Brace Yourself (Guest Post from The Spouse concluded)

Because I was born with one leg shorter than the other, I have always worn a brace. It remained roughly the same into my teens, but two major innovations occurred in high school. One: some clever brace maker (did I mention that they are creative as all get-out?) figured out a way to hinge the brace at the knee. Yay! I could bend my knee! Major breakthrough Two: I figured out how to put a zipper in the inseam of slacks so that I could get pants over the brace. I could wear slacks!

The final innovation didn’t occur until college when the extension of steel above my knee was removed completely, and I was left with only the lower part of the brace. No need for a hinge; no need for zippers. It probably weighed half of the original.

One major vulnerability remained, however: the steel footplate. My husband and I were traveling to visit my grandmother in rural Alabama when the steel footplate snapped in two. You’d think steel could manage the weight of a young woman, but it snapped. Where does one go in rural Alabama to get metal repaired? A blacksmith! Who, in fact, soldered or welded the thing back together enough for us to complete our trip.

It snapped again when we were visiting Florence. Yes, that Florence. No blacksmiths available, but the orthopedic department of a Florentine hospital managed to glue me back together enough to carry on. The orthopedist who helped me found me and my brace quite exotic and asked many, many questions. He spoke bad English and I spoke no Italian, so I don’t know how much medical information I was actually able to impart. After that, I had the footplate reinforced with a steel rod. It has not broken since.

Recently, one of my braces (I had two working models) broke. That is, the steel upright cracked…unusual, but there it is. No one makes braces like mine anymore; the last time I had a brace made — maybe 35 or 40 years ago — they sent to Detroit to have it fabricated, but even that alternative is no longer available. So for the first time, I really didn’t have a prosthetist. But it’s just metal, right? People who work with metal could fix it, right? Yes! Fortunately, I found a wonderful metal fabricator in Brooklyn. He makes things out of metal, like metal shelves for vinyl records. It’s a niche market that he has cornered. This wonderful man agreed to try fixing up an old, retired brace to see if it could be a stand-in in case my “good” one broke. David did a stellar job — one of the best prosthetists I have ever had. I keep his card with me always!

I am thankful to all of the prosthetists who have taken care of me and my brace over the years. When I was a child, it was an emerging profession. The field has made marvelous advances over the years, but it remains hard to find a prosthetic device as individualized as mine has had to be. David is now my go-to miracle man.

Brace Yourself (Guest Post from The Spouse)

I was born 76 years ago with one leg shorter than the other. Well, that’s the easy explanation. Currently my right leg is, in fact, 10 inches shorter than my left, but the medical explanation is somewhat more complicated. The textbook calls it “focal femoral deficiency,” which means that I lacked a femur, and, hence, the hip socket that awaited the head of that femur went without. Happily for me, a small nubbin of bone was the single representative of the missing femur, and, as you will see, it was pressed into service.

My mother must have been horrified to find that her second baby girl was going to be “crippled” (as they said in those days). She had classic Rita Hayworth legs of which she was justifiably proud, and would have expected to pass them along to her daughters. More than the absence of pretty legs, though, her second baby girl might not walk.

Mother being at a loss and, no doubt, bereft, my father took on the orthopedic duties. Good man that he was, he took a leave from graduate school and moved the family lock, stock, and barrel from Evanston, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. World War II had ended the previous summer, and the Veterans’ Administration was geared up for equipping returning soldiers with artificial limbs of all sorts. Dad must have known someone in the VA because he seemed certain that people there could outfit me with some sort of apparatus that would allow me to walk. He was right.

Let me stop to interject a word about prosthetists — those people who make braces and artificial limbs. In my opinion they are among the most creative problem-solvers on the planet. Prosthetics were pretty much in their infancy after WWII, and these guys were confronted with a vast variety of injuries. Braces are not made on an assembly line — not in those days anyway; they had to meet a wide spectrum of individual needs. They routinely work one-on-one to develop a constructive strategy. As it turns out, these folks also are among the most patient of all people. I have had many over my lifetime, and they are all good listeners, kind, and just plain nice.

My first brace was an elaborate piece of metal sculpture. These men (and they were routinely men in those days) were artists as well as craftsmen. There were two steel uprights surrounding my leg; a shoe could be attached to a metal footplate; and below the steel footplate were some more steel uprights reaching to the ground where there was a rubber “heel.” A leather strap encircled my leg just below the primitive “knee.” But that’s not all. There was something called an “ischial seat,” a semi-circle of padded leather that tucked in under my right buttock. And yes, I could “sit” on it. But wait; there’s more. A leather belt was attached so that I was strapped in from waist to toe. There must have been a hinge at the waist because I think I could bend over. Otherwise, there was no flexure; the uprights were unbending.

But I could walk (which was, after all, the point). Stiff-legged, but I could walk. And this contraption turned out to be more than just a crutch. With constant use of my legs, that little nubbin of bone managed to grow into a functional femur. It found a place to attach itself, not at the hip socket, but to some soft tissue in the vicinity of my hip. It nestled there, and that attachment became strong enough to support me even without the brace. However, its journey northward pulled my leg up with it resulting in shortening the leg. During most of my childhood I wore the brace to school, but at home I ran, jumped, rode bicycles, climbed trees and swam without it. It didn’t bother me that one of my legs was 4, 6, or 8 inches shorter than the other. Looking like a “normal” person, however, required the brace. Interestingly, I never named it.

But the brace was uncomfortable. In summer, the leather was hot and stuck to my skin. That ischial seat was fine while standing, but it was like a large lump on a schoolroom desk chair. And I couldn’t bend my knee. I was a stiff-legged robot with it on. And heaven knows how much the thing weighed. It also affected my wardrobe. I couldn’t wear slacks because I couldn’t get them over the brace, and I certainly wasn’t going to wear it outside the pants!

As I grew stronger (constant lifting it probably helped), the upper leather belt of the brace was removed, considered unnecessary. A relief for sure, but I was still a robot. In junior high school I was invited (by a boy!) to attend the “Eighth Grade Dance” (catchy title). His dad was going to pick me up with another couple or two and drive us to the dance and then home afterward. I was horrified to find out that I was to be squashed into the back seat with four other people. My brace had nowhere to go. It ended up poking a hole into the back upholstery of the front seat. I was too mortified to say anything. I don’t think I was invited to do anything with that boy again.

(Concluded Jan. 11)

Governance Meltdown Brought by You Know Who

On that first day when there were three separate votes for Speaker of the House (who knew that C-SPAN could offer such riveting watching?), a Representative usually identified as one of the ultra-MAGA people but who had voted for Kevin McCarthy said, “Every hour we spend on electing the Speaker is an hour we are not working on policy.” She said that without a smile or even a hint of irony.

I heard her and others talk about “open borders,” which sometimes morphed into “Biden’s open borders.” When referring to his borders, I don’t think they mean the president’s personal space, or his skin, or his boundaries on blasphemy, all of which might refer to his borders. I think they mean this country’s borders, but I don’t think they mean the Northland or the mid-Atlantic seacoast. Neither did I hear a mention of why Jair Bolsonaro could freely fly to Miami when other Latin Americans were futilely knocking on doors at the Mexican border. (Whenever I hear the name of the former president of Brazil, I hear Richard Kiley singing that earworm song from Man of La Mancha.)

Sometimes the rhetoric says that we must “secure our border” as if that were a statement of policy. But a “policy” would need to identify what steps should be taken to reach that goal. And, of course, a meaningful policy discussion would include how much it would cost and where the money would come from, since those who want a “secure border” also insist we must have a balanced budget. This is also said without a trace of irony or a mention of the budget deficits that occurred when conservatives controlled all government branches. Policies for a “secure” border, however, need to go beyond walls and agents. The discussion must include who should be able to visit this country and under what circumstances; who should be able to study here; who should be allowed to work here; who should be allowed to take up residence in the United States; and who should be allowed citizenship. As far as I can tell, that ultra-MAGA Representative who now bemoans taking time away from policy discussions has not meaningfully discussed any of these policy imperatives.

Of course, there as so many other policies that should be discussed. We need, for example, a better healthcare system so that American life expectancies might someday exceed those in Cuba. (You can look it up.) We need to examine our policies on business competition. We need to consider bringing good broadband service to many parts of this country. And so much more. Somehow I don’t believe that ultra-MAGA Representative will be working sensibly on any of these policies. 

I certainly don’t imagine that Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be leading such policy discussions. As far as I can tell, the “policy” he is most associated with is, “Let’s hold another Benghazi hearing.”

I thought that I might be being unfair, so I went to Fox News that evening looking to hear from the conservative policy gurus. I could only last a few minutes with Tucker who was giving time to a person who has been repeatedly called a disinformation master. (Whenever I watch Carlson, I hear Shirley Ellis singing that earworm song, The Name Game.) The Disinformation Master was saying that we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the NFL player’s cardiac arrest had something to do with the vaccine we don’t know that he took. (And, I thought, we can’t rule out that the cardiac arrest resulted from his visiting the polar bear exhibition at his local zoo when he was eight.)

A little later I checked in with Hannity. His earth-shattering policy discussion was to tell us that, according to him, there was irrefutable proof that President Biden knew that China had given gifts to his relatives. I did not say tuned to find out why it would be democracy-shaking news that gift-givers were known. Nor did I wait (it would have been quite a long wait) to hear that Trump also knew who was heaping “emoluments” on Trump’s hotels before and during his term in office.

Apparently, this passes for working on policy. Alas.

“To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Benjamin Disraeli.

My Book List (concluded)

          Over the years I have maintained a list of books I have read. It’s out of curiosity, but also because I remember too little of what I have read and thought it would be useful to have a list. This being the end of the year and the beginning of another annual book list, I thought I would look over at least part of the list to see what I might remember about my reading.

          The first book on my list, recorded in 2012, is by Joan Hess, Misery Loves Maggody. A note I made says that it is an Arly Hanks Mystery. Not surprisingly, I do not remember anything about the plot of the mystery. I seldom remember plots for more than a few weeks after finishing a mystery, but I am surprised that I recall Maggody as being set in Arkansas and that Arly Hanks was a small-town sheriff or police chief. Also to my surprise, I remember buying the book at a Lot for Less store, which carries all sorts of remainders from clothes to breakfast cereal to sheets. I was addicted to this store for a long time. Since it was on my route from the subway stop to my office, it was only natural that I went there regularly, buying lots of things I did not need because they, as the name implies, cost lots less than elsewhere. On occasion, the store had books, and on occasion I bought one there–like the Hess book. I enjoyed the Joan Hess mystery, but that was, according to the computer’s find function, my first and last encounter with her and Ms. Hanks.

          As I glance down the first year’s entries, however, I have no idea how I obtained many of the books. For example, after Misery Loves Maggody comes Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which a note indicates consists of three novels published from 1960 to 1965 and was made into a BBC series with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. I can’t believe that I bought this giant paperback which still sits on my bookshelf. I probably found it as a giveaway sitting on a neighborhood stoop. I can recall little about the book other than I thought it odd that a country, I think in this case Romania, would accept a king who was not born, raised, or otherwise being of the country and did not even speak the language.

          As I glance at the listings from over a decade ago, I have zero memory of many of them. For example, Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper. I noted “M.D. Hit Man.” That seems memorable but apparently not to me. More surprising is that I have no memory whatsoever of Naguib Mahfouz, The Mirage. A note tells me that the author was an Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner. Surely the book had an important literary impact, but not a lasting one on me.

          That first year’s list also indicates that some of my book habits had changed. Every fourth book or so a decade ago was on audio. I had begun listening to audiobooks in my running days.

          I had at first resisted audiobooks while running. A runner, I thought, should have an unimpeded experience and absorb only the ambient sounds. I felt superior to those on the Prospect Park road who had buds in their ears. After a year or so of running, though, I changed. I was then in a phase of if you are going to do something you should do it compulsively. I was spending a lot of time running my 40, 50, or 60 miles a week, and there seemed to be less and less time for anything else. So I bought a Walkman, or probably a knockoff, and started listening to NPR shows. Then after another year, I broke down and ordered from Books on Tape. I had assumed that listening to a book could not hold up to reading the print version. I soon found that was only partially true. Some books, I felt, were best read by oneself. Many were good in both print and audio versions, and there were some, I was convinced, that were better in the audio form (I felt that about the moving Growing Up by the amusingly astute observer of America, Russell Baker.) Audio continued into 2012 even though the running did not. While they have now dropped to the wayside for me, audiobooks were a regular part of my life for a long time.

          I at first also resisted Kindle. Turning pages seemed more satisfying than poking a screen, and with a printed book, it was much easier to go back and find the clarifying passage I did not remember. I read a few e-books a decade ago, but not many. That changed during the pandemic.

My country library is a member of an e-book consortium, and I started getting more and more e-books while quarantining. Then I expanded my horizons and got them from the New York Public Library, and a bit later from the Brooklyn Public Library. (Brooklyn, of course, is part of New York City and most NYC municipal institutions are citywide. However, for whatever reason, when the five boroughs were consolidated into one New York City in 1898, the Brooklyn Public Library remained separate from the New York Public Library.)

Of course, there is a lot to be said for being able to get books without leaving the couch, but I still find one major drawback with e-books — you can’t mark them up. I often underline or write in the margins of printed versions of the nonfiction I read. Sometimes I go back to look at my notes in these books. I know that something similar can be done with e-books, but I have not learned how to do it as efficiently as I do with traditional books.

          While the lists eleven years apart indicate a shift away from audiobooks towards e-books, they indicate a consistency in library browsing for new nonfiction. A longstanding habit has been to turn to the right after entering my small, public country library. The metal bookshelves there hold in separately labeled sections new fiction, mysteries, biographies, and nonfiction. Sometimes I may browse for a novel or a fiction, but every time I look at the biographies and the nonfiction for a topic that might be of interest. If I find such a book, I will give it a go even though I may not have heard of it or its author before.

More recently, I have started doing comparable browsing at convenient branches of the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries. They, too, have new nonfiction sections, and rummaging in them has led to much of what I now read. Eleven years ago the browsing at the country public library led me to such books as Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Jonathan Eig, Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, and Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, and others, none of which I probably would have bought to read. This year the browsing in the various public libraries has led me to William Elliott Hazelgrove, Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick, Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, and Porter Fox, Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.

          When I look over the 2012 list, I see mostly random reading except perhaps for several books about lawyers and our criminal justice system. I was then in the midst of volunteer work with a couple of public defenders’ offices, and perhaps I had some fantasy about writing reflections about those experiences. If so, nothing came of it.

          This year’s list does have a few spots of direction. I was advising a senior at Columbia University writing an honors thesis centered on the January 6 insurrection, and I read several books so that I could advise him better. These included Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction; David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy;and Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

In the years since I started the book list, I became a member of a history book group that now directs some of my reading. For example, among other books this year, we “historians” read Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing; Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War; Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York; Philippe Sands, East West Street; Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History; Report of Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States; and Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

What got the most focus from my reading in 2022 was Iceland. I read novels by Halldór Laxness and Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, many mystery stories written by Icelandic writers, and several nonfiction books about the country. These added enjoyment and perspective to my trip when I was there and afterwards.

I am lucky to have friends and family who are discerning readers and make good recommendations. Mostly, however, my reading seems aimless except that I tend to avoid certain genres. I seldom read romances, although this year, wanting to get a better understanding of the phenomenon, I read a book by Colleen Hoover. I avoid science fiction, although I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and one of his novels sits on top of a stack of books I plan to read in the coming months. I don’t read fantasies, although I feel as if I ought to know Harry Potter and the Hobbit. It has been years since I read a graphic novel, and even longer since I read a western. Every couple years I attempt poetry but never make it to the end of a volume.

I do wonder why I read. I read few books closely. I remember well only a few of the books I finish. I do get some fodder for this blog from my reading. It produces the “First Sentences” I occasionally post. Sometimes the reading gives me an idea for a post or a quotation to use. But I don’t read as if I am researching for the blog or anything else. I read because I read.

I think back to a clerk who had waited on me several times in a ten-day span at the local bookstore. She said, “You read a lot.” I replied, “If you don’t have a life, you should at least read.”

And I continue to keep my book list. I have made the first two entries for 2023: James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (obtained from the new nonfiction section of the Brooklyn Public Library) and Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing (obtained from a sale at the Barrett Friendly Public Library.)

My Book List

          As a new year unfolds, people reflect on what occurred in the old one. Those reflections often come from professional writers—David Barry’s amusing and insightful summary of the year’s events, for example. Some are informative lists of the “best” books, movies, music, television shows, or plays of the year which help to inform my reading or viewing. Some of the reflections come from “ordinary” folk in a broadsheet carefully creased into a holiday card telling me what the writers and their incredibly marvelous and accomplished children and grandchildren have done during the calendar year. (A friend used to send us one of these. We were slightly amazed at all the interesting things they had done throughout the year until we realized that one of the described events was something we had done with them, something that to the spouse and me was so unexceptional that we barely remembered it.)

          I have not engaged in such annual retrospection. The end of December seems arbitrary to me for this task. A new calendar may be tacked to the kitchen bulletin board but in my gut a year naturally ends and begins with a change of the season—the coming of spring or the end of summer. January 1 in the dead (interesting phrase) of winter does not feel like the beginning of a new year.

          I don’t engage in such yearly retrospection except, sort of, for an annual book list. I record the books I read each year starting with January 1. This recordkeeping is now a decade old, but I have not done the compilation for any reflection at the end of the year. I often do not remember what I have read, not the title, author, or content. I often do not know whether I have read a book that I am considering, nor could I tell someone the identifying information of a book that I might recommend. To remedy these shortcomings, I started my book list. I seldom refer to the list except occasionally to answer the question, Have I read that? Or, What was the title of that book?

          The list does not include many comments. I note whether the book came from a library or its form if I read something other than a traditional print version. No notes indicate that I own the book and should search my shelves if I want to look at it again.

In the second year, I began to number the volumes on each year’s entries. I had no reason other than curiosity so I could see how many books I had read in the year. This, however, soon morphed into a bit of OCDism. I set a quota each year, and I became uncomfortable if I felt I was falling behind the necessary pace to reach the goal.

Last year, however, I met my self-imposed number well before the end of the year. Part of me felt that to finish more books before December 31 was a waste. They should be pushed off into the next year to make attaining the new quota easier. I paused in reading a half dozen books last December so that I could finish them in the first week of January to get me ahead of the OCD book curve. I realized that that was silly and resolved not to do it again. On the other hand, I still find myself apprehensive about starting a thick book when I am not on the “correct” pace.

This year, partly because of my 2021 cheating, I completed my quota early, but even though it makes me a bit uneasy about making 2023’s “required” number, I did not “artificially” alter my book reading. It is sad that this disregard for the coming year added an element of devil-may-care to my life.

(concluded January 4)

Why Celebrate January 1?

The New Year did not always begin on January 1. New Year’s Day was celebrated on different dates throughout history. In some ages and places, January 1 started another year, but in other places and ages, a new year began on December 25 or March 1 or some other date. In early England and its American colonies, March 25 was New Year’s Day, which strikes me as odd. I may be conditioned by the January 1 date, but it only seems natural to begin a new year as a new month begins. March 1 or April 1 seem to be possibilities for another year, especially since these are days of spring in the northern hemisphere when we see the earth being renewed.

          In England and America January 1 became New Year’s Day in 1752 as England adopted the Gregorian calendar. Trivia question: When was a year not a year-long? The answer: 1751. The British parliament passed a law adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1750 mandating that the year 1751, which began on March 25, would end on December 31 with the next year beginning on January 1, 1752. Thus, 1751 in England was only 282 days long.

          There is another answer to that trivia question, however. The Julian calendar in use in England was not quite accurate, something that had been recognized during the Middle Ages. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII adopted the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which had January 1 as a year’s starting point. (What are the odds? Gregory adopted the Gregorian calendar.) This deletion required the elimination of ten days so that 1582 is also a year that was not year-long.

          Of course, because the Pope made this change — even though it was a good one — many Protestant countries resisted it, apparently thinking that if the Antichrist was behind it, then it could not be all good. Eventually, of course, other countries recognized that the Gregorian calendar was not some sort of devilish trick and adopted the new style of dating—even the British.

          Today countries that had used different calendars have adopted the Gregorian calendar, including Japan, Egypt, Korea, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. New Year’s Day starts at the stroke of midnight on January 1, and it is the most celebrated time around the world as billions are excited by fireworks, whistles, and bells, local time of course.

          Even though I don’t understand why we celebrate the day, come Sunday, I, too, will be saying “Happy New Year!”

Snippets

On Christmas Day I received an email from a legal group that claims to fight for the religious rights of all faiths but proclaims itself Christian. The message did wish me Merry Christmas and said that on Christmas “we celebrate the birth of the One who makes our spiritual freedom possible.” I don’t understand that phrase, but I expected what was coming. Jesus may make spiritual freedom possible, but He could be helped along if I would forward some money to this organization. Is this what the Christmas spirit now means–fundraising for your own organization on the day to celebrate the birth of Christ? I don’t think being nummamorous ???, especially on Christmas, seems very Christian. Luckily for me, however, my Christmas spirit was not affected because I did not read the email until Boxing Day.

Old joke: The sailor, when asked what he did with his money, replied, “Part went for liquor, part went for women, and the rest I spent foolishly.”

Christmas Day is over, but we are in the twelve days of Christmas leading up to the Epiphany on January 6, which is a big holiday in some cultures. However, while perhaps it should be sung now, the song The Twelve Days of Christmas seems to be heard before Christmas Day, not after. I like Christmas carols, but I would be happy if I heard The Twelve Days only once in a season, or perhaps not at all. And doesn’t it contravene the Christmas spirit to give someone 78 gifts?

Those who worship the version of the Second Amendment the Supreme Court created) a decade or two ago should send their true loves a cartridge in a pear tree.

Who for twelve consecutive winter days sends over a pear tree? And where do they get all those partridges?

The young woman next to me pointed to the book I had placed on the bar and said that she was trying to see what I was reading. I held it up to display the cover and said, “It’s a fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann.” She looked as if I had not uttered an English sentence. I added, “He has also written a fictionalized biography of Henry James.” She still looked blank. I decided that,  despite this evidence, she must be a reader. Did she have any recommendations? She could not come up with one. She told me that she was there to meet someone she had only just met from an online writing course. We did not speak much after that.

“It is a common failing of an ambitious mind to overrate itself.” Lady Caroline Smith.

Browsing in a library, I pulled out a collection of three short novels that had been reissued in a single volume a couple decades after their initial publications. The back cover had paragraphs from two noted (that means I recognized the names) literary critics. One stated, “Whoever she is, she is the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” The other began, “She has cut to roundness and smoothed to convexity a little crystal of literary form that concentrates the light like a burning glass.” WOW. I grabbed the book and looked forward to reading it, only partly because I anticipated the pleasure of commenting on it (in a superior fashion) to others “What? You’ve never read so-and-so?!” I gave up after thirty-seven pages. I concluded that just because you have read Henry James, that does not mean you should try to write like him.

Blog Today

There is no attempt at yet another witty, insightful, meaningful post today. I am busy assembling, trying to learn how to use, swearing at, and enjoying Christmas gifts.

Send Back the Song Which Now the Angels Sing

The angelic appearance in the fields surrounding Bethlehem is sometimes referred to as the Annunciation to the Shepherds.  The Annunciation, which has been celebrated in many famous paintings, was the announcement to Mary that she would become pregnant even though she had not “known” a man: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, . . . ‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ . . . And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, . . . ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’”

(The Virgin Birth is in the Bible. The bizarre notion of the Immaculate Conception is not.)

The Bible contains another annunciation of the virgin birth. It comes earlier in the Bible than the one to Mary, but later in time. Mary is already pregnant, and Joseph, engaged to Mary, for obvious reasons knows he is not the father. He plans a divorce when an angel appears in a dream and tells Joseph not to reject Mary for she has conceived through the Holy Spirit. The angel continues that the son should be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” As a result, Joseph did not reject Mary “but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”

Mary is honored for her faith in accepting her pregnancy, but perhaps Joseph’s conduct should be celebrated at least as much. His action is an incredible expression of faith, much more it seems to me than that of Mary. Mary finds herself pregnant, but she knows that she is a virgin. Perhaps it is not so hard under these circumstances to accept that the Holy Spirit was responsible. However difficult the acceptance was for Mary, surely it was much harder for Joseph. He finds his fiancée pregnant. He knew he did not impregnate her. It is an extraordinary man of faith that would accept what the unnamed angel told him. If you are going to celebrate faith, this is an act for celebration.

Mary’s annunciation story presents few facts about her. She is a virgin. She married Joseph. She accepts what Gabriel tells her. We learn little about her actions, personality, or character other than the angel telling her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

We do not know why she has found favor. It surely can’t be that she is a virgin. The story is based on the notion that virginity was expected on the wedding day. There were many virgins in the land. Perhaps she was favored by the Lord because she led an exemplary life that we should emulate. But if so, we can’t try to be like her because we do not know why God singled her out. As far as we know, she found favor just as a powerball winner finds favor. Mary has been simply the winner in God’s lottery.

On the other hand, Joseph’s annunciation story reveals something about the kind of man he was. When he finds himself a cuckold because his betrothed is pregnant, my Bible says, “Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Of course, after the angel speaks to him, he abandons this thought, but look at his character. When many men would have been vindictive or trying to save face, he was thinking of another, the one who apparently wronged him. He did not want to shame Mary. Joseph is not just a man of incredible faith, he is a helluva nice guy. The Bible does not tell us that Joseph was favored by God. No reason is given for him to be the “father” who raises the savior.  But we do know that this is a faithful man who can put others before himself. We can see at least a bit of Jesus in Joseph. Joseph seems to be someone to emulate, and perhaps he should be pushed more to the center of the Christmas story.

For some the Christmas stories constitute a test of faith. Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe in the guiding star? I am not a believer in any of the Christmas story. For me, its truth is simply irrelevant. His “resurrection,” another test of faith, is also irrelevant. Instead, I would like to believe what truly matters and what points the way for a better life for me and a better world for all is the life He lived.

I like Christmas. Every year during the season I feel a few moments of that spirit where maybe someday there could be peace on earth and good will towards men, or more realistically, a bit more peace and good will. For a few moments each year, the concluding part of the song about the midnight clear haunts me with its possibilities:

“An ye, beneath life’s crushing load/ whose forms are bending low/ who toil along the climbing way/ with painful steps and slow/ look now! for glad and golden hours/ come swiftly on the wing./ O rest beside the weary road,/ and hear the angels sing!

“For lo! the days are hastening on,/ by prophet seen of old,/ when with the ever-circling years/ shall come the time foretold/ when peace shall over all the earth/ its ancient splendors fling,/ and the whole world send back the song/ which now the angels sing.”

Send Back the Song Which Now the Angels Sing

I look forward to Christmastime. I like much of the seasonal music. In these weeks of possibilities, in my mind I sing Christmas hymns, carols, and songs, and I sing them perfectly on key. However, in reality I do not sing them aloud because no one can recognize anything I vocalize. Only dogs want to harmonize with me.

One that I love is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It contains the marvelous verse: “Peace on the earth, good will to men/From heaven’s all gracious king/The world in solemn stillness lay/To hear the angels sing.”

(When I recently said, Peace on the earth, good will to men, a listener who I assumed knew neither the song nor the Bible story accused me of being woke. The woke version, however, would say, “Peace on the earth, good will to people of all gender identities.” See if you can work that into a hymn.)

I am unsure, however, about the inclusiveness of the blessing. My Bible acknowledges that some authorities have the angels saying “peace, goodwill among men.” But this version has it: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’” I find this ambiguous. If God were pleased with all men, this is inclusive. But the granted peace might only have been given to a subset of humanity that had pleased God.

The song’s refrain, of course, refers to the Biblical story that begins, “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, watching over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them.” (The shepherds were not washing their socks by night as many Sunday School children think.) That angel announces that the Savior has been born in Bethlehem and is lying in a manger. The shepherds hurry off, find the manger, and spread the angel’s words.

This leads to the many creches I have seen. Always in a creche is a manger with the baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph are nearby and a little further away are the kneeling shepherds along with sheep. (We should pay more attention to the sheep because they were celebrating the first Fleece Navidad. I have seldom seen a dog in the countless manger scenes, but a German shepherd would not be inappropriate. Naples is known for its creches, and all sorts of figures are placed around the baby, including representations of historical figures and relatives of the creche’s owner. Even so, I found it strange that I could buy a tiny representation of Maradona to place in mine. I did not do so.)

Almost all creches include the Three Wise Men even though the Bible tells us they were not outside around a manger. Those men first go to Herod and tell that signs reveal that the king of the Jews has been born. They want to know where to find Him. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” An assembly of chief priests and scribes say that it is written that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. Led by a star to the City of David, the wise men “going into the house [Italics added] they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

(The Three Wise Men followed the big star. Were they the first groupies? Yes, I know that the Bible does not say that there were three wise men. That number is merely assumed from the number of gifts. As kids, we liked to sing, “We three kings of orient are/Puffing on a royal cigar/One was loaded and exploded/ We two kings of orient are.” That passed for Sunday School humor among us.)

The Bible does tell us about the manger. Joseph and Mary had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where her labor began. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” A song I sang as a kid begins “Away in a manger/No crib for a bed/The little Lord Jesus/Laid down His sweet head.” That hymn always seemed insipid, and it is not one I replay much in my head. I only learned as an adult another song relating to that same Biblical passage, No Room at the Inn. It is now a favorite, both for its infectiousness and its layered meanings. I have heard the gospel song with varying lyrics from different artists, and now each Christmas season I make a point of listening to it. This year I heard on YouTube renditions, both good, from Mahalia Jackson and Ann Murray.

Mary and Joseph were away from home because: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. . . . .And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” Luke 2: 1-5.

(I don’t know if this census included any controversial citizenship questions. The passage says “all the world.” I have a strong feeling that the Mayans and the Japanese did not enroll. Of course, this passage is one of many that demonstrate that the Bible cannot be taken literally, Walter Lippmann said, “You and I are forever at the mercy of the census-taker. That impertinent fellow who goes from house to house is one of the real masters of the statistical situation. The other is the man who organizes the result.” (concluded December 23)