the gifts of christmas

It’s Christmas Eve again. In a week it’ll be New Year’s Eve. How did this happen? How did twelve months slip past so quickly?

Darned if I know. Each year I’m caught off guard, greeting the dusk of December with a flappety-wappety shake of the head and a startled WAIT, WHAT? TOMORROW IS CHRISTMAS? I’M NOT READY! I STILL HAVE TO WRAP GIFTS! MY ATTIC IS COVERED IN DOLLAR STORE TCHOTCHKES! MY FINGERS ARE RAVELED IN TAPE!

This is my usual M.O. I’m never ready for Christmas, but it always comes. And when it does, I cry.

On Saturday morning, writing a few end-of-year checks, I shed a few tears. Not buckets. Not cups. Not even thimbles. Just little saline markers of sentiment and reflection as I dwelt on gifts dispatched and received, on Christmases present and past, on people I love both here and departed.

On Saturday afternoon, running last-minute Christmas errands, I cried again. Again, not buckets. Again, just tiny hat-tips to my emotional state as I ticked through all who aren’t here, ruminating on the impermanence of life and the permanence of love.

Christmas does this to me. It loops around with joy and wistfulness, a tinsel-strewn reminder of love and the miracles it births – and not just the baby Jesus. It reminds me of everyone I’ve ever held dear, everyone who ever shared a piece of themselves with me, everyone who brought beauty and warmth into my orbit before leaving a little too soon. My husband’s laugh, my mother’s pluck, my father’s puns, my sister’s giant violet eyes: They’re gone now, and so are our Christmases together. Except they aren’t. The pea coat Mama gave me in December 1980 might be a tumbleweed of gnarled wool thread, but the gifts that matter endure.

Lives are linear; they begin and they end. But love is not. Love cycles back, coiling its way through moments as the years pile up behind me. And what is Christmas, after all, but an annual feast of love? The love of parents for their newborn? The love of God for us? The love of us for each other?

So the ghosts of Christmases past don’t haunt me, really. My tears, when they sneak up on me, speak less of grief and more of gratitude. They remind me to look up and out at the world. They remind me to love those around me — everyone who walks beside me in this world, hearts thundering, bellies laughing, taking my hand as I stumble.

They’re here with me now in this season of wonder, and I clutch them hard. I regard them with wonder, treasuring the gifts that they bring.

But now you’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I head up to the attic and finish wrapping presents, BECAUSE I’M NOT READY FOR CHRISTMAS.

jazz is life

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )


I’ve dug through the past until my fingernails bleed, but I can’t remember when and how I first heard the music of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. It was probably in some movie soundtrack. It must have been “Minor Swing,” because Amazon tells me I downloaded it in December 2010: there it is, the moment of inception. In January of 2011, I bought a fat collection of Reinhardt/Grappelli tracks, and I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know the violin could do that: the swinging, the sliding, the astonishing flights of virtuosity in the context of popular song. At no point, of course, did I delude myself into thinking I could do that. How could I? I was a crappy classical amateur! My playing unleashed the dying squirrel!

Then, just eight months later — in late September of 2011 — I lost my husband to suicide. In the face of incomprehensible tragedy, I resolved to learn jazz violin. This made no sense, but what did? My beloved Chris was dead. Why not make an utter boob out of myself in the pursuit of some swinging musical dream?

So I started lessons. I found a wonderful teacher. I learned gradually. I sucked happily. But I kept at it, learning and sucking, as I grieved and coped and grieved and coped and grieved some more, saying goodbye to my second mother, Pat, and my best friend, Pam. Life tossed other complications my way, some joyous, some painful, and as it did, I found myself playing jazz out in the world with other people.

Two and a half years ago, I drove to the pretty stone church in Connecticut where I was married in 1991. It was a couple weeks before Easter, and the doors were open. I walked up the aisle, standing for a moment at the altar with the shades of all my departed. Chris, Pat, Pam. My parents and sister, who died in 1992 and 1994. I recalled that drizzly Saturday in July. I pictured Pam, helping me with my makeup that morning — the second and last time I ever wore it. My handsome husband, beaming in his polka-dot bowtie. My dear, sweet, senile father, confused but smiling as my mother squeezed his hand in the pew. My sister Lucy, squeezing mine. All of the love in the church that day. All of the hugs afterward.

The memories pressed hard on me. I sagged, breathless and teary, before a crucifix draped with the purple of Lent.

Somehow, I left. And as I drove away I listened to Grappelli, a cassette tape crammed into my (extremely) old Honda. The music carried me. It bore me along bendy hills and blind curves with a wild, indefatigable, syncopated cheer that hauled me into the present and filled me with hope.

At home the next day, I hugged my son and then bolted to my bedroom, got out my fiddle — Mama’s fiddle — and played gypsy jazz, each successive tune punching me awake. As I told a friend not long ago: It’s impossible to be sad while playing that music. It’s impossible to think about anything else, any people I’ve lost, any errors I’ve made, any scars I’m prone to picking.

Music keeps the brokenness at bay. It’s an act of creation in the face of loss, a patch of daylight in the dark. It expands my shrunken universe, allowing me to meet new people and make new attachments at an age when the meeting and the making are not the easiest thing. It allows me to greet the world as a friend. I am sick as hell of death, that greasy bastard, and I refuse to let it win: Jamming is my triumph over the reaper. BACK THE HELL OFF, I say, armed with a bow in one hand, a violin in the other. I AM GOING TO PLAY JAZZ.

Swinging with friends, I know I’m alive. I  know I have a place in this world — if only for a moment, if only in a sly little pocket of rhythm that seduces and slays me. But isn’t that all of life? Isn’t it just one fleeting but fruitful pocket, thick with meaning? A swing on a pendulum that dips and turns, all sharps and flats and blue notes and bridges from one piece of song to another?

Maybe that’s why everything’s better when I swing. Maybe that’s why everything feels right on the two and the four. Maybe that’s why even a wrong note makes sense as I bend it into the right one, inching it a half-step up or down in a metaphor for living that that I seized upon, some months ago, and now clutch to my chest as the answer to everything.

In jazz, at least, mistakes don’t kill the music. They simply change it. And ain’t that life, or it should be.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART V: MUSIC = SEX