NEW YEAR’S EVE (TIMES GONE BY)

It is New Year’s Eve again. I’ve marked the occasion, entirely inadvertently, by joining myself to the end-of-year headlines about a spike in the latest coronavirus variation — at this, the end of a second year of the pandemic. I came back from a Christmas trip to Atlanta with a miserable case of it, but, truly, on this New Year’s Eve morning, can say, gratefully, that the sickness that broke out on Monday has devolved, on this Friday morning, to something like a slight case of hay fever, nothing more. Thank you, God. Not that I didn’t hope and fully expect to avoid it, having been pretty careful. But there were one or two gatherings –one in particular –where I had reason to believe I’d been exposed. And this new strain, while manifestly less virulent, is apparently more contageous.

But I’ll go on taking medication, and relax today. What else is there to do, except, maybe, buy food — and try not to think about the future in which, in each new “future” I keep repeating the soul-killing mistakes and habits of the past? One can hope and pray for changes, and the courage to make them.

But I digress, as usual…

And, of course, I’m glad I got all three vaccines to keep the globe-trotting microscopic invaders from Wohan from finding my anatomy more hospitable.

Memory, now, begins to serve me again, as it does this time of year. My parents, Bill and Jo Wayland, had many struggles, being so different from one another. But they had a circle of friends — my father’s circle more than my mothers’s — with whom they shared their social times. I’m guessing it might have been New Year’s Eve, 1959 into 1960 (the beginning of that new decade that would sharply rupture our national history and self-understanding) when they held a New Year’s Eve Party at the house. Or perhaps it was 1960 into ’61. Memory is NOT serving me entirely here. Would that it were, for nostalgia commands a degree of accuracy before I can be comfortable with all the attendant details.

In any event, the party venue would have been our little house on Neponset Avenue, Dorchester. And I do mean — little. The ground floor portion, exclusive of the kitchen, accommodated the party’s full action and was not more than 300 square feet, if that. But this would be a modest gathering. Yes, they intended to dance – to music from LPs played on a hi-fi console. Of course, it would be to the vanilla strains of Lawrence Welk or Guy Lombardo or, at the wilder end of things, Glen Gray and his Casaloma Orchestra. I believe Glen had a number in his repertoire called, “The Casaloma Stomp”. But my parents and their friends were not inclined to stomp, or, very often, even tap their toes. No Count Basie, Woody Herman or Benny Goodman for them. (My father found Benny Goodman’s” One O’Clock Jump”, when I chanced to play it, tiresome, repetative and back alley exotic. It was jazz, and he deplored jazz, presumably for its visceral invitation to hedonism of the body and tonal anarchy of the soul. He liked, as he often said, “nice, smooth music.” I guess you’d call it, clean music. He and his friends were not swingers, except to the degree that Lawrence Welk swung, as he did from time to time — L.W. was a pro whose “champaigne music” arrangements featured flawless, disciplined, if overly bland harmonies that ingenously, now that I think about it, perfectly replicated the bubbles that floated around the studio during his telecasts — but, again, I digress. But one more thing, a musical footnote: my father loved “The Warsaw Concerto”, owned it as a clear red plastic 45 rpm recording, and listend to it often.)

I was in an upstairs room that New Year’s Eve evening — my relatively new bedroom, being the room my 21-year-old sister had abandoned when she was married the previous June, or, if my dating is wrong, perhaps two Junes before. But I forced to date this from 1949-into-1960 and hope I’m remembering well. Therefore — my sister Anne was living not far away, already pregnant with her first child. I expect she and husband, 23-year-old Joe O’Hara, were passing the night uneventfully, living very nearby. Brothers Bill, Doug and Ron still called the attic bunk beds above my room home. They were out for the evening, ages 26 (Bill) and Ron and Doug (twins, both twenty as of that December 12). They had their own friends. I, therefore, was, as of November 27, the family’s only teenager — again, all of this assuming I have the year right — 1960. (If it was 1960, my parents, the previous April 19th, had held a 25th wedding anniversary party for themselves at the house; perhaps it was decided that a second party in that intimtate space of the house they’d owned since 1941 wouldn’t hurt. And it seems to me I was still in elementary school, not graduating until June of 1961.

I sat in pajamas bathrobe after a bath, watching Jack Parr on the Tonight Show in black and white. I recall doing that. But I’m wondering, did I always have a TV in my room? I don’t think so. But I know that’s how I passed the evening. I was 13 at most, an innocent when it came to nightlife.

As the evening progressed, the boisterousness mounted below me. But these friends of my parents were never riotous in their pursuit of fun. Joe and ‘Lil Sullivan from nearby Newhall Street, Joe and Marge Clough from nearby Pearce Avenue (if memory serves me), Jim and Barb Allen, also from Pearce Avenue, Ralph Wheeler and his wife, who also lived nearby, once operated the small First National Store at Pope’s Hill where my father went weekly to get our “order” of groceries, Bill Lewis and his wife were from somewhere nearby…only Waldo Banks and his wife Katty came from far away — Malden, Mass. Unless Ed Deveney and his wife were there from Sharon. These were all members of my father’s card party as well. None, with rare exception, ever drank to excess. All were devoutly and charitably Catholic. They were transit train starters, contractors, salesmen, clerks, small business owners.

There was no Rockin’ New Year’s Eve in those days. The culture was still tame and adult-oriented. The baby-boomer generation, my generation, had yet to seize all the reins. At midnight, you’d hear Guy Lombardo and those oleaginenous saxaphones (that’s the only adjective I can come up with to describe them right now) blaring forth from the rooftop ballroom of — was it the Waldorf in New York? There would be a dance floor crowded with grandees in tuxedos and silly paper hats and shiny faces, glancing up either in emboldened inebriatioin or sober embarrassment at the live television camera as they swayed, stumbled or jostled about in time to the music, and there would be a mob in Time Square which would be large but, I suspect, nowhere as huge as, over time, it would become in that urban epicenter. While bright and light-clustered then, it still hadn’t acquired the sensory overloading brilliance and wattage of the era of racing, light emitting diodes, or, thankfully, the paranoia of the Age of Terror — and Jack Parr would have stood up to embrace his few celebrity guests, some, like him, long erased from the popular memory, as his bandleader and his orchestra spewed out Auld Lang Syne…and nowhere would you see that montage of carnal, uninhibited, face- munching kisses. And almost every ‘swell’ and super-celebrity who’ll fill the brilliantly colorful rocking and rolling fiber-optic “air” waves tonight had yet to be born on this black-and-white long ago night. (And Dick Clark is still dead, though he seemed eternal.)

And, on that night, my parents suddenly appeared together at the doorway of my bedroom and came in to wish me a happy new year where I sat in my little chair. I will always remember that. Dad, healthy that night, would be invaded only a few short years later by an aggressive prostate cancer. It mystified and privately depressed us all, not least of all Dad himself — that this should be happening to him at the very time he might finally have been gaining a little financial independence and traction — profit-sharing at his job, a new supervisory role at the coal and oil company that his employer of some forty years, Glendale Coal and Oil, had acquired.

We never spoke of the imminent death. He never fully confronted it. Who could, coming as it did at such a time? Only now, these many years later, after the death at age 78 of his daughter — the only one of his five children whose weddings he would be alive to attend — have I begun finally to mourn, contemplate and explore my feelings about that death of this devoutly Catholic man who seemed to lack the consolation of his faith as his end neared. My mother would live on until August 5, 1986, a sorrowing and solitary widowhood, but one in which the wives of those card-party husbands would be her steady and loyal support and companions, even if, tempermentally, they were worlds apart from this Irish-born, melancholy, often troubled and literate woman with the retiring and sadly unself-confident mind and soul of a poet.

Auld Lang Syne ….Times Gone By

That Robert Burns lyric doesn’t translate lucidly into English in the mouths of the millions who will chorus it tonight at midnight, giving way to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, John Lennon’s “Imagine” (that Utopian twaddle from the mind of a Brit who trusted the New York streets until the moment he died violently on one of them), or whatever else is cued up on the Big Box Machines.

That anthem begins with an interogative: “Should auld (old) acquaintance(s) be forgot and never brought to mind?”

I guess the answer is, no. Bring them all to mind. Let them swarm, for in the cold, drab light of January, we shall be swimming once again in the bickering, unthinking muddle.

But for the balance of the day, I’ll be fighting off my virus and remembering — that party at 210 (those partying souls are long gone now) — and every moment of my life, and your life.

It is noon, exactly, December 31, 2021. Twelve hours left in the old year.

Happy New Year.

A TENNYSON CHRISTMAS

From “In Memoriam” in which, the poet, deep in mourning, over hundreds of stanzas, gropes for the light over three Christmases, as time slowly closes over the loss of a dear friend and faith slowly covers over his mourning. Christmas and a new year were the milepost at every painful turning. November is the month in which we especially remember the dead. December, and Christmas, are when we miss them the most.

FROM STANZA XXVIII

The time draws near the birth of Christ.

The moon is hid, the night is still;

The Christmas bells from hill to hill

Answer each other in the mist.

FROM STANZA LXXVIII

Again at Christmas did we weave

The holly round the Christmas hearth;

The silent snow possess’d the earth

And calmly fell our Christmas-eve.

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,

No wing of wind the region swept,

But over all things brooding slept

The quiet sense of something lost.

FROM STANZA CIV

The time draws near the birth of Christ;

The moon is hid, the night is still;

A single church below the hill

Is pealing, folded in he mists.

A single peal of bells below,

That awakens in this hour of rest

A single murmur in the breast

That these are not the bells I know.

Like stranger’s voices here they sound,

In lands where not a memory strays,

Nor landmark breaths of other days,

But all is new unhallow’d ground.

FROM STANZA CV

Tonight ungather’d let us leave

This laurel, let this holly stand:

We live within the stranger’s land,

And strangely falls our Christmas-eve.

FROM STANZA CVI

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying clouds, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

FROM STANZA CXXXI (CONCLUDING)

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

1850

Just fragments in which earth and mortals regenerate, mid-way in a century that was struggling to retain the “old” faith. Tennyson, nonetheless moves from despair to hope. Tennyson is not my poetic soul-mate in many particulars, out of sorts — along with the likes of Charles Kingsley — with the important Oxford Movement, in which Saint John Henry Newman was about to remove himself, and lead other churchmen, out of the slowly sinking barque of Anglicanism.

But he knew Christmas for what it was and must always be for us, however great the darkness.

2021

MELVILLE’S CHRISTMAS

It was not Dickens’s Christmas, that’s for sure. The chapter in Moby Dick entitled, rather ironically, “Merry Christmas” has no holly or warmth of the hearth nor warm memories. The Pequod has just set out from New Bedford and our narrator Ishmael writes….

At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.

Did Melville’s Calvinism come between him an even the slightest bit of yuletide sanquinity? Or is this merely the harsh reality of the whaling voyage — assorted pagans and long-suffering, dour Christians thrown together in ice and danger and commerce? Scrooge would have been at home here, though perhaps terrified and seasick.

Contrast this cold, grim seaboard Christmas moment with Christmas Eve at old Fezziwig’s where The Ghost of Christmas Past has borne Scrooge so he might see again how the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug and warm, and dry, and bright a ballroom as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

And the dancing commenced — while aboard the Pequod, crewman Bildad, hands at the windlass, roared forth some sort of a chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, that being an early 19th Century sailors’ haunt in a depraved neighborhood of Liverpool — or so I have read.

And while Dickens’s Scrooge, in roughly this same era, was found awakening, a man reborn, to the glories of a London Christmas morning, Melville’s Ishmael , on his “Merry Christmas”, tells us the cold, damp night breeze blew…a screaming gull flew overhead…we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.

Oh, well…as Dickens has Tiny Tim observe, God Bless Us, Every One!

BRIAN WILLIAMS AND THE DARKNESS THAT MIGHT, IN FACT, BE “WOKE” AMERICA’S BLINDNESS

It seems that once prominent, briefly but apparently not permanently disgraced, and still popular news anchor Brian Williams has announced his retirement from broadcasting. In doing so, on his last night on the air, he issued a valediction on the state of the nation in which he said, in part ( or, perhaps, this is the whole of it)…

“I’m an institutionalist. I believe in this place. And in my love of my country, I yield to no one.But the darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods. It is now at the local bar, and the bowling alley, the school board, and the grocery store. And it must be acknowledged and answered for. Grown men and women who swore an oath to our Constitution, elected by their constituents, possessing the kinds of college degrees I could only dream of, have decided to join the mob and become something they are not while hoping we somehow forget who they were.They’ve decided to burn it all down with us inside. This should scare you to no end as much as it scares an aging volunteer fireman.”

Now, I have pondered these remarks (as transcribed and posted on Facebook by former colleagues in the news business). Many former news colleagues somehow find in them a crystal-clear indictment of –someone or some many unnamed someones (aka, “the mob”), many of them apparently elected officials. But what of the darkness he perceives spilling into “the local bar, and the bowling alley, the school board, the grocery store?” What’s he talking about? For my part I find it far too, no doubt deliberately, oblique to be more than a generalized indictment of some segment of the American populus and political class, offered in kind of a “you know who I’m talking about” over-the-back-fence bit of gossip to like-minded neighbors regarding other neighbors down the street. I say this while not denying the darkness –and division — abounding in the American neighborhood. I might have a different idea about its source. When he mentions the school board, for instance, is the darkness there being generated by the board members or the agrieved parents standing before that board? Also, he seems to be confusedly conflating their concerns and actions with those of unnamed elected officials.

But let’s cut to the heart of the matter. He’s fairly obviously talking about those elected officials and citizens who support or supported Donald Trump. And if he sees darkness, where does he see light — or enlightenment? I’ll bet we could guess. Perhaps Brian and many like him in the media are incapable of seeing how many middle class citizens feel their families and their values being darkened over by “woke” culture. Millions, but not all of them, sought refuge — or warded off the dreadful alternative (Hillary Clinton, et al.) by voting for Trump.

I fear the darkness Brian Williams sees might attributable to his own blindness.

Therefore, I could not resist adding my two cents to a Facebook thread in which multiple people were affirming Williams. Specifically, I made a reply — over long and probably unread. I was, at the outset, picking up on the skeptical observations made by some on that thread noting that Williams had lost his position as NBC main anchor after inexplicably but obviously lying about and over-inflating his actions while covering the Middle East War.

So I wrote:

We must not succumb to the fallicy of judging a person’s words on an ad hominen basis, i.e.,declaring them invalid merely because the person who spoke them is guilty of mendacity in some other area of their lives. But I think we need to cast a cold eye on the substance of this particular man’s testimonial and all the affirmations that follow in this thread, simply because so much is implied, certain terms and assertions probably deliberately ill-defined. For instance, the reference to joining “the mob.” Which “mob” is he talking about? Is it the one that stormed the Capitol, members of which are being vigorously prosecuted and whose motives rigorously explored in committee? Or is it the multitudes of thugs, arsonists and murderous vandals who pillaged and terrorized our cities last summer and who have largely gone unprosecuted and whose motives are more or less assumed to be uniformly justified if not noble?

The former mob action — on the Capitol — could be seen as an assault on Constitutional order and the peaceful transition of power,the latter — on American cities — as an all-out assault on the rule of law, and Constitutional order. Both are threats to the republic, and to democracy.

We’ve taken to using the “dog whistles” metaphor in our current national debates over assorted vexed issues. I hear in Williams’s words a dog whistle to only one side of the debate over Constitutional order.

I did not, in fact, “hear” or actually watch Brian Williams’ farewell; I have not seen him since he disappeared from the nightly news; didn’t know he’d been rehabilitated to this degree, didn’t care about him one way or the other. God love him, I wish him well. We all make mistakes. (Of course, I suspect we are quickest to forgive those puiblic figures with whom we agree politically. That goes for Trump and Trump supporters as well. Donald Trump’s actions, or lack of action — last January 6th was disgraceful and, in this instance, worthy of impeachment.)

I could be wrong here, and perhaps the elected officials Williams is singling out include the likes of Bernie Sanders, AOC and the rest of those office-holders whose idea of democracy seems decidedly skewed to the far left, even toward socialism. Of course, I think this highly unlikely. And I admit that another of my own predispositions kicks in when I hear oracular proclamations from “mainstream” (i.e. NBC, ABC, CBS) national news anchors who are almost without exception manifestly, if not overtly liberal and for whom, in my estimate, self-delusion and smug self-importance are occupational hazards. The same could be said, of course, for conservative commentator/anchors. And my own judgement might be unfair in Williams’s case, since I did not hear the tone in which his velediction was offered, or hear or read it in its entirely or in context. I’ll assume it was characterized by sincerity and humility. I speak here only of the verbal substance of what Robin (my Facebook friend) posted and and that, above, I have reproduced.

But my own final judgement is that this amounted to an only slightly veiled sortie on Trump supporters that leaves completely unsullied those who ravaged our nation this year in the name of “justice.” And, while I’m at it, here’s just one something the odious figure named Trump said that cannot be dismissed on an ad hominem basis merely because he said it — that a nation without borders ceased to be a nation. That, among many other issues, might have been on the minds of the multitude of non-rioting, non-violent citizens who turned out for HIS valediction and farewell, just as justice for George Floyd and reform of police might have been on the minds of millions who did not join in the wanton destruction of our cities this year. (Added note: the legitimacy of the last electon was also a major, in fact probably the preeminent issue rousing the main body of the more violent Capitol mob, and I disagree with them, while myself knowing reasonable law-abiding citizens who still question the results.)

So — a pox on the houses of all bad people on both sides, right? But let’s consider the possibility that the intense political/cultural hurly-burly besetting our nation right now might reflect the unavoidable sausage-making nature of democracy. With Brian Williams, we should remain “institutionalists” and lovers of America.

Again, good luck to Brian Williams. He endured disgrace, lost his exalted old position but nonetheless enjoyed an professional afterlife and redemption with multitudes. Things like that happen in America among the fair-minded.

But I’ll only add — he never in this valediction, so far as I know, scrutinized the role of the media in our current state of darkness and division.

That might be the source of the darkness — not at the edges, but in the heart of town.

DECEMBER STILLNESS

That is the name of a Siegried Sassoon poem — “December Stillness” — written the year my parents were married, 1934.

Puts me in mind of “Silent Night.” Silent night, holy night….

My parents have been gone for years.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the World War I poets, along with Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. He was the only one of the three to survive the war, Brooke dying from war-related blood poisoning, Owen from the guns a week before the Armistice. Sassoon also knew and was among those “soldiers…of death’s grey land…in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats…in ruined trenches, lashed with rain….” Yet he could manage to write, barely two decades after the universal cataclysm of that World War, of “December stillness, crossed by twilight roads” and tell us that he asked that stillness ( yes, he talked to the stillness) to “(T)each me to travel far and bear my loads.”

Religion, or a higher power, were largely swept out of Sassoon’s personal universe by the experience of the trenches, so far as I know. Or, raised by a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother, he saw what, to his mind, were the “limitations” of religious faith.

Not all who saw war ceased to see hope, and see it in an Infinite Being.

But….

December, with its “grave diminishings of green and brown”( Siegried’s words). It is upon us now. I love December, because Christmas comes at the end of its Advent season.

I looked out early one Massachusetts December at the green surviving amid the bare brown of earth and bramble and, perhaps, traces of early snow behind what was my house then, a pleasant place in a pleasant town, more pleasant by far than what I call home now. I’ve escaped to the sub-tropics, an economic migrant.

(Why have I moved so often in recent years? What is this restless search for the “geographic cure”?)

There have been so many houses, so many homes in what still seems such a short time — but, really, so much time has passed, actually. There have been whole wars fought since that “brown and green” moment in Carlisle, Massachusetts. There has been, these days before Christmas in 2021, an unspeakable natural horror — a massively powerful, long-lasting tornado — that stripped away lives and structures in the dead of a Kentucky night — and the Illinois and Tennesee nights. Miles and miles of America’s heartland lies bare and ruined, plunged into “death’s grey land” and silence and darkness days before Christmas.

But in 1934, the year my parents found joy in marriage, followed by years of struggle, that stillness, that December stillness, spoke to the surviving war poet who would live to see another World War consume civilization. He lived, in fact, until the first day of September, 1967.

It was, he wrote back in that same year of 1934, the “love of life, when I was young/ Which led me out in summer to explore/ The daybreak world.”

A “daybreak world” that would be darkened, so deeply darkened by the most brutal of wars, civil and worldwide, all during a most bloody century.

But now, as those summer days of 2021 lead into these dark December nights, a welcomed stillness deepens here and there. Sometimes we have to be in a sanctuary to be mindful of it. A church, or chapel or our own little room.

True, there was little stillness in the long, violent, politically fraught summer of 2021. I cannot forget or cease praying for an end of that unwelcomed stillness in Kentucky that stretches for miles around now, through three states,in which structures and memories have been ravaged by the great violence of nature.

Still, in our current stillness, wherever we can find it, Siegried Sassoon would tell us, “The Daybreak World” abides. It awaits us, here, or hereafter, if we choose to believe it.

We call it hope. Many call it God. The words, the prayers, do not always come easily. God’s stillness, or what seems like His silence, vexes many in their strenuous groping after hope and peace.

Faith is the flame. It can be put out. Symbolically , really.

Meanwhile, we must travel far and bear our loads.

Oh, my!!

At the end of this long, sober,(even embarrassing) very lugubrious rumination, I must laugh a little. Even laugh out loud.

Mere trite meanderings. Siegfried must be chuckling along with me somewhere. I choose to believe so.

Time to head to the mall….praying as I go. Ho! Ho! Ho!

OUR HOLLY, JOLLY SALVATION

The history of salvation is not a small event on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing that happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist, the encounter between God and his creature.

Pope Benedict XVI, address at the opening of the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 6,2008

We must keep this in mind as the back story to all that “holiday” noise — how, Christmas-in-Christmas-out we hear Burl Ives’s splendid voice, like that of a rotund, fondly-recollected uncle who always played Santa Claus at Christmas, pouring down on us from the CVS Musak system.

He, Christ, the God Man, the Alpha and Omega — is coming to be born again in very squalid circumstances on a cold desert night.

It is often tough to go on clinging to that believe in this dark, hostile, yes, noisy age — an age that began over two thousand years ago where we have had, as Matthew Arnold noted in “Dover Beach” neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain…on a darkling plain.

Or So Arnold saw it, perplexed and skeptical as he was in a rationalizing, skeptical century now one and a half centuries away from ours.

Sing on, dear, late-lamented Burl though we grow weary of your musical salutation and well-wishing, because, Hark, the Angels are also Singing….