Except to school kids, are snowstorms ever convenient? And that our prevailing thought about them is their inconvenience—that’s telling. When a storm system barreled northeast out of the Rockies early last December, ravaging the Great Plains, then sucking up Lake Michigan’s surface water and belching it on the far shore in an explosion of thundersnow—jagged bolts of lightning splitting the continually falling white curtain—did we stand at our windows gaping and silent before the awful force and terrible beauty of it all? No, we moaned that our calendars had been upended.
December, for parents and school administrators, is a careful puzzle of holiday-themed events pieced together well before Thanksgiving. The storm’s forced cancellations suddenly meant pieces, like our middle school choir’s Christmas concert, far out-numbered spaces in which to fit them.
So the choir directors thought they were doing everyone a favor when they rescheduled the concert for a post-holiday evening, January 6. Objections, immediate and loud, ricocheted around the walls of the principal’s office. A fierce college basketball rivalry was to be played out on a court in town that night; they, I—the parent-alumni—had bought tickets months in advance. The music department, however, would not countenance Christmas anthems put off even further into January. The date had been chosen.
On the evening of January 6, dutiful families filled the auditorium of our Protestant school. At exactly tip-off time, a hundred or so seventh and eighth graders began, left to right, to file onto the concert stage. I found my son among the first twenty and watched to see where he would stand, who stood by him, whether, against the other boys, he still measured small. A flutter at the stage’s far left tugged at the corner of my eye: among the last processing in, a girl in black pants and shiny black top, who, every second or third step, thrust out a skinny arm or jerked up a skinny leg, as if an invisible puppeteer on a whim pulled strings. When the children stood quietly in their assigned places, massed on the risers, she, front row (floor level), twitched and jerked. The others looked forward into a cool, indeterminate distance, awaiting the director. She cranked her head toward the girl on her left, toward the girl on her right, grinning. Seeing the director emerge from the wings, the crowd hushed—and heard the girl’s gleeful, indecipherable monosyllables.
My son had warned me that there was one song on the concert bill that would be “crappy,” but he had mentioned nothing of this. Throughout each song the slight girl in black moved to quixotic cues and sang in her own key. Or didn’t sing. She seemed to know only some of the words, accented words at the end of the melodic line. These words she grabbed and cast out into the auditorium’s vault where they burst like flares:
What can I GIVE him,
poor as I AM?
If I were a SHEP-herd
I would bring a LAMB,
If I were a WISE man
I would do my PART,
Yet what can I GIVE him,
Give my HEART.
People in the seats around me rustled. Their choristers hadn’t prepared them, either, for this disturbance of our peace: the carefully harmonized Christmas sentiments we counted on to calm us interrupted continually—every line a punched line—by an embarrassingly urgent voice: GIVE, LAMB, WISE, HEART. That last word especially, last in a last line repeated at song’s end: Give my HEART. HEART. Through the stuffy air of a full auditorium it insisted—she insisted, holding up her note, her word, after the director had rounded the choir into silence. HEART.
Christina Rossetti chose it as the last word of her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem Gustav Holst set to music for The English Hymnal of 1906. Our choir chose to sing only its last verse. The full song and poem begin:
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
And not so long ago. In the school’s parking lot plows had piled the snow on snow of the fifth snowiest December ever recorded in our town. More snow was falling that night, and in the hours following the concert temperatures were forecast to dip into the single digits. It was the numbing week following another expensively disappointing holiday season, and we arrived tired after another day of slogging along under low gray skies in a state where one in seven of us is unemployed. We wanted spectacle that night, strong bodies pitted against each other in a rivalry generations long; we wanted sparks struck in our January hearts of iron and stone.
Coerced, instead, by parental duty into a middle school choir concert, we were settling for something less fiery but still, in its way, warming. Our itchy, jumpy, moody thirteen and fourteen year olds, washed and combed, in clean, pressed clothes, arranged in orderly rows would not, for a brief hour, paw each other and push and shove to mug in the spotlight, or mutter snide remarks about the stupidity of parents, but would, instead, meld into a seamless, synchronized instrument from which would emanate music to soothe our bleak midwinter-weary souls.
There was no spinning that cozy emotional cocoon in the auditorium this January 6, thanks to the slight girl in black in the front row. She tore open each melodic line, thrusting her treasured word out beyond the stage lights to our dark faces. Startled each time, we sat alert: What would her next word be?
The rest of the choir, our often rude and vituperative middle schoolers, behaved as if her part were written into the score, a descant line given to her and her alone to sing. Her smile said she believed this to be true.
January 6 in the Western Christian Church is designated Epiphany. It’s the day for remembering the Magi, wisest and most alert human beings in the Near East in the year 3 or 4 ad, who set out in their bleak midwinter to search for One who wouldn’t disappoint. They were stopped in their tracks before a child vulnerable in the way of all children, but more, because poor, esteemed by no one but his mother and the man assigned to be his father. Their expectations—about what would be a satisfying outcome for their efforts, about whom the Esteemed One would be—dissolved in a divine coup de grace.
Epiphany is a word the Greeks gave us to describe a certain kind of time. Unlike the moment of krisis, when time, like a thread, gets entangled, when the way forward is confused and contradictory, at the moment of epiphanei time suddenly opens to reveal in luminous clarity the heart of a thing.
Nothing about us or our scrubbed and polished children that night said Poor as I am. We slumped in the auditorium’s plush seats tired and generally disillusioned, true, but not without schemes for propping ourselves up—like a win at The Game. An hour or so of our time given to the Christmas story in song offered us little, except some meager evidence that we were adequate parents. We did our part, we showed up, with to-do lists and self-promotion of one kind or another streaming through our heads. Then, abruptly, we were interrupted, our expectations dissolved. Time opened, and even the most preoccupied among us were riveted to a wispy girl semaphoring and calling into our dark: HEART. GIVE, HEART.
Gayle Boss is a freelance writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her poetry has appeared in The Cresset.