Advent for the Skeptical and Weary

I guess I’ll start with the Christmas cards.

Most years, if I even manage to get cards out, I make them myself. Last-minute. Stapled together with a couple of Instagram pictures printed out on our low-toner inkjet. I actually like it this way. Punk Rawk Xmas!

We’d never had a professional family portrait, until a few weeks ago. I had a gift certificate to a friend’s photo studio, and after an hour or two of trying to get the boys to stop fighting over the fake snow, we ended up with a handful of beautiful, silly photos.

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So I started browsing those holiday-card websites, thinking we’d do ‘em up proper this year.

Now, apparently—if the designer templates are to be believed—the new Christmas card hotness is the inclusion of a Top 5 list of all your family’s 2016 accomplishments.  The card companies offer several helpful examples, like:

  1. Dale got a promotion!
  2. We moved to a bigger house!
  3. Kylie’s soccer team won the championship!
  4. We bought a boat!

…et cetera.

It is hard to think of better bait for the snarky teenager in me.

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Dance Me to the End of Love (Song Series #12)

Jen Hinst-White - "Dance Me to the End of Love"

me with viola; chalk drawing of olive branch + my toddler son’s feet; Rob with guitar

All in one week: The anniversary of Kristallnacht. A wave of hate crimes in the U.S., in the wake of a fraught election. And the death of Leonard Cohen, who wrote this song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

Dance Me to the End of Love

Guitar: Rob Hinst; vocals + viola: Jen Hinst-White; written by Leonard Cohen

When this one first seduced me, I thought it was just a sexy little song with gorgeous imagery. I didn’t know that Cohen wrote it in response to a particularly chilling detail of the Holocaust. He wrote:

“In the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

It is a love song. It is an ache-and-longing song, it is an acute-beauty-and-suffering song, it is a being-human song. But it is also a fear song, a death song.

I’ve been thinking about how the persecution of the Jewish people didn’t begin with killing. It started with scapegoating and pushing people to the edges of society. Kristallnacht is infamous because it marked the start of widespread violence against Jews, and yet it was not explicitly ordered by the Nazi party. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced that

“the Führer has decided that … demonstrations [against Jewish people] should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

Many—even the victims’ own neighbors, even “Christian” religious leaders—witnessed this escalation, from scapegoating to discrimination to isolation to violence, and did nothing.

And finally: It’s worth noting that Nazis not only sought to exterminate the Jewish people, which would have been horrific enough, but also dehumanized and slaughtered a host of other people: people with disabilities, LGBT people, authors and artists considered “subversive,” anyone perceived as a political opponent, trade union leaders, Catholic and Lutheran clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavs and Poles and Roma (Gypsies) and many more.

I love “Dance Me to the End of Love” for so many reasons. It is so specific, so human, and any good writer knows if you want to humanize your characters, if you want to avoid writing characters who are flat stereotypes, what you do is add specificity, add unique human details. Dance me to your beauty, like a burning violin. Dance me to the panic, till I’m gathered safely in. Lift me like an olive branch, be my homeward dove— 

This is a song of love and longing and cruelty and beauty, and depending on the moment I sing it, it can be more one thing than another; but lift me like an olive branch: this week I’m singing this song in prayer as much as passion.

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Among the Living (Review Series)

Each month I review a new book for ImageUpdate. Here’s the latest.

Living in the Aftermath
Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

Before the concentration camps, Yitzhak Goldah was an accomplished young journalist in Prague. Inside the camps, he nearly died at the hands of Nazi scientists. But after the camps, Yitzhak Goldah is still alive, and this is where Jonathan Rabb’s novel Among the Living begins: Goldah stepping into his new life in Savannah, Georgia, with his American cousins, Abe and Pearl Jesler. The Jeslers have decided everything: He will work at Abe’s shoe store; he will use a new name (“Ike Goldah. That’s good and strong”); he will submit to Pearl’s over-attentive mothering… or, as it turns out, to the reader’s delight, perhaps he won’t. What keeps this memorable story rushing forward (besides the clear prose and confident plotting) is not so much what’s been done to Goldah, but what Goldah does now that he is free. The members of his new community are forever committing gaffes (Pearl Jesler, closing the drapes: “This room gets far too much sun and just bakes you like an oven”). But these slips of the tongue bother Goldah far less than the pity, the gossip, and the built-in social strata of Savannah: chasms between the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities and between blacks and whites. It isn’t lost on Goldah that U.S. laws and social conventions minimize the humanity of African-Americans, just as the Nazis did to Jews and so many others. But even faced with centuries-old structures like these, Goldah dares to deviate from them when life presents him with new joys: romantic love (even if taboo), meaningful work (even if risky), a place of his own (even if it offends family), and, every step of the way, the very ability to feel. Early on in the book, an American rabbi tells Goldah: “Know that you are among Jews again, Mr. Goldah. Jews who are alive and who are living.” But for Yitzhak Goldah, being fully alive requires even more than that. In the Savannah of 1947—and the wherever-you-are of 2016—certain expectations rule the day. In this worthy novel, Goldah comes alive by flouting those expectations, in favor of a life that he can claim with integrity as his own.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

Purchase your copy here.

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Let It Be (Song Series #11)

my son in our living room

my son in our living room, letting it be

So this was odd. My husband and I were idling in the pizzeria last Friday, waiting for our slices to come out of the oven, when the song changed on the radio.

And in my hour of darkness,
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

“I love this one,” I said to Rob. I hadn’t thought of it in the longest time. I added it to my mental list of songs I want to learn to play.

That was that—ate my lunch, went back to my desk. A few hours later, my phone dinged with a message from one of my best friends.

 Any chance you'd be available to sing 
"Let It Be" at a funeral on Sunday?
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Review Series: Essays of Rest and Restlessness

Each month I review a new book for ImageUpdate. Here’s the latest.

 

Essays of Rest and Restlessness
First Church of the Higher Elevations: Mountains, Prayer and Presence by Peter Anderson

Things that many of us hope for in prayer and pilgrimage, even if we don’t admit it: “quiet peaceful serenity,” “out-of-the-ordinary contemplative skill,” “great mystical insight.”  What we often get, instead: “strangeness,” “an experience of Presence that feels more like absence,” and the occasional attack by a charging sloth bear.

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La Vie en Rose (Song Series #10)

Fooling around with a song I’ve always loved. Breaking out the college French. Accompanied by cheeky guitarist Rob Hinst.

 

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Don’t Say Poetry Never Did Anything for You

I was pretty mad at my husband this morning. Details not important. Level of anger important. I was at that stage where you get out the blankets for that spare bed in the basement. I was at the stage where I regarded every flattering social media post we’ve ever made about each other as the height of hypocrisy, a sad 21st century updating of 1950s suburban social veneers. Like, who ARE these stupid happy people?

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I was at the stage where (although I intellectually assented that we were still best friends) I kicked him out of the house and told him to go cool off at some coffee shop.

Then I furiously made French toast for the children. Yes, it is possible to do anything furiously.

It is Saturday–a domestic day. With the kiddos around, I could not write, or read, or crankily run down to the beach, or other things I might choose to do at moments of ire. So when my husband came home a few hours later, he found me on a housecleaning jag.

He began to pick up toys alongside me. Whatever our falling out, it remains true that he is mostly an upstanding marital citizen.

A while later, after I had scrubbed the bathtub and swept my office, he came and found me and hugged me for a while.

He told me some things. I respected those things. I thanked him.

And because we happened to be standing by the poetry section of my bookshelf,

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I said, “I’d like to mark this moment by reading a poem that I carefully hand-selected for this occasion.”

I grabbed a completely random book off the shelf. (It turned out to be Ghost Girl by Amy Gerstler. It’s pretty fabulous.)

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Then I opened this random book to a random poem. I looked at the title. I looked at my husband. I read him the title.

“Ode to Semen.”

He sat down, as one does at a poetry reading, and I read him the poem.

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 We observed a moment of silence.

“Don’t say poetry never did anything for you,” I said.

I think we’re OK now.

 

 

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