Something old and something new

Out with the old

“Black and white movies are boring,” I heard classmates say.

“Shakespeare is boring,” it goes on.

“Poetry is boring,” and on and on.

Oftentimes it isn’t the thing itself that’s boring, it’s the idea that the things that are unfamiliar and old.

Old. Dated. Not trending.

Out with the new?

On one side we have those who will tell us, “In my days, we respected our elders” or “We knew how to talk to people” or “We didn’t have all this trash in the movies” and so on.

The default for some is that the tried and true is the way to go, and it’s all been downhill since the 1960s.

What media do you consume?

Records, radio, CDs, or Spotify? DVDs, cable television or Netflix? Books, magazines, blogs, Audible?

What visual communications do you see?

Oil paintings in museums, oil paintings in galleries, watercolors in antique shops, or calligraphy in pop-up shops? Advertisements on billboards, in newspapers, or on Instagram?

You’re reading this, I venture to guess you lead towards the older media, good ol’ tactile, stain your fingers with freshly printed ink newsprint, or you appreciate the sentiment, so the value of the classics is probably not one that needs arguing for you. Perhaps if I made a case for modern works that will take a bit longer.

I will not say either/or.

Our lives are better with art, music, and reading. But which art? Which music? What type of reading or what genres?

The list of books I want to read is so long, I tend to stick to the ones that earned their good reputation over the decades. But I would miss out if I left it at that.

At the Benedict XVI Institute Lenten Prayer Service, composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca said that modern compositions can complement Renaissance music. I do not know music theory, so I scheduled a phone call with La Rocca to ask him more about what he meant.

He explained that in the evolution of tonality, we moved from one singer to two singers producing different notes, eventually to the Renaissance with polyphony, a multitude of voices. That multitude can sing in harmony, but with the multitude, the composer carefully introduced a little dissonance. That dissonance is, in shorthand, sometimes painted as a bit of darkness, a bit of bad, with the good.

Time went on and there were strict aesthetic standards about how much dissonance was allowed and in what way.

Imagine mapping this idea onto emotion.

A simple life holds simpler emotions. As time goes on, so grows the complexity and our understanding of what we feel. Society allows some emotions like grief, but whether or not the blues are seen as normal is somewhat cultural.

Come the 20th century and La Rocca explained the field broke wide open as to what was musically acceptable. While that led to all kinds of John Cage experimentation, it also meant that those composers looking to the past could bring those ideas of Renaissance music to the present, with the wide open field of dissonance.

Is it better? Were they just blind back then?

No, La Rocca explains.

What we heard as engaging or not particularly startling might have jarred the ears of those Renaissance composers to distraction. But, perhaps, La Rocca proposes, because of what we as a world have experienced, the world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so much more, we moderns may have a different capacity or appetite for the dissonance.

Maybe we’re already carrying the dark emotions of sorrow, grief, or anxiety, and maybe they need an expression. They can do this still within a framework of beauty.

I think back to the artwork by Louisa Benhissen.

Her paintings displayed great technical skill and beauty. The subject, as a social portrait, sought to bring expression to something that might be seen as less beautiful than a Renaissance masterpiece, but then again, part of what she portrays comes from a willingness to see the whole picture, to paint on site, capturing the color, the attitude, and the nuances of what she sees. Maybe this was distasteful at certain times, but maybe it’s what we need to see now.

Something old and something new

There is value in visiting museums to see the old masters or to look at books of classic artwork. And there is value in going to new galleries, meeting the artists, and hearing them speak about their work. The same with the music. The same with books.

It is harder to sort through, undoubtedly, as it would have been in those Renaissance days, but like curating a home, we curate the mind, old with the new, traditional with innovation, for a worldview that is fuller and more complete, and therefore more whole and more beautiful.

Preparing for Christmas

The south end of our living room is a bump out with four windows, a narrow sunbathed section we use for homeschooling, lining 100-year-old desks in a row. To the right of this section is the front door and porch, on which one of the windows overlooks. Yesterday, on that porch, with a rusty, undersized hammer, I stood on top of a child’s step stool and pounded nails into the wood, then hung thick Christmas garland from the awning and posts of the porch, swagging it across the top. Today I hung a silver star from the center.

Christmas garland

Little by little, I decorate the house for Christmas.

Advent is four weeks long. Time enough. I meet people or hear about people whose husband’s insist they wait until just before Christmas, so as not to mix up the time of preparation for the time of festivity. I encounter people who decorate the day after Thanksgiving, who argue Christmas begins December 1, and who would like to make the case that Christmas trees should be year-round, evergreen if you will.

As I place an artificial tree on a shelf, I remember the year I arranged every Christmas decoration we owned the day after Thanksgiving because there was no telling how much we’d be home that year of hospital stays. Contemplating the debate of when to decorate, I shrug my shoulders and go back to my boxes, gently unpacking, tenderly remembering the stories behind the decor.

Today, in “Seeking God’s Face” by Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), I read

“Perhaps we ought to celebrate Advent by allowing the signs of this special time to penetrate freely into our hearts without resisting them in any way. We should also perhaps let ourselves be made warm by them without asking difficult questions and then, full of trust, accept the immeasurable goodness of the Child who made the mountains and hills sing and transformed the trees of the wood into a song of praise.”

So let’s do it. The early longing for lights and flavors and nostalgia hearken to a longing deep inside us for something beautiful, something transcendent that surpasses the cares of today. Don’t do it so much that you’re tired of it by the time Christmas comes, that is, on December 25, but just enough.

Go slowly.

Savor the time of Christmas preparation.

Shop in person.

Locally. With a friend. And hot apple cider. Have your shopping list, a list of people you are shopping for and see what you find, serendipitously.

Listen to the music you like.

Seasonal does not have to mean the same thing for everyone. Some of my friends are listening to Handel’s Messiah. We’re listening to the Christmas albums by Big Bag Voodoo Daddy and singing old-school Advent and Christmas hymns.

Find some traditional recipes, either traditional from your family or your culture or different culture that you’re drawn to. We make Russian Tea Cakes, also called Mexican Wedding Cakes, gingerbread cookies, and Spritz.


No kids in the home? No matter! Here are some simple projects.

Dehydrate some oranges in the oven or a dehydrator.

Poke ‘em with a needle and thread and hang them on the tree or garland. Discard after the season. My children would say you can eat these at the end of the season, too. I leave that to your judgment.

Collect pine cones.

Set out. Get fancy and spray paint with a little gold or silver for a flourish.

Paint a walnut gold.

Walnuts ready for a Christmas craft

Hot glue a loop of twine to the top. Hang from the tree or garland. You can save, eat or discard at the end of the season.

Christmas tree with painted walnut ornaments

This year we’re planning to add painted wood ornaments to the mix.

After talking with an artist at the Carnegie Arts Center Artisan Market last month, I have an idea for painting “ornaments” on circular disks of wood.

Use evergreens.

You can get free evergreens from Christmas tree lots and make your own wreaths or garland. Tie them together with green florist wire. Garnish with foraged greenery or wintry berries (also ask permission if it isn’t your house).

Advent wreath with collected greens

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to it all unless you’re drained of joy because of the muchness of the Christmas season.

The dark emotions of sadness, grief, and loneliness, can also be present, even in moments of joy. The joy possible in this season is not a fluffy sort of happiness, but the lasting kind that has the power to withstand human suffering. Remember the Christmas truce. Remember the stories you have heard. Remember the original story that started it all.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

No Holiday without Ghosts

In San Francisco

I park by valet now. It took a while to get used to it, but since they built the Chase Center across the street from the hospital, valet became the only option for parking during our routine UCSF appointments. That means, a drive around the hospital and clinic building to get to the correct entrance to drop off our car and, yesterday, that meant seeing the enormous Chase Center Christmas tree through the back window.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked him. Eagerly, he said, “yes.”

The air was crisp and cool.

We walked along the pavement darkened by morning rain and felt the breeze cut through our inadequate clothing. After half a block I asserted my motherly authority and made him put his coat over his thin cotton sleeves.

As we walked up to the corner, his brisk steps quickened. “There it is!” I pointed, smiling with delight as he jumped up and down.

I walked faster to keep up with him as we crossed the street. He grinned and squealed as only six -almost- seven-year-old boys can. “It’s so big!” he gushed.

After a look and a couple of photos, he was ready to escape the cold and we walked back. Waiting on the street corner to cross, my mind flashed back to the many times I stood on that corner alone, walking from Family House each morning to see my son at the hospital.

It was cold in those days, too.

Each time this year, vivid memories return of the days of December passing, counting down, wondering how long we would stay, seeing the floors empty out as staff began their holiday vacations. I bought a small Christmas tree and a set of ornaments for the hospital room; I wove finger garland to decorate his crib. My parents purchased battery-operated lights. His room was decorated, in case we stayed two days longer.

Those memories don’t leave me.

The sadness, grief and fear all associated with the past and the reality of the present do not leave me. This season of Advent, I am reading “Seeking God’s Face,” a collection of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI for the year, and “Healing Through Dark Emotions” by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended me to by a counselor I met through palliative care, six, almost, seven years ago.

Both invite the reader to turn towards the difficulty of sadness or grief, the silence of Advent, the forced stop of illness. Both say, there is something here to be discovered. Within these weeks leading us to Christmas, lighting one candle at a time, dispelling darkness gradually as the nights themselves grow darker and colder, I recall the last line of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

Dana Gioia from “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh”

My counselor taught me we only can keep going in life when we make space for both the dark and light emotions, or as Greenspan says when we invite grief to pull up a chair.

When we crossed the street, the breeze whipping our cheeks to a healthy pink, I felt not only the moment before me but the depth within me of how far back that moment reaches to those lonely mornings, those mornings with a sort of agonizing hope that we would soon go home and be reunited. It reaches all the way back into my broken heart and comes out again in the immensity of that Christmas tree and utter delight at my child jumping around it, who once lay listless on a hospital bed.

This is the holiday season for those who have known sadness and come out on the other side able to share its story.

We may not frolic on own, we may grow quiet in reflection, we may step away for a moment to cry. The joy is there, it just looks different, but we feel it, deeper than we could imagine as it comes to us wrapped in the trimmings of gratitude and a prayer that the good times may continue, tied with an understanding that they may not.

Be merciful to those who suffer this holiday season.

Pull up a chair for the ghosts they carry with them. Sit with them and hear their stories. I thank you for listening to mine.