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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Gift of the Magi

Do you all know P.J. Lynch? He's done illustrations for lots of children's books, such as The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, and he's also apparently collaborated on a book of Irish myths and legends, something I could totally go for. I was doing some Christmas shopping at Barnes and Noble a few nights ago (shocker), and I came across O. Henry's story, The Gift of the Magi, done with P.J. Lynch's illustrations. If you're not sure what to get for that niece or nephew, or really anyone (I am a firm believer in giving kids' books to adults), do yourself and them a favor and go get this one. The combination of O. Henry's little side conversations he has with his readers, his excellent word choices and his fondness for his characters, coupled with the warm and gently beautiful illustrations, makes for a delightful read. Some of my favorite bits and pieces (the first one, admittedly, because it thematically ties in so nicely with my previous post):
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating. (That's for you, Mary Powers.)
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had Kind Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends -- a mammoth task. 
"Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered, but nobody could ever count my love for you." Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction.

So, yes. Go buy the book. Or buy five copies of it. And get The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey while you're at it. Merry Christmas, friends!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why Comedies Make Us Sad

I remember a friend saying once that he never feels happy at Easter or Christmas, and that he gets inappropriately joyful during Lent. And I know what he meant! I realize how petulant this might sound, but I can't remember the last time I didn't feel let down at Christmas. "Is this all? Surely there must be something else." Yes, childish a thought it might well be, but I will venture to protect my dignity by saying I'm actually hitting on something deep in that dissatisfaction. And while I do experience some joy on Easter, and there have occasionally been giddy-happy Easters (really only one comes to mind), I usually feel much more at home on Good Friday and often do get that sense of a big, giant let-down come Easter Sunday.

Gillian Welch is one of my all time favorite musicians. She has a dark sort of heavy low voice and sings a lot of depressing bluegrass songs, which is why people usually turn up their noses when I say, "Oh my gosh! You don't know Gillian Welch? You have to listen to this." They listen to 30 seconds of her with a wrinkled nose and a frown, at which point I stop casting my pearls. One of her songs (not actually one of my favorites, but this one is, if you'd like to try not being a swine) has a verse in it that pretty much sums up my whole attitude about tragedies:

Now there's something good in a worried song
For the trouble in your soul.
For a worried man's been a long time down,
Down in a deep dark hole.

Now even if you don't like her voice, can we at least agree she's dead on here? There is nothing more obnoxious when you're in the pits than cheerful people. If we're feeling sad and out of it, sometimes the appropriate thing to do is wallow. Yes, under certain conditions, I approve of wallowing. And the best way to wallow is to find other wallowers. Go have "a good cry," with a marked emphasis on good.

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (framed with Gillian Welch in my house; I always think of them together)

I'm going to go a step further, and this is where you all might take issue with my position (as so many of my friends have already in conversation). Even when I'm on top of the moon, I get that little voice niggling in the back of my head saying such helpful things as, "Enjoy it while it lasts, Ellen, cause you know what's just around the corner. Everything will be back to its usual self before long." This, in short, is why comedies never really do it for me. And I'm talking about comedy in that sometimes-forgotten sense that the Greeks and other playwrights meant it; it doesn't have to be something silly -- it just has to end with order instead of chaos. I'm not saying I never cheer when the hero gets his lady-love, or that I sulk in the corner when Maleficent is thwarted and defeated (Sleeping Beauty is superb, by the way; the hero conquers "All the powers of hell" with the "Sword of Truth" allowing that "evil die and good endure.") But there is, nonetheless, that something niggling that also says, "Yes, that's all as it should be, and, you're not there yet." Comedies make us feel lonesome and dissatisfied, somewhere underneath, because they aren't true to the life we know here on earth. They highlight, they emphasize, that sense of isolation and not really belonging and wondering where on earth our place is.

And hey, that's where the problem lies. Our place isn't on earth. Of course we never feel entirely right or comfortable here. Comedies can help us by giving us a paradigm of how we should try to live, and what, in the grand scheme of things, will happen (Jesus won, by the way), but the fact of the matter is we're still in the trenches. While the universe has been claimed for The Good, we, as individuals, haven't reached that end yet. The conclusion of a proper comedy shows an ordered state where we aren't and haven't yet been. But we know in our heart of hearts we belong there. It would be decidedly odd if we could look in through that window and not get some sense of longing or yearning.

And I suppose that this is why liturgically penitential seasons make more sense to our sorry selves than the joyful ones. Perhaps our inability to experience that palpable joy is in direct proportion to our selfishness, as in, we can't bring ourselves to get over ourselves and get happy about the big picture victory. Maybe that's my problem. Because yes, Jesus has fought that fight and conquered Death for all mankind. He did it for me, too. But if my particular share in the battle were already won, I wouldn't have this daily struggle nonsense to deal with. Sometimes, the majority of the time, there's a trouble in my soul, and it's good and helpful and human for me to hear a worried song, sung by someone else who's also been down in a hole. Death shalt die. Thank you, Mr. Donne, for the future tense. We know it will happen, eventually, and we can take certain comfort in that, but we're not there yet.

And with that, here's another Gillian Welch song, quite possibly my very favorite one. The relevant words here are in the chorus (but it's all a good song):

We cannot have all things to please us
No matter how we try
Until we've all gone to Jesus
We can only wonder why.

  • I've been redrafting some of the more popular posts from here for my writing duties over at Dappled Things blog (Deep Down Things) on the 3rd and 21st of every month. So, if you want a chance to revisit some old discussions, and see what other people are writing about, amble over.
  • I've got about a week left in the semester. Please say a prayer or two that I finish all my work in time!
  • I'm more sorry than you know that the frequency and sometimes the thoughtfulness of my posts here have declined. Unfortunately, things being what they are, I'm afraid that won't change any time soon. I have many things I would like to write about for you all (I carry a list around with me these days entitled "Blog Ideas to Develop") but I have that whole "Be responsible; do your work" voice niggling along with all the others. Lots of voices in this head . . .