The Better Letter: Loud and Deep

Merry Christmas! TBL comes a day early for Christmas.

This Christmas, I miss my children and grandchildren, a country away. I miss live church and live music, candles lifted high on the magnificent final verse of “Silent Night.” I miss fun and merriment around the Christmas tree. Getting through December is hard this year.

This year, I have been trying to focus on what Christmas means and what I have (which is amazing) rather than what I am missing. Grace abounds even in darkness. 

But let’s not pretend it’s easy.

This isn’t the first time where it has been difficult for me to get through December. My lovely bride and I were married in June of 1979, three weeks after she graduated from Wake Forest. Our honeymoon was wonderful but short because we were poor. 

We soon returned to North Carolina for my second year of law school at Duke. My LB found a teaching job. It paid $6,000 per year ($21,500 in today’s dollars), although summers were off. I was a part-time TA earning $2.30 per hour. We were very happy but poor. 

The local A&P had some very cheap prices when their workers went on strike in November. The workers’ demands were reasonable and we wanted to support them but there were always five or six hard-to-resist food items offered well below cost – most prominently whole chickens at $0.09 per pound – as an inducement to cross the picket line. 

My very smart wife went to the leader of the strikers with an idea. She proposed that she would go into the store but only to buy the items sold below cost. That way, on a net basis, she’d be helping the strikers. We’d buy the rest of our groceries (to the extent we could afford them) elsewhere.

The steward agreed. Every week my LB would have a friendly chat with the strikers, go in and buy (just) the below-cost items, and return to finish the chat. It took a number of months, but the workers ultimately prevailed. We liked to think we helped a little.

We were still poor. There was always month left at the end of the money.

We were planning to return home for Christmas – our first one married. School was out the Friday before Christmas and we were hoping to leave that afternoon for the drive north, to my parents in Western New York first. We had hope and, perhaps driven by hopium, we even packed, but we didn’t how we could do it. We hadn’t told anyone, but we simply didn’t have enough money for gas.

When my LB returned to her classroom after lunch on that Friday, on her desk was an unsigned Christmas card containing $100. We never found out who the angel was, although we have our suspicions. It may have been a real Christmas angel for all we know.

That was the best Christmas present we ever received. It conveyed the spirit of the season better than anything I could ever concoct. May you share in Christmas joy this holiday season and throughout the year.

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Christmas Obscured

Over a performing career that spanned four decades, concertgoers routinely paid a lot of money to hear Phil Smith play the trumpet. The long-time principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic retired in 2014 to academia after more than three decades in the orchestra due to a diagnosis of focal dystonia. In his first professional audition, while still a student, he won a place in the Chicago Symphony. 

Still in his 20s, Phil came to New York following just his second (and final) professional audition. According to The New Yorker, “For the past thirty-six years, Smith has presided over orchestral trumpet playing, with a resonant, clarion sound and a reputation for never missing a note.” He was acclaimed by The New York Times for his “brilliant technique, elegant lyricism and wide range of colors.” He has been, inarguably, one of the world’s great musical performers.

He returned to New York a week ago to lead (and play along with) the Philharmonic Brass and Percussion in a wonderful (and digital) Christmas concert. Take the time to play it (and all of today’s music) in full. I’ll wait.

“Music can touch people spiritually in their souls,” Phil says. “I try to let the Lord’s love reflect from me.”

Since we are talking about music, rather than my writing about Phil and his influence, you should simply hear him for yourself. Here he is playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Listen to how consistent, clear, and exact he is.

And here he is playing an excerpt of a very different piece – the brass chorale from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Listen to that perfectly struck last note just fade away.

Or to switch genres entirely, listen to Phil play his own lovely arrangement of the classic Gershwin tune, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” If it doesn’t melt your heart, you can’t have been listening.

The classical music world is well tuned in to Phil’s greatness. Less well-known is that Smith grew up in a Salvation Army family, playing cornet on street corners and in church bands. As a teenager, Phil was gifted enough to make it into Julliard despite having had no formal training. His father, a Salvation Army cornet soloist, was his only teacher. You can hear Phil play a duet with his father below. Notice that the video has barely been viewed and provides no indication whatsoever that Phil became world-famous.

It may surprise you to learn that Phil never gave up playing with the Army, often anonymously. As the Associated Press reported, “Philip Smith trumpets for God by the little red kettle, when he can still find the chance. He loves the whole thing: The ‘Sharing is Caring’ sign. The elderly veterans who tell him how Salvation Army volunteers handed out doughnuts during World War II. The young people who stand appreciatively as he hits the high notes in ‘O Holy Night.’

“’You’re terrific,’ one young man told him. ‘You should play music for a living.’”

Indeed.

I love to imagine Phil slipping out of Avery Fisher Hall after a performance with the Philharmonic near Christmas, changing jackets, and joining some Salvation Army brass in front of a kettle near Lincoln Center. He wouldn’t hear “Bravo!” there. In that context, people who had just paid a lot of money to applaud his virtuosity would routinely ignore him and his music. It would be as if he was a Christmas angel hiding in plain sight.

In nearly every context and situation, we routinely hear, see, and perceive exactly what we expect. No more and no less. Believing is seeing as much as seeing is believing.

Since concert-goers (or more precisely, concert-leavers) wouldn’t expect a world-class performer to be playing with the Salvation Army on a street corner for free, they weren’t likely to notice when one was doing just that. They would miss greatness by failing to expect greatness or even to consider that greatness might be lurking unawares.

Christmas is like that. There are obvious joys and beauty, of course: Lights, trees, decorations, presents, and music. But the best of Christmas is often obscured – like a world-class musician playing for the Salvation Army. Like a secret Santa allowing a young couple to go home for Christmas. Like a Baby-God born out back in the stable because there was no room at the inn. 

Totally Worth It

Did you see the “ Christmas Star” this week?

When we moved to SoCal 25 years ago, the house decorations took some real getting used to. On the east coast, we had been tasteful white candles in the windows and a simple wreath people. Here in San Diego, they (now we) do things a bit differently (see a representative house below). What I used to think of as tacky I now see as joyful.

For most of my life, I hated O Holy Night. I saw it as schmaltz, almost always over-sung. Then I really thought about the text. And the history. Now I love it and seek out less overwrought versions that include the glorious third verse.

Tomorrow evening, after all the presents are opened and all the children are in bed (if you are able to have kids with you), sit down with someone or some set of someones in front of the Christmas tree. A fire would help. So might something warm to drink. So would Christmas music. Smell the remnants of an excellent meal. Look at the now-opened gifts lying around. Just sit quietly and listen. Love is in the room. That’s Christmas.

This is the coolest thing I saw this week. The best. The funniest. The sweetest. The smartest. The coolest. The most royal. The loveliest. The next loveliest. The most interesting. The craziest not-well-known story. I totally want to see it. A Florida Christmas.

America’s most famous Christmas sermon was delivered by a cartoon character. 

Sometimes, the best sermons aren’t even overtly religious.

For me, the most powerful Christmas lyrics come from the “immensely moving, overwhelming” 1863 poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They reflect their dark times. 

And yet (don’t miss the final stanza).

I heard the bells on Christmas Day | Their old, familiar carols play, | And wild and sweet | The words repeat | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come, | The belfries of all Christendom | Had rolled along | The unbroken song | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way, | The world revolved from night to day, | A voice, a chime, | A chant sublime | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth | The cannon thundered in the South, | And with the sound | The carols drowned | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent | The hearth-stones of a continent, | And made forlorn | The households born | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: | “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; | The Wrong shall fail, | The Right prevail, | With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


Benediction

Our Christmas benediction is a beautiful new take on a traditional Christmas hymn, released just this month. It’s my lovely bride’s favorite carol.

Don’t be afraid to turn it up and sing along.


May each of you, your families, and your loved ones have a blessed and very merry Christmas.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 44 (December 24, 2020)