Cardiac Conundrum

2017 has been, well, tough. My husband’s job was unexpectedly outsourced in March and we’re in a holding pattern in finding a new one. I awake in the morning wondering how will we pay our bills, and, more than that, what will happen to our nonprofit, A Spacious Place? The grant we’d hoped for, prayed for, fell through. The added stress of job searching coupled with nonprofit and small-business work netted me a respiratory infection that just wouldn’t quit. Hesitant to visit the doctor and add to our bills during the job-free season, I finally yielded as the Christmas holidays approached. I got the kind of surprise you don’t hope for at the doctor’s office.

I came in, expecting antibiotics and cough medicine, but found myself hooked up to EKG wires. (Once you top 60, you get extra scrutiny from medical professionals.) Something, apparently, was amiss. After my exam, the medical community moved at light speed. A little alarming.

Thanks to the antibiotics and cough medicine I’d received along with diagnosis “”heart questionable,” I was feeling better physically. But the wheels were set in motion and I found myself in an exam room at the Heart Hospital, staring at a three-D rendering of a human heart. “”You have a heart murmur,” pronounced the cardiologist. “”We need to do an echocardiogram.”

More money: my grad-school daughters this very year would be completing degrees and starting to pay off student loans. And more waiting: dandy.

My echo appointment was scheduled for 7 a.m. on Dec. 26. Fortunately, the holiday season kept us so busy there wasn’t much time to stew on “what ifs.” Still, it was there, in the back of our minds as we baked cookies, sang carols, and unwrapped gifts. What would next Christmas be like? Would A Spacious Place even exist?

At 7:05 a.m. on Boxing Day, a lovely and professional young woman, kind enough to ask about our Christmas even though her hijab evidenced her Muslim faith, handed me a hospital-blue poncho. As I lay on my left side, she pressed a wand against my chest. For 25 minutes, I breathed out, held it, took a breath, breathed out, held it.

“”You have a beautiful heart,” she said, finally. “”It looks like the heart of a teenager.” And then I breathed easier. When, two days later, I received a call from the cardiologist’s office stating that my heart pumping was normal, it was all-out celebration time.

Celebration time consisted of a sausage biscuit off McDonald’s dollar menu. But, accompanying our frugal feast rang in my head a snippet of a German carol: “How great our joy: joy, joy, joy/Praise we the Lord in heaven on high….” The tune played in my head through the day, particularly the three-fold rendering of the word, “joy.” The word swelled with each repetition until the final sung “joy” becomes joy itself.

We’re still in limbo: still job seeking, still seeking funding for A Spacious Place. But something has changed. A corner turned. A resurrection begun. Looking toward 2018 I’m determined. Determined not to accept the assumption that I should wind down my life because I’ve walked this earth for 63 years. Because the miracle of my journey through a cardiology conundrum is discovering I don’t have the heart of a teenager. I find today, beating in my chest, the heart of a child: eager, open, wonder-filled. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store in 2018. And in all the years to come.

 

Sleeper Carol

It’s a sleeper carol. When I tune the radio for my yearly fix of holiday tunes, I rarely catch it. I have, however, survived a dozen renderings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Since we’ve now realized men shouldn’t sexually prey on women, could we stop including in our holiday festivities a song that celebrates a man liquoring up a woman to seduce her ? Please? Pretty please?

Conversely, my sleeper carol lauds a woman who, through her own choice, “bore sweet Jesus Christ/To do poor sinners good.”

“The Holly and the Ivy” employs traditional English holiday decor as a metaphor (I love metaphor!) to celebrate Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth. The lyricist compares the holly’s bearings of blossom, berry, prickle, bark with the holy person Mary bore. But the song doesn’t stop there. We are led through the birth its pressing need.

The lyricist, or lyricists (unknown) begin with the holly flower—its whiteness depicting Mary’s purity. Mary’s was a purity of purpose: an single-minded allegiance to God so staunch she was prepared to endure a life-long reputation as Nazareth’s scarlet woman. And that was if she didn’t get stoned to death first.

The holly berry portrays Jesus’ shed blood and its leaves recall the thorns that speared His brow. A holly bush grows in our yard, and its leaves have drawn my blood more than once. Holly leaves are unusually thick and rigid, so its pointed edges pierce the skin like thorns. Last, in the holly branch we taste the bitter gall offered to Jesus as He hung, dying, between heaven and earth. I don’t know who decided to munch on a holly branch and, thus, discovered its foul taste, but I hope there weren’t additional unpleasant after effects.

But here’s the thing about the sorrowful lyrics: they’ve woven into the merriest of tunes. It’s as if the composers wanted us to know, in the singing of “The Holly and the Ivy” that Mary’s sacrifice and Jesus’ suffering are a prelude. That the minor chords will resolve in a glorious culmination. That happened was terrible. And necessary. But it’s not all there is. We’re invited to a rollicking party—date TBA. But Jesus and Mary are hosting and our names are written on the guest list.

So instead of cheery tunes about sketchy seductions, let’s tune up “The Holly and the Ivy” and belt out its lyrics. As I feel sure the lyricists and composers hoped we would do.

Follow this link to enjoy a beautiful rendering of “The Holly and the Ivy”: https://youtu.be/57l6dSbVppM.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;

”There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.

So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.

Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”*

 

I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.

In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.

But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.

And who yearn for a reason to hope.

*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.

 

Joy to the World!

Each week of Advent and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll again share my ponderings on the beautiful alchemy of lyric and melody in some Christmas carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well.

This time of year, the word, joy, meets us everywhere: mailed to us in cards, strung along the street in lights, and, of course, sung to us in carols. There’s “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings” (joyful all ye nations rise), “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (oh, tidings of comfort and joy), “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel). And, of course, “Joy to the World” (not the Three Dog Night version, though that one’s joy packed as well)

C. S. Lewis described Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Though joy is both a delight an ache, “anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” Lewis concludes, “I doubt that anyone who has tasted it would ever…exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

If you’ve ever peered through a keyhole or a crack in a fence, you know something of joy. You can see just enough to long for a fuller vision, maybe even to walk into the space you see. At the same time, you’ve a limited perception of what’s out there. But it looks mighty promising; if you could just get there…

During the holidays, we have available—alongside the frustrating grocery lines, the crazy traffic, the scary bank balances, and the lights that won’t light on one side—ample opportunities for JOY. It might be that holiday song that wrenches our hearts, lights that transform us into children, a cherished family tradition (ours is driving around to view lights while belting out holiday tunes), or surprise snow IN AUSTIN, TEXAS! Even mundane tasks can, unexpectedly, overwhelm us with joy. In the midst of folding laundry, we glimpse the now and the not yet.

Joy, in the present, promises much more in our future. Joy is a delight that aches. It’s a wonder and a mystery. And I wish for you this holiday a season of joy.  In the words of the carol: Joy to the world—that includes you and me!