"Can you turn it up, Mom?"
This from our ten-year-old son. Referring to the classical musical station, which lately we began playing when my husband observed that classical music in the background turns everyone's "crazy" and "loud" down a notch or two. (We're more of a folk/bluegrass kind of family than a classical one as a rule, but in the realm of Rowdiness Control, we'll do anything.)
So it was last month that an interview with a classical musician was airing as we sat down to a Sunday Advent dinner. When he first heard the score to Star Wars as a teen, the interviewee said, he decided then and there he wanted to learn how to play trumpet. So he did. And from there, he became a famous musician and trumpeter. (I failed to write down the guy's name. Anyone know?)
It was - if you hadn't guessed - the reference to Star Wars that hooked our Star-Wars-obsessed son into the interview. As we carried on listening, the musician told of how he visits nursing homes and plays for the residents who have Alzheimers, and they become uniquely calm and content as they listen to the music. It was the first time our kids had heard of Alzheimer's disease, and we described the disease... and the beautiful gift this musician gives them and their families by bringing them his music. A gift that rolls back the pain and loss, a gift that transforms. "But wouldn't that be sad for the trumpeter?" our eight-year-old daughter asked. Of course it must be, we agreed. But he goes anyway because he knows the power of his music. It's something that can take sadness and open it up, so joy can flow in. It's a signpost marking the ugly-beautiful. (The term is Ann Voskamp's, and I've always loved it.)
Christmas season's over now, of course - the last vestiges were packed up last week when Epiphany turned out its light. But I think I might always remember that conversation. Not just because our son was digging into the classical music station (though that felt like a Christmas miracle in itself). But because that image of the ugly-beautiful was so poignant - for me, if not for my kids. To think of the depleted lives of the Alzheimer's-afflicted being warmed and lifted, listening to that trumpeter play. To think of the transcendence that comes when eternal beauty pierces the cold, hard moments of our world. It's the same basic image as the Christmas barnyard scene-- an unmarried, pregnant teen far from home with no place to go, giving birth in a smelly stable filled with cow poop to the living God. As he enters humanity for the first and only time, to share in our pain. It's ludicrous. And yet perfect too, in its way. The ugly beautiful at its divine core.
As bickering about whose turn it was to blow out the advent candles brought a quick end to talk of trumpets, Alzheimer's, and how ugliness and beauty dwell side-by-side, I thought about our Christmas tree. We'd put it up that very day, and it'd been testy since we'd used a tree from our farm for the first time. The contenders were all gangly, as homegrown trees tend to be, and the kids were less enthusiastic than we parents about the plan. But we persuaded them, because we wanted a chance to cut and honor a tree raised our own soil. A home-harvested, home-loved tree. We knew we wouldn't always be on this farm, and we wouldn't always have a chance. So we cut down our ugly-beautiful tree, and as we decorated it we talked about the gift. "It's OK that it's not as pretty as some other Christmas trees," we told our kids. "This Christmas is one we'll remember, and we'll be thankful we got to use our own tree of our own farm." A vintage tree, I called it - albeit a Charlie Brown one. And I loved that ugly tree for the beauty of our homegrown life here on the farm, a beauty it held within its scrawny branches.
I don't know if they'll remember our passion for our unglamorous tree either, at least not like I will. But the reality of the ugly-beautiful - and how Christmas is the perfect time to celebrate both - came home to me that Advent weekend in a way I hope I won't forget.
Come trumpeter, and when your Star Wars theme song is through, play us "Silent Night." And may our hearts gather around our ugly-beautiful Christmas tree (even now it's gone) and thank the God who entered humanity on the first Christmas Day for the transcendent joy He made possible. May there be more of it - and more of Him - for each of us in the New Year.