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Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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My last picture was of a mousetrap…so here’s the mouse to go with it.

It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.

The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.

I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).

Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.

And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:

KILL IT!

Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.

My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.

But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?

There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. 😉 I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”

But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.

For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do – strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!

…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.

Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.

I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”

We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.

I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”

“…We’re both human.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Lux Aeterna… September 21, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Human Rights, Music, Saving the World.
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Troy Davis was executed tonight. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes ago, at 11:08.

His last words, to those who killed him: “May God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls. Look deeper into this case so you can find the truth….. I am innocent.”

There is nothing more I could possibly say tonight except, in the words of a friend from Twitter: “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

The Second Coming of The Lorax (Or, the Day after May 21) May 22, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Childhood, Christianity, Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.

I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.

At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.

Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.

Disappointment? Why?

*******

Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.

She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”

But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?

My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?

Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…

…Wait.

*******

“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”

The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*

Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.

And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
“UNLESS.”
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”

But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.

The child listening to the tale.

“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

“SO…
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.

Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”

Indeed, why?

“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?

Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a  $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.

But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.

The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)

The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)

_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.

Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)

Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.

Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.

Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.

*******

In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:

1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?

2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?

But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:

1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?

2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?

As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…

In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”

Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?

But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)

December 12: Ihr Kinderlein Kommet December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Time for another German carol…one of my all-time favorites.

Last night I turned pages for a friend’s Christmas concert at a church nearby. They were performing Joseph Martin’s “Ceremony of Candles”…a beautiful choral reworking and interweaving of traditional Christmas carols, including “In the Bleak Midwinter”,” Il est Ne Le Divin Enfant”, “Silent Night” and many others. I actually got goosebumps during the performance…not once but several times. Amazing.

My favorite movement was “Invitation to the Manger”, based on the German Christmas carol “Ihr Kinderlein Kommet” – “O Come Little Children.” Martin reworks this simple, childlike carol into a brilliant contrapuntal setting complete with ringing bell-like chords in the piano, sudden shifts of key and a brilliant, jubilant tempo. I felt utterly drawn in – my only regret was that I couldn’t sing along!

I tried to find a usable recording on Youtube, but to no avail. However, here is a beautiful choral setting of Ihr Kinderlein Kommet…a must-listen in any case. Enjoy.

Ihr Kinderlein, kommet, o kommet doch all!
Zur Krippe her kommet in Bethlehems Stall
und seht, was in dieser hochheiligen Nacht
der Vater im Himmel für Freude uns macht!

O seht in der Krippe im nächtlichen Stall,
seht hier bei des Lichtleins hell glänzendem Strahl
den reinliche Windeln, das himmlische Kind,
viel schöner und holder als Engel es sind!

Da liegt es, das Kindlein, auf Heu und auf Stroh,
Maria und Josef betrachten es froh.
Die redlichen Hirten knien betend davor,
hoch oben schwebt jubelnd der Engelein Chor.

O beugt wie die Hirten anbetend die Knie,
erhebet die Hände und danket wie sie!
Stimmt freudig, ihr Kinder, wer wollt sich nicht freun,
stimmt freudig zum Jubel der Engel mit ein!

Oh, come, little children, oh, come, one and all,
To Bethlehem’s stable, in Bethlehem’s stall.
And see with rejoicing this glorious sight,
Our Father in heaven has sent us this night.

Oh, see in the manger, in hallowèd light
A star throws its beam on this holiest sight.
In clean swaddling clothes lies the heavenly Child,
More lovely than angels, this Baby so mild.

Oh, there lies the Christ Child, on hay and on straw;
The shepherds are kneeling before Him with awe.
And Mary and Joseph smile on Him with love,
While angels are singing sweet songs from above.

December 10: Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (and Cradle Song) December 11, 2010

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Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” is an old German Christmas cradle song (dating back to 1500 and possibly before) whose gentle swaying motion clearly mimics the motion of Mary rocking the newborn Christ Child. Though both the song and the lyrics are simple in themselves, Brahms used the melody to create one of his most beautiful works, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Sacred Lullaby) – which I had the wonderful opportunity to perform a few years ago with a chamber ensemble at the university where I studied piano.

The “Geistliches Wiegenlied” is paired in Op. 91 with another song; both are written for contralto, viola, and piano. I love the story of how these works were created:

The songs bear clear relationship to the composer’s friendship with Joachim, the great violinist, and his wife, Amalie, one of the leading contraltos of her day. In September 1864, in honour of the birth of the Joachims’ first-born child, Brahms dispatched an early version of the Sacred Lullaby, a setting of a poem by Emanuel Geibel. Then in 1884, in the wake of the violinist’s unsuccessful divorce proceedings against his wife, the composer revised the old song and composed for it a companion, Quelled Longing. Both songs were published together in 1884 as Brahms’ Op. 91, and this musical pairing can only be understood as a well-meaning effort to resolve the estrangement of his two dear friends – which brought to the public two of the greatest and most powerful expressions of his lyric muse.

Tender, lyrical, gently contrapuntal and approachable to all listeners, this piece is a must-listen. You can hear the “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” melody in the viola at the beginning, and subtly woven throughout the texture of the song…just another example of Brahms’ amazing genius. The performers are Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Andre Previn (piano).

– Contrapuntal Platypus

December 9: Riu, Riu, Chiu December 11, 2010

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These past few days I’ve been going to and having Christmas parties. Today (yes, December 11; excuse the late post :D) was my piano masterclass and Christmas party. Great music, great cookies and a chance for the students to meet one another – though I seemed utterly unable to persuade anyone to sing carols. Why is our culture apparently terrified of singing?

Now maybe if we lived in Spain…

“Riu, riu, chiu”, a traditional Spanish carol, is just sheer fun to sing and listen to. It’s the perfect Christmas party song. What’s ironic is that the lyrics – a rather stuffy theological metaphor comparing the Immaculate Conception to a river guarding a lamb (the Virgin Mary) from a ravenous wolf (the Devil) – aren’t exactly prime material for a party song. (The later verses do get better though – not that the meaning makes a difference to a non-Spanish speaking listener like me!)

A couple years ago I heard this song done by an all-men’s choir at a university Christmas concert. The guy who did the solo was obviously a native Spanish speaker and he did a fantastic job, rattling off verse after verse of tongue-twisting lyrics. By the look of it, he was enjoying every moment of the performance as much as we were!

I couldn’t find a performance on Youtube to match that one, but the Oxford Camerata does a pretty good job. 😀

English Translation:
Chorus: Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from the lamb.

The rabid wolf tried to bite her,
But God Almightly knew how to defend her,
He wished to create her impervious to sin,
Nor was this maid to embody original sin.
(Chorus)

He comes to give life to the dead,
He comes to redeem the fall of man;
This Child is the light of day,
He is the very Lamb Saint John prophecied.

A thousand singing herons I saw passing,
Flying overhead, sounding a thousand voices,
Exulting, “Glory be in the heavens, and peace on earth,
For Jesus has been born.”

(Chorus)

December 8: Angels We Have Heard on High December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Another traditional favorite. For me this song has a special association: the December that I was in the play “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

For me this is one of the yearly “must-read” Christmas books. The church in a small, sleepy town prepares for the annual Christmas pageant, which never changes: the “perfect” girl is always Mary, the minister’s son always Joseph, and the little kids always get stuck in the Angel Choir. Then one year, double disaster strikes. The woman in charge of the pageant breaks her leg, and the Hurdmans – “the worst kids in town”, famous for swearing, cigar smoking and stealing – show up at church one day and take over every major role. The main character’s mother and substitute pageant director bravely declares that it will be “the best Christmas pageant ever.” But what will happen on Christmas Eve?

Much as I wanted to be one of the Hurdmans, I – like most of the children who auditioned – were assigned to the Angel Choir, with little to do until the near-final scenes when we trooped onstage singing “Angels We Have Heard on High”. The song was cut short by a fire alarm (you’ll have to read the book to find out why. :D). Fortunately, as I recall we got to sing the entire carol later. My favorite bit were the long “Gloria’s” in the chorus – so much fun to sing!

Here’s a gorgeous recording by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

December 7: Candlelight Carol December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music, Poetry.
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A beautiful gem of a contemporary carol composed by John Rutter. Really there’s nothing one could possibly add by talking about it…so here are two recordings. The first is by a professional ensemble, the second a high school choir – less polished perhaps, but with a certain magic that (to me) the professional recording doesn’t quite match.

Enjoy! 🙂

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How can you measure the love of a mother,
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?
Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born.
Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him,
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep;
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour,
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep.

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger:
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation:
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

December 6: Nikolaus, Komm In Unser Haus December 7, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Just for Fun.
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…First of all, apologies for the posting delay. It’s been a crazy but rewarding 24 hours. A HUGE shout-out to all the amazing students who stood up once more against the oppressive regime in Iran to fight for freedom, and whose protests I and my friends were helping to tweet/liveblog today on Twitter and Facebook. Josh Shahryar (NiteOwl)’s excellent liveblog is here, with an extensive and very impressive collection of videos here via @homylafayette.

But now, back to the happier world of Christmas carols…

A short while ago a Twitter friend (thanks @sara055!) was telling me about the Sinterklaas tradition in Holland; one similar to (and the origin for) our own Santa Claus tradition. “St. Klaas”, known for his generosity, always gave his things away – even his only jacket in winter. He is said to come from Spain by boat every year on December 5. He is accompanied by his “black men” or “black Peters” (“zwarte pieten”), similar to Santa’s helpers, who record throughout the year which children have been good and which naughty. The good ones are given gifts, while the bad ones are supposedly stuck in a bag – and taken back to Spain! 😀

One custom is for the children to leave little “gifts” (a drawing for Sinterklaas and a carrot or hay for his white horse that he rides over the rooftops) by the fireplace. In the morning these will have vanished, to be replaced by toys. In another tradition, as the children are singing Christmas songs the evening of December 5th, a knock will come on the front door. When the door opens, candy will be thrown in by the “black men” and bags with gifts left by the front door. Sometimes people dressed up as Sinterklaus and the “black men” will even come inside!

This made me think about the similar German custom in which children set out for their shoes/boots by the front door on December 5, “Nikolausabend”. Sankt (St.) Nikolaus is said to come in the night and fill the shoes with sweets, chocolates, fruit and toys – at least for good children. Bad children will get nothing in their shoes – or even worse, a switch! 😀 Sometimes “Nikolaus” will visit in person and ask the parents if the child has been good, even looking up their yearly record in his golden book.

My family, though we kept a lot of the German traditions, never did Nikolausabend. Instead we just put out our stockings on the 24th. But both my sister and I attended German Pre-Kindergarten. If “Nikolaus” visited, I don’t remember it, but my sister sure did! In her words: “He was one scary dude. I didn’t want to get near him. I think he asked me if I was a good girl, and I nodded vehemently. We have a picture of me looking terrified and keeping my distance.”

…Apparently she wasn’t the only one to think soa kindergarten in Austria has apparently banned any in-person visits by “Nikolaus” for being too “scary”. Poor guy. 😉

For those who enjoy history, both the Sinterklaas and Nikolaus traditions trace back to a real man, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was said to not only be generous but a miracle worker as well! So maybe flying horses and black men with magical bags of candy are not so far-fetched after all. 😀

So here, without any further ado, is my favorite “Nikolaus” German Christmas carol. (The lyrics on the video are slightly different from the ones I grew up hearing, which are listed below…I prefer them!)

Nikolaus komm in unser Haus,
pack die großen Taschen aus.
Lustig, lustig, trallerallala!
Bald ist Nikolaus abend da, Bald ist Nikolaus abend da.

(Nikolaus, come into our house,
Come unpack your great big pouch.
Merry, merry, tralalalala!
Nikolaus Eve will soon be here, Nikolaus Eve will soon be here.)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

An Advent Calendar of Carols November 30, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Just for Fun, Music.
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It’s been a busy November, hence the lack of posts on the site. Lots of teaching. A volunteer concert for a local organization. A funeral I was asked to play for, last-minute. A great many things to blog about and no time at all to write them up…

But finally this busy month is drawing to a close, and December – that magical month – is beginning. A new month and time for new blog posts! Tonight I put some Christmas music on while making dinner, and realized how much I’d missed singing carols, together with other childhood pre-Christmas traditions. (When I was young I’d sing carols everywhere…around the house, while walking outside, in the store…does nobody sing anymore, even around Christmas??)

I have always loved the lead-up to Christmas. I come from a family of (partially) German background, and December 1 always makes me think of two traditions in particular – the first being the Adventskranz! 🙂 The Advent wreath was always made out of fresh pine, spruce and cedar bows and decorated with pinecones, red ribbons and four beeswax candles – three red, the last white. Every Friday night during the three weeks before Christmas, we would light the red candles (one the first week, two the second, and all three the third) and, seated around the wreath, sing a carol together. (In later years this expanded to one carol the first week, two the second…we couldn’t get enough carols as far as my sister and I were concerned!) 😀 On Christmas Eve all four candles were lit, the white one last of all, and we would sing the special Christmas Eve carol. (You’ll have to wait to find out which one…)

The other tradition I can’t help thinking of on December 1 is, of course, the Advent calendar! There wasn’t a year when we didn’t eagerly pry open the little window each day to see what picture or chocolate lay behind. Usually we had one “North American” calendar containing chocolates and then another authentic German calendar with beautiful, intricate scenes. We would keep the most beautiful calendars from previous years and use them as Christmas decorations. My all-time favorite was a 3-D “rabbit” Christmas mansion – every window you peeked into, the rabbits would be wrapping gifts, baking cookies or hanging up stockings!

Of course, as we grew up and left home the traditions were dropped or adapted (we still have the Advent wreath, but need to confine the carol singing to the four days immediately preceding Christmas – I think we usually manage to fit them all in, though it’s often been a close call!) But I haven’t had an Advent calendar for years, and I decided it was time to remedy that omission.

This month I’ll be doing a virtual Advent Calendar of Carols on my blog. Each day I’ll post a Christmas carol which has some special meaning or association for me, and talk about why it’s a favorite. There’ll be some traditional, some modern, a number of German carols (as you might expect), some sacred, some secular – the perfect Advent mix. First installment is coming tomorrow!

Enjoy…and Frohe Weihnachten in advance! 🙂

The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀