Every year on this day I think of this song:
P.S. I took this photo several years ago on a hilltop outside of Amherst at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
There comes a certain time each winter when I think of New England, and an old love who lives there, and this melancholy and beautiful song — written by Joni Mitchell and sung here by Tom Rush — starts drifting through my thoughts:
I don’t quite get why people think Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is celebratory — or that it has anything to do with religion. It’s a song about heartbreak. It’s a song about the pain of love. Yes, there’s beauty — in the song, and even in the pain and heartbreak that often accompany love — but mostly this song is just powerfully sad and deeply moving.
Just now I was thinking about someone who’s dear to me, and this song echoed in my thoughts along with a madrigal of memories, and (just in case anyone’s taking notes!) I found myself thinking I’d like to request that this lovely version by John Cale be played at my funeral someday…along with Take 4 of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the live version of “Moon River” performed by Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton…
Some warm thoughts of love provide the soundtrack on a very cold winter’s night, courtesy of the legendary Stanley Brothers:
One of the most hauntingly beautiful — and awfully sad — songs ever written or sung by human voice.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to try to find a way to never listen to this song ever again…
All the Christmases roll down like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky…and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out what I can find.
But one Christmas morning was unlike the other Christmas dawns. We were awake early, of course, for my children always awoke early in the excited rush to find their gifts beneath the tree, so this was not unlike any other Christmas Day. But there had been a snowstorm overnight, and after expressing relief that the blizzard had not kept Santa from his appointed rounds, all three children – 11 years, 7 years and 4 years old – agreed to bundle up against the wind and cold and join me on a walk down our snow-hushed country road down to the frozen creek downhill from our home.
The snow had stopped and the wind had stilled, but no cars were on the road, and the plows had yet to stir, and so we walked through a world turned white upon white, and then we reached the stream. We were at the still point of the turning world. We were at the place of the nativity. We stood and looked in silence. And then the 7-year-old girl smiled and gushed, “Look, Dad! It’s a winter wonderland!”
No Christmas before or after was more perfect than that. But another came very close.
That Sunday before Christmas, I watched as you sang with a church choir. And your joy and beauty filled my heart as if I’d heard a heaven-sent chorus sent just to sing for me. That night, at a Christmas party, you made sure to wear the perfume I’d given you for your birthday. Next day, at dinner, you made sure to wear the glittery earrings I’d given you for Christmas. And that day we drank white wine from the fancy crystal goblets I’d bought – one for me, one for you, only for special occasions…
Then that silent night we went to bed. And I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I fell asleep, and the lullaby was your quiet breathing as you lay softly by my side.
My great and beautiful friend, the much-lamented Robert Lax, wrote this in the prologue to his masterwork “Circus of the Sun:”
And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere:
all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed
beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love
had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a
sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof
rose a fountain.
Bob, in his life and in his words, strove to lead a simple life of love and devotion and peace. I’m thinking of this today, two days before Christmas, because I’m very aware this year of the simple joys and gifts I possess and will celebrate during this Yuletide.
I think that one reason I’m so grateful this year is that it feels to me like the whole goddamned world is falling apart, disintegrating, like we’re barreling toward oblivion at warp speed and pieces are blowing away as if our heat shield has failed.
But the other day I sat in a church – not a typical place for me to be — and watched and listened as a choir sang traditional Christmas carols. My eyes filled up with tears. Part of it was feeling connected to a nice group of people who are very human in both their frailty and their collective strength, and very welcoming to a relative stranger. Part of it was just feeling the simple power of the hope that still resides in Christmas. And part of it was that I couldn’t take my eyes off one of the altos, who sang with such heartfelt joy that it made me love her even more.
Mostly, though, it has to do with this, which my friend Bob knew and which he taught me: Love is the beginning and the end. It’s as simple as all that.
So I count my blessings…
I’m alive, and in pretty good health. I’ve got three great children, each of them remarkable in their own way. I have caring, devoted, supportive friends. My mother’s going on 81 years old and still shovels snow from her sidewalk and plants a garden every year and still calls me “Nicky.” I’ve got an absolutely beautiful 15-month-old granddaughter who can’t stop smiling and waves to me when we Skype and blows kisses to me over the phone when she can’t see me but can hear my voice. And, no, I don’t have enough money, and, no, the publishing world has not yet recognized my genius, but someday I will, and someday they will, and more important anyway than fame or fortune is the gift of being in love with an incredibly beautiful and gentle woman who loves me in return, and that we’ll be together for Christmas this year.
So, Merry Christmas! I hope you’ll find time to count your blessings, too. Here’s Diana Krall to put you in the mood: