Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Thread of Life

Giving weaves our threads into a tapestry

This year’s carol was one I started last year but couldn’t finish. I awoke Christmas morning of 2012 to a lump of unimaginable coal: the news that my time with my younger two children would be severely limited for a while. At first, I thought a week, maybe two. Then weeks stretched into months. Finally, almost a year later, I got the best present imaginable: reunification of my family. As I write these words, I hear merry voices laughing upstairs, playing the new Toy Story version of Disney Infinity that some guy in a red suit left under our tree this morning.

Back to the carol. (And apologies for how soft it is! Since I only do this once a year and technology changes so quickly, every year is another crash course in Video Production 101).

It's the latest entry in a decade-plus string of annual musical essays. I feel a kinship to Christina Rossetti, the Victorian poet whose lyrics explore the relationship between human and divine.  The lyrics are taken from Rossetti's three-sonnet sequence “The Thread of Life,” published in 1895, a year after her death. That title surely alludes to the classical Moirae, the three fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread that controls us. Yet Rossetti asserts that she herself controls her destiny: myself is that one only thing/I hold to use or waste, to keep or give.” And as she does in her more famous poem, “In the bleak midwinter,” (a famous carol which I have also set to my own tune), she decides in "The Thread of Life" to give herself (as king) to her King.

The poem is also about solitude, the infinitesimal and infinite space that separates self from other. As I was working out the carol's dissonant harmonies this morning, I heard Adam Frank’s thought-provoking commentary “The Christmas Now: How to Be The Center of the Universe,”  Frank's words struck me with awe:
The simple physical fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light means all of us — every man, woman and child — share the same predicament. We are all profoundly separated and yet deeply connected at the same time.” 
I think this is exactly the point Rossetti was trying to make in her poem more than 100 years ago, before we knew anything about the speed of light. And I’ve used the dissonance of major seconds to convey that all-too-human predicament, as well as postponing the longed-for resolution to the chord until the very end. The piece starts in E minor and ends, at last, in G major. Because you know what? That’s pretty much how I felt about this past year. (E minor is a nice key to be from; G major is a nice key to be in).

So how can we express our connection to each other? How can we overcome the aloofness that necessarily characterizes the human condition? Well, for starters, on Christmas Day, we can give.

Scads of studies show that giving and gratitude are the secrets to happiness. We saw that joy this season with #TipsforJesus. One study found that even children as young as two years old feel happier when they give treats to others. 

What are you giving this year? As 2013 draws to a close, I urge each of you to consider what you value most, then give something right now--money, time, love. I plan to donate to  to support research and treatment for children who have mental illness. I also support the anti-stigma organization Bring Change 2 Mind  because when I felt truly alone last year, this organization helped me to find my voice. And I'm supporting Clarity Child Guidance Center because they represent real hope for children and families struggling with mental illness. Of course, I donated to NPR because it makes me feel smarter. And finally, I'm giving time to TeachIdaho, an organization that helps teachers to create communities of learners.

Though we are all individual threads of life, the tapestry we weave with others as we give is what creates meaning and purpose from solitude. Wishing you the joy of giving this Christmas season! 

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