I live near the East River in New York City. It gives me great pleasure to walk over to the park along its banks and watch the slow winter water flow out to the Atlantic Ocean, to see the reflections of the city lights on the surface. Those lights will have to do: in the city I never really see stars.
When I go back to Oregon, though, I go back to my first river, the Willamette. It is the first river of my heart. I was born in a hospital that looks right out over the river’s falls, breaking its northward flow into the mighty Columbia. When I am home I drive south out of the city along the dark ribbon of highway 99, which traces the Willamette’s banks almost all the way to my mother’s house. There aren’t many street lamps on the drive, and on clear nights the stars and the moon are easily reflected on the water’s surface. In the dark and quiet of the drive, I experience a singular kind of peace, sensing something like benevolence from the night sky.
Rachel Taylor Brown also grew up near the banks of the Willamette, and describes this kind of moment beautifully and evocatively in her song “December”, from her 2007 album 7 Small Winter Songs. Her wide and flexible vocal range suggests the distance between the slow-moving river and the stars and the moon, while her crystal-clear tone twinkles above the piano’s rocking-chair ostinato. We hear the wind, eerily blowing in the higher octaves of the right hand, colored by chords which sometimes darken, just for a moment. Rachel’s use of alliteration and rhyme intensifies the dreamy, almost hypnotic quality of the song: stars stare, none other, moon mother, and my favorite, dream/remember/December. It is a lullaby filled with knowing.
My mother’s mother had a sampler on the wall of her guest room that read something like “How bittersweet the song that starts when memory plays an old tune on the heart.” When I listen to “December”, I feel a longing to drive along that river, seeing the stars and the moon whose face is like a mother. Like so many other things about this time of the year, it makes my heart ache in the best possible way.
Listen to “December” by Rachel Taylor Brown here.
all of the stars in the heavens
stare at themselves in the river
none more vain than the other
moon looks on like a mother
wind says to tree, says to window
“sleep–go to sleep, go to sleep.
dream sweet dreams and remember;
snow falls deep in december”
None of us will ever know the fullness of our impact on the lives of others. Similarly, it would be impossible for any one of us to trace all the ways that other people have transformed us. Lives may be lived in eras, but are experienced one at a time.
There is much to say, both positive and negative, about the arrival of French Jesuit Missionaries to New France (now Canada) in the 17th century, and about the impact these well-intentioned Europeans had on the lives of the First Nations peoples they encountered there.
One of these missionaries was Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, Society of Jesus. He lived most of his life and ministry with the Huron people. Fr. Brébeuf insisted that mastering the Huron language and understanding their spirituality was necessary before attempting to communicate the particularities of his own religion. It was the work of a lifetime, work that not even the most extensive Jesuit education could prepare him for. It required living closely with people whose way of life was wholly different from his own. It required developing deep trust, mutuality, and close listening.
One of the most powerful ways of communicating abstract concepts like faith is through song. Fr. Brébeuf wrote this Christmas carol while recovering from a broken collar bone in 1642, using the language of the Huron/Wendat people. He set his text to a modified version of a well-known French tune, “Une Jeune Pucelle”, and offered the carol as a gift to the people he lived with and served for so many years.
The Aeolian melody he derived has a limited tonal range, making it accessible to many kinds of voices as well as to instruments such as wood flutes. The hymn has been translated into French and English. There are several translations of the Huron/Wendat text in English, including the 1928 poetic version by Jesse Edgar Middleton included in several English language hymnals. Although this more literal translation is not very poetic, it helps me understand and appreciate how Fr. Brébeuf fashioned this haunting carol. Celtic singer Heather Dale’s performance uses Huron/Wendat, French, and English in a way I find particularly affecting.
Brébeuf’s lyrics harmonize the universality of Christian theology with the particularity of the people he loved and served. The song survived long after Fr. Brébeuf and the Huron people he lived with. In 1649 Fr. Brébeuf, along with a French colleague and several Huron converts, was tortured and massacred by Iroquois. He was canonized as a saint in 1930.
“The Huron Carol”, by Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, SJ, performance by Heather Dale
Have courage, you who are humans; Jesus, he is born
Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners has fled
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds
Jesus, he is born
They are spirits, sky people, coming with a message for us
They are coming to say, “Rejoice (Be on top of life)”
Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice”
Jesus, he is born
Three have left for such, those who are elders
Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon leads them there
He will seize the path, he who leads them there
Jesus, he is born
As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus
the star was at the point of stopping, not far past it
Having found someone for them, he says, “Come here!”
Jesus, he is born
Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
They praised (made a name) many times, saying “Hurray, he is good in nature”
They greeted him with reverence (greased his scalp many times), saying ‘Hurray’
Jesus, he is born
“We will give to him praise for his name,
Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.
It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them.'”
Jesus, he is born.
I have always loved the old bible story about the three wise men following a star that leads them to a humble manger and the baby inside of it, trusting in wisdom of the universe, written in the language of the stars, to lead them to something far beyond anything they would ever expect. You can really imagine how much improvising, and how much trust, would be needed to start a journey like that, and believe that their humble destination was really what they had been looking for.
For me, Deanna Witkowski and her trio colleagues, Scott Latzky (drums) and Daniel Foose (bass), embody that journey with this jazz arrangement of the beloved hymn, “We Three Kings” from her 2017 album Makes the Heart to Sing. Taking a lead sheet, a basic sketch of the melody written in chord progressions, they go on a musical journey together, trusting their skill and instincts along the way. In their own musical travels across a variety of key areas and rhythmic structures, this modern-day trio reveals its musical treasures to us. The familiar song becomes something extraordinary in the process.
This season I am thinking a lot about the nature of time—how the evening seems to fall so soon (is it always so dark so early in the middle of December?), how the days can feel so long and yet the weeks so short. Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year, an infrequent accident of calendar that makes the season of Advent—a contemplative season in my faith tradition—feel compressed and hurried.
This Kontakion (Greek for ‘hymn’) is a highly stylized chant used for liturgy, or the actions of a worship service in Christian or Jewish faith. Chant is one of the oldest forms of sacred song. The original melody is given the structure of rhythm, which is then led by the Protopsaltis, or cantor, and joined by the choir of men. The low drone, called ison, enriches the melody, creating both tone and overtones, deepening and heightening the experience at the same time.
The men of the Portland-based ensemble Cappella Romana offer a taste of this motion and stillness with their excellent performance of a Kontakion (hymn) for the Mother of God. In Orthodox tradition she is called “Theotokos” or the God-bearer. Nine months of human gestation will end with a birth, but what is sacred exists beyond the scope of time.
In the orthodox Christian tradition, liturgy is considered to be time outside of time, a continuum of the present moment with all eternity. When time feels compressed, minimized, or limited, music like this helps me feel myself a part of time on a cosmic scale, the aural equivalent of looking up into a sky full of stars.
It feels to me that 2017 has been a year of division and anxiety. There is a list of hurts as far as the eye can see across our beautiful nation, so many conflicting identities seemingly held together in name only. Living into this tension is draining, and I rely on the camaraderie of music. Sometimes I look for songs that serve as fuel, propelling me to do all the good I can with what I have. But sometimes I just want—just need—a little solace, a way to acknowledge the world as it is and still offer hope for a better tomorrow.
Enter the syncretistic magic of Y La Bamba, the Portland, Oregon-based band headed by the incomparable Luz Elena Mendoza. The child of Michoacan parents who raised their daughter between the forests of Southern Oregon and the deserts of Southern California, Mendoza is no stranger to a life of intersecting identities. She brings both mariachi and bluegrass traditions together to create her own sound filled, now with longing, now with dancing, always with love like a force of nature.
In “Winter Skin” from 2010’s Lupon, I hear her image of a fragile bridge suggested by the slow-step of a minor-key waltz. Mendoza’s voice cries out in a plea for a broken lullaby, and is answered by the eerie hum of a theremin. Strings, accordion, brass, and the chorus of bandmates all do their part to help warm her wind-chilled winter night.
Let’s build a couple fragile of bridges together
Let’s run across it and reach the sky
Let’s run across and meet the next hazel sunrise
It’s a sign of failure written all over these lonely skies
and our fortune has created time
Time of existing in a beginning
so today the sun refused to shine
Sing me to sleep
Oh my darling, your eyes
refused to catch my tear
Sing me to sleep
Winter is here.
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