Christmas Bells Are Ringing


Forces are gathering

The song Christmas Bells Are Ringing from Rent is one of my favorite songs in all of musical theatre. To those of you who know the show, that might seem odd. To those of you who don’t know the show, it’s probably not one of the songs you would have heard just by accident, in a friend’s car or on NPR late on a Monday night. Hence it being an odd choice. It embodies what I think of as the “pre-finale Act 1” moment. That moment is a point in the show (usually a song, but it doesn’t have to be), wherein no new plots or characters or information are usually introduced, but where all the existing stuff is laid out next to each other, interwoven, and amplified to get ready for the big show-stopping punch that is usually the finale of Act 1.

Not every musical has such a moment, but a lot of them do. And they can be breathtaking. Christmas Bells is my favorite of those musical moments. I bring it up because of something that my brother Jake wrote in his blog the other day:

I’ve always been intrigued at how so many different stories and experiences can be so close together, like a tightly packed exit ramp with dozens of people going to different places to work, while the construction crew works to make that ramp not so packed.  Same argument for sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic–lots of stories, not much space.”

See, right now as I’m writing this, I’m at a window seat in a nice deli at Tower City, watching people walk by through the mall concourse. And every single one of those people has a story as rich and complicated as Mark, Roger, Collins, Angel, and the whole gang (those are characters from Rent, in case you hadn’t put that together), they just don’t have the benefit of those stories being bared for the world in surprisingly beautiful pieces of musical composition.

I made a comment on Facebook not too long ago about feeling like a secondary character or an extra. The fact is that I don’t feel that way most of the time; most of us feel like our own main character, and it’s easy not to notice the stories of others when those others feel like extras in our lives.

But then again, we’re minor characters in their lives, too. We’re their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they’re ours.

In that vein, and back to what inspired this entry , the same is true of major and minor moments in our lives. Because one person’s pre-finale act 1 is another’s overture, and one person’s finale is another’s charm song. (Lots of literary and musical theatre references here — sorry for those of you who are overwhelmed). The point is this: every single moment of life is loaded with all the beauty and heartbreak and triumph and hope and drama that takes my breath away when I listen to Christmas Bells, whether or not it’s immediately obvious to us.

I am by no means the first person, or even the first writer, to notice this. It’s one of the main points of David Foster Wallace’s now famous “This is Water” commencement address. And, as Wallace points out, it’s very easy not to notice. It takes practice, and awareness, and patience. In fact, unless we go situations with that mindset, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that we won’t notice.

It’s not so simple as to say that every person’s life in a given year reaches some kind of crescendo during the holidays, but even just from a standpoint of being busy (either squeezing in shopping, or scheduling family dinners, or even just trying to finish up projects at work before the first of the year), I think it’s safe to say that many of us reach a critical mass of noise and activity. As we get louder and busier and closer to the end of the year, it gets easier and easier not to notice the intricacy and harmony of it all.

I’m not really a “new year’s resolution” guy, but I guess I have a few resolutions for 2014 already. Some more approachable than others, and one will almost certainly be a re-attempt from this past year (I’ll give you 52 guesses what that one’s about, one per week…) But one of the things on my list is to cultivate more of an awareness and an appreciation for that intricacy and harmony. It would be nice to be able to see it and hear it all the time. Wouldn’t it?

As always, thank you for reading. More to follow.


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