songs.
BIO NOTE: Megan Adams can give no clear answer to the question of where she is from. She now lives in Indiana. She studied English literature at Taylor University. She works as a teaching assistant. Previously she interned at Exodus Refugees Immigration. And served dairy products at the Frisco (TX) Dairy Queen. She craves chocolate cake, the poetry of Keats, and the music of Julia Stone. Also Waffle House. She knows four chords, enough to write songs. She sometimes sings them if you are quiet enough to listen. She sometimes blogs at https://gonewiththesummerwind.wordpress.com/