(This essay originally appeared in the L.A. Daily News on 12/11/2005)
December, the “season of cheer,” never fails to evoke ambivalent feelings in me. Yes, there are the twinkling lights and ringing of bells; crimson and gold decorations adorning shops; the intoxicating whiffs of Christmas wreaths and kitchens redolent of freshly-baked cookies. But December is also the season of great darkness. We have the more obvious factors: a decrease in daylight hours; cold, grey weather; trees stripped of their leaves that now lie in sodden brown heaps on the ground. There’s the stress of an overly social calendar, the frenzied short-tempered crowds in department stores blasted to 78 degrees, the endless media assault of noisy advertisements that test even the cheeriest of souls. Sadly, for me, the latter December has overcome the former, and with each passing year of my adult life, I find myself left with a “just get through it” attitude toward the season. The Grinch who stole Christmas? Moi? Guilty as charged.
Now in the year 2005, there’s a new variable: I’m learning to play the violin. (Okay so I’m forty-three and you’re supposed to do this when you are five or six, but I’ve always been a little slow to catch on to what it is I’m supposed to be doing.) As I’d been warned, the craft of violin playing is a challenge. But, like most endeavors in life, if you focus on the journey instead of the destination, you find a lot of pleasure along the way. Like the other night, when I was fiddling around (now recognizing where that term came from) and I began to play an old German Christmas carol. It flowed right out, embedded in my head and heart from childhood Christmas seasons, year after year spent listening to the same treasured (and scratchy) recordings. The sense of well-being that filled me as I played the tune on my violin stunned me, a golden ray of Technicolor piercing the grey of my spiritual torpor.
Christmas Eve in the Catholic household I grew up in was a sacred night. Granted, as a child, this was due in no small part to the mountain of gifts accumulating under the tinseled tree and the knowledge that one-tenth of them were mine. But even in later years, when the anticipation of opening presents was replaced with hormones and the anticipation of a glass of champagne or a kiss, it was a night of magic. The moment before I went to bed, I’d stand in the perfect silence of the dark room, lit only by the Christmas tree lights, and feel the spirit of the night swirl around me.
Why does magic grow so inaccessible to us as adults? Life nudges us away from it, exposing our childhood dreams and treasured precepts as the naïve illusions they’d always been. There is no Santa. There are no such things as fairies and spirits. How then to explain, as I played my violin, the magic sweeping over me like the embrace of a divine spirit? In that moment, I had it all back—the peace, joy and timeless sense of security of my youthful Christmas Eves.
I look down at my violin now, its sleek, curvy shape, honey-gold wood and smooth varnished surface. The horsehair gliding across the four taut strings produces a sound eerily close to that of a human voice. Better, even. Because since there are no words, there are no misunderstandings, no stories to fight over, no dogma or precepts that will, invariably, cast us into bitter conflict with those who disagree. And there will always be those who disagree. That is the human condition.
But these dour, contentious thoughts are easily bypassed when I pick up my violin. The lowest string sounds rich and deep, the musical equivalent of a bar of Swiss chocolate. The highest string is exquisitely sweet—silvery and ethereal. Playing the carol of my childhood, I revel in this new experience that allows me to celebrate, honor the spirit of the season and the return of the light in the purest way possible. Spirituality rediscovered, in a place I’d least expected it.
Bye, bye Grinch, you’ve lost your power. Now get out of here and let me play my violin.