A view from the corner
I would like to take a moment to stand up for the right angle. I can also sit for it. I would actually prefer to sit.
I’m speaking of corners here. We live in a corner of the map, for example, tucked up there on the left edge of the lower 48. We can see practically the whole country from our vantage point, which is why most of us live here. The grass is always greener on the other side, but we live on the other side. We know all about green. Ask any of us.
Back to corners, though. I’ve noticed a tendency to prefer sitting in corners, my back to the wall like Tony Soprano on a particularly dangerous day.
I’ve realized this over the past year or so, my preference for the edge, and I know where it comes from. My wife directs a small choir, in a small church, which means that the choir loft seems full when we number greater than eight or so.
I say “we” because this group of committed singers tends to be missing lower voices, making four-part harmony awkward. I was volunteered, then, being a baritone who has a few low notes, especially if I have a cold. It’s still pretty awkward.
This means that while I flounder alone in the deep end of the singing pool, segregated from the tenors with their high notes and nice enunciation, I’m also crammed into a corner in front of the congregation. I can see everyone from there, which is the way I prefer it. I like to think Tony Soprano would approve.
So I notice things. I see the ones who come early and those who straggle in five minutes late, every week. I spot the ones who make a beeline for the coffee, and I’ve learned a lot about taste in socks.
I’m under no illusions that I’m observing a representative sample of anything other than Homo sapiens. There’s some compelling data to suggest that, despite what they might tell pollsters, less than 20 percent of American Christians regularly attend church.
This is another subset of a larger group of people who practice their spirituality in a variety of ways, but I’m not talking about this, anyway. I go to church for my own reasons, none of which would be interesting to anyone else.
What I’ve noticed, though, aside from descending bass lines and mismatched socks, in and out of church, is that people really like Christmas.
We almost didn’t get it. In the early days of our republic, Protestant Americans viewed the holiday as too Catholic for their tastes, and our Founders Fathers, steeped in Enlightenment philosophy and having won a revolutionary war, thought it was too British.
And yet this weird hybrid holiday of pagan symbolism, solstice celebrating, Christian-origin storytelling, and unthrottled consumerism is thriving here in 21st century America. I see it from every corner I can slip into.
This has been a horrible year. I know because everyone says so, and even if realistically we understand that, yes, there have been worse years in human history (pick one from the Middle Ages), 2016 goes into the books as a bad one.
There was the election, of course, and all that it spawned, from social media screeds to abruptly terminated friendships to the glut of fake news that has become so prevalent that nobody seems to be able to give it a fancy name. They just call it fake news.
But there was also loss, what felt like overwhelming loss, of some of our cultural touchstones. Many of us grew into adulthood listening to Bowie and Prince, watching Alan Rickman (“Love Actually” will be painful this year), and grateful that we lived in a world that included Gene Wilder, which might mean it also included Willy Wonka. Big-time loss.
And still there’s Christmas.
I’m not trying to whitewash anything. January will most certainly come, and the ripples of 2016 will be felt for a long time, for well or ill. Christmas will be the blip it always is, suddenly popping up on the calendar and sending us on a quest for same-day shipping. The lights will be taken down, the carols will disappear, and some of us will get credit card statements that make no sense.
But I heard that church congregation sing “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” on Sunday and not only thought of shepherds watching their flocks, but of George Bailey getting his life back. I’ve taken a few deep breaths and wandered the malls and other shopping places, and you know what?
Christmas still works. Giant stuffed pandas are still being carted out to cars with an unfortunate lack of trunk space, lights are strung all over, familiar songs are played on loudspeakers. Most people are probably not thinking about a baby in a manger while searching for the perfect sweater, but they’re thinking about hope. And that’s awfully close to the same thing.
It gives me hope, anyway. It might be foolish, it could be delusional, and it’s probably going to be a little expensive, but it feels like hope, and joy, just a little. And I’ll take it.
And I’ll also take this opportunity to wish you a happy Christmas, regardless of how or if you mark it. A little happiness is all I’m asking for this year.
Plus socks. I’ve learned a few things from sitting in the corner.