Thursday, 18 December 2008

People Look East

People look east, the time is near
For the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able;
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look east and sing today:
Love the Guest is on the way.

I used to love Christmas, and there's a part of me that still does. It's much harder when you have to grow up and be responsible for Christmas, particularly when suffering from homesickness in a place that really is supposed to be your home. It seems, though, to be the fashion these days to hate Christmas, and having never been cool nor fashionable, I can't bring myself to quite alienate myself from this festival. Besides, I have two young girls under my roof, and younger daughter in particular loves Christmas. Since December began, she has seemed to glow and vibrate from within.

Therefore, for the sake of my inner child and outer children, I have been doing what I can to redeem the days leading up to December 25th, and in particular, the twelve days following Christmas Day.

Advent traditionally has a mournful liturgical tinge to it, but I cling to the inherent hope associated with it, which I think reaches beyond Christian beliefs to anyone yearning for the promise of something better. That's why I love the words of the Advent carol People Look East, written by the same lady (Eleanor Farjeon) who wrote the lyrics for Morning Has Broken. Love the Guest can be Jesus, if you like, but surely Love by any other name is a welcome guest to any household.

Today, my Friend With Whom I Go For Coffee took me down to the Byward Market for the third year in a row to get a balsam fir to fill the house with the scent of evergreen, something I missed so much for the twenty years we had an artificial tree. The Resident Fan Boy put in his order for Cochrane's Dairy to deliver two glass bottles of egg nog with our weekly dairy order. (The supermarket stuff is rubbish.) He's also bought the first box of Mandarin oranges, another balm to my homesick heart. For our first few Christmases in Hades, we made do with Clementines, which seem to be what Ottawans think are Christmas oranges, seedy, sweeter and not smelling quite right. The scent of the Mandarins as the soft peel tears away mingling with the smell of the balsam and the creamy egg nog flowing under my tongue help bring snatches of remembered Christmases back, if only in tantalizing bits.

Furrows be glad, though earth is bare
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish
That, in course, the flower may flourish.
People look east, and sing today:
Love the Rose is on the way.

The brown envelope containing younger daughter's latest assessment arrived yesterday, and I wonder when will be the best time to make myself read it. I know the gist, from our feedback interview which took place a couple of weeks after the Resident Fan Boy's accident. Assessments are never fun at the best of times, because they focus on what's wrong, and tests don't allow for hesitations or alternate interpretations. What the tests indicate are that younger daughter has dropped from the fifth percentile to the first percentile in expected performance for children her age. Whether this is due to developmental demands, the difference of testing a twelve-year-old versus the testing of a seven-year-old, the less-than-stellar results of trying to integrate her in her local school, the fact that the Resident Fan Boy was injured smack in the middle of the testing process, or a combination of any or all of the preceding, I'm in no position to judge. The fact is, comparing younger daughter with her so-called peers is never going to be a cheering prospect, although comparing her with herself over the past five years is rather more uplifting. I still feel squashed and smashed. I feel I have failed her.

But despair is a place I can only visit. I don't have the luxury of living there. This is another reason I'm not an atheist. As I reluctantly retreat to the kitchen for the extra cooking this season requires (I am an unenthusiastic chef, to say the least), I relieve the sting of the chore with audio books, this time, an old favourite, Alex Jennings' reading of The Dark is Rising. I first fell in love with this story, the second installment of a series of five books by Susan Cooper, when I was in my teens, and Alex Jennings' not overly dramatic rendering never gets in the way of the narrative. It's set in rural Buckinghamshire at Christmastime and is heavily immersed in British mythology. Two nights ago, the eleven-year-old hero learns of his status as the youngest of The Old Ones: If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service, because that is why you were born and that is the Law. And these words strike home as I gaze fearfully and sightlessly into the coming year, because the gift of a child is much like the gift of a power or talent.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and the moon together.
People, look east, and sing today:
Love the Star is on the way.

In the damp, ocean-soaked cold that is the winter in Victoria, I would gaze east and think of this verse. Now I gaze longingly west through the dry, frigid Eastern Ontario air. It seems I've always seen Christmas and summer as bright harbours at either end of the hurly-burly of the year. It's even more so as I try to help my younger daughter navigate the perilous seas of her school terms. I pray we may keep afloat. Whatever your beliefs (or even lack thereof, I hope Love finds its way, more permanent than a guest, longer lasting than a rose, brimming your bowl with light.

(Here's what People Look East sounds like. I prefer to sing it slowly like a ballad, but it's based on a French carol and most choir directors take the sprightly approach:)


Jane Henry said...

Wonderful post, Persephone. I can't hate Christmas either (have spent the best part of six months writing about it too.) I hate the crazy build up in the UK but I love the season itself. If only for the opportunity to curl up in the warm and flop for a few days with my nearest and dearest.

What's the tune of People Look East? I recognise it but can't think what it is.

Oh and The Dark is Rising is one of my favourite fantasies. I particularly love that book in the sequence, but also Silver on the Tree. The Christmassy bits in TDiR are just fabulous. Read it when I was probably the same age as Will and I still go back to it.

Here's hoping for a peaceful Christmas for you and yours and that your daughter doesn't get to fret too much about her assessment, and that you don't either. I don't think you've failed her at all. The system fails special needs children, not parents. xxxx

Persephone said...

The tune title in my hymn book says "Besançon", Jane. Other sources say it is a Besançon Carol, Besançon being a French town near the Swiss border, directly north of Geneva. I gather the French carol was "Berger, Secoue Ton Sommeil Profond" which is sometimes sung in English as "Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep". Hope you get some opportunities for drowsy sleep in the coming week!

Jane Henry said...

Oh yes of course. I know the carol in English. We're doing lots of drowsy sleeping already!

Paul Pincus said...

this was beautiful.

Persephone said...

Why, thank you, sir!