A week ago, I was trying to come up with something meaningful to post on or very close to Christmas when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a beautiful message from author Sara Hoagland Hunter that seemed just the thing! Sara wrote wanting me to see that she’d mentioned my blog in the Christmas edition of the semi-regular newsletter she writes "for thought leaders and creative types." I’m pasting the text of said newsletter below, not because it sings my praises, but because I think it conjures up a wonderful medley of images and ideas. I hope one strain of Sara’s song sings for you, whether you treat your Dec. 25th as a religious holiday, a secular celebration, or a day away from the office.
What follows is the text of Sara’s newsletter for December 20, 2007 (thanks, Sara!):
No matter how cheap the plastic or how many times I have to retape the darned things to the sill, I find little as satisfying as lighting the white candles in the bedroom windows on these short December afternoons. I’m sure I should rig timers, which would be more efficient, just as I should figure out computer labeling for my Christmas cards, but I don’t. There are myriad reasons for this, including lack of time and skill, but the real reason is I don’t want to be removed from the process. The lamplighting is a time to reflect on the day. It’s a twilight time of “eloquent silence.” The laborious addressing of each card with red flair pen and dubious penmanship serves a similar purpose. It allows me time to think about what each friend has brought to me this year…a lot.
“Eloquent silence” is not my own phrase but it’s one I try to make my own, especially at this time of year. Mary Baker Eddy spoke of it in an article for the Ladies Home Journal a century ago. When the editors asked her to share how she celebrated Christmas, she wrote: “I love to observe Christmas in quietude, humility, benevolence, charity, letting good will towards man, eloquent silence, prayer, and praise express my conception of Truth’s appearing.”
During the same era, another spiritual leader from our Boston area, Phillips Brooks – rector of both Harvard University and Trinity Church – wrote this line in his beautiful Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately (a fact that will no doubt cause my husband great rejoicing). I thought about it when one of you who lives in Norway wrote: “I continue to ride, year round, so we are in the cold, dark period now, the horses have great big studded shoes and we use miners lights attached to our helmets. It is beautiful – crossing snowy fields under a starry sky – trees sparkling white. But also freezing, slippery, and rather dangerous. I love it!”
I thought about silence again while attending the impressive memorial service at Cathedral of St. John the Divine for one of my favorite children’s book writers, Madeleine L’Engle. Author of one of the most formative books for kids in the 1960s, A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle was also know for her essays on spirituality. Her oversubscribed writers’ retreats often began with her statement, “What a beautiful day for… silence.”
Even those who make noise for a living require stretches of silence to be able to hear the notes amidst the chaos. I loved the stratospherically talented Alicia Keyes’ admission, in an interview with Tyra Banks, that she had to escape the noise and craziness of her success by buying herself a ticket to Egypt. After a while, alone at the peak of a pyramid, music poured out of her, as she sang at the top of her lungs, renewed. I can’t help but think her incredible new album is a direct result of that creative retreat.
Within our own readership, composer/musician/orchestra leader Bill Elliott recently arranged Beyonce’s opener “Over the Rainbow” and Tony Bennett’s closing “White Christmas” for the CBS special “Movies Rock,” a tribute to music in the movies. His Berklee College of Music students were duly impressed but were apparently even more awed by a field trip to a Holiday Pops rehearsal at our own Symphony Hall. Empty of an audience, the venerable building reverberated with the richness of a European cathedral. As if that weren’t enough, the four complete sections of the Tanglewood chorus, rotated separately through the demanding month-long schedule, were rehearsing in unison that day. Bill described his students as “slackjawed” at the surround sound of 260 voices caroling from the first and second balconies.
To punctuate your eloquent silences, I not only recommend Alicia Keyes’ As I Am album but also Duke Levine’s new instrumental release Beneath the Blue. Modest Boston sideman to the stars, Duke most recently toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aimee Mann. He is one of the most superb string pickers (guitar, mandolin, mandola) I’ve ever witnessed in a session. For upbeat, holiday gift fare, treat someone to YouTube- launched pop star Colby Caillat or the Boyz II Men Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA album.
Other creative works I’m giving this year include the newly released DVD The Namesake, a universally acclaimed film directed by the effervescent, articulate, and brilliant world citizen and filmmaker, Mira Nair. I’m also giving the Planet Earth series to all ages. For show-biz fans, I am giving three autobiographies: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, Michael Palin’s diaries of the Monty Python years (Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years), and the 1997 book The Name Above the Title by It’s a Wonderful Life director Frank Capra. If you ever need children’s book suggestions or information and can’t make it to Wellesley Booksmith, read ShelfTalker by our hometown star, Alison Morris, Publishers Weekly’s children’s book blogger. She’s as charming and informative online as in person.
As for me, I will be re-reading my favorite Christmas story – second only to Linus’s child-voice recitation of Luke’s gospel in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – Truman Capote’s "A Christmas Memory." In the final autobiographical scene he lies in an Alabama field with his closest childhood friend, an outcast, elderly aunt, flying the beautiful kites they have made each other for Christmas. To me, the scene has always been reminiscent of the Bethlehem shepherds beholding something new and glorious in the midnight sky over the same silent hillsides they’d known their whole lives. As the kites dance and dip in the breeze, the woman has a sudden, joy-filled realization. “I’ve always thought that a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord…But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown himself…just what they’ve always seen was seeing Him. I’d be happy to leave the world with today in my eyes.”
May your today includ
eloquent silences, patience in store lines, and a little bit of grace on the roads. As Phillips Brooks said, “Greatness, in spite of its name, appears not to be so much a certain size as a certain quality in human lives. It may be present in lives whose range is very small.”
However tiny the wattage, our candles in the window are piercing the night.