I think the general consensus is that having a memory about something makes things more fuzzy, not more clear. It seems, in my experience, there are very rare occurrences that result in the opposite — a clarification of sorts, through what I could only account for as my memory. A most poignant example is during this time of year, witnessing the family Christmas tree, bedecked with lights aglow against the back-drop of a quiet night or a dark corner of the living room. It has always given me pause.
What is it about these gentle lights adorning rough fingers of pine (which we would most certainly call harsh in other circumstances), that draw us once again to a place that has now become a welcome guest to me? This plaintive nostalgia is captured aptly by Edward Estlin “E. E.” Cummings (1894-1962) in a poem we have seen or heard perhaps countless times (and I think its fame is ultimately representative of how well it captures what we are speaking to here).
Read it again, if you would…
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold.
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
The poem has been set a number of times to music (choral), but in my humble opinion it has received its greatest clothing by Steve Heitzeg (b1959). The little piece has, over the years, become one of the most treasured pieces I have ever heard, sung, or conducted. It is not grand or showy. Nor is it pretentious or high. To me, it sounds like the woods in early winter, when you venture out to find a your Christmas tree, and you stop to hear the wind’s gentle whip through the branches far above. To me, it sounds like sitting on your couch alone in the warm glow of reds, yellows, blues, and greens. And to me, it sounds like the echoes of laughter, decades old, bouncing off ragged chairs, cracked walls, and dusty pictures hanging crookedly on the wall. You have to listen hard to hear.
But why? Why this poem, why this setting… why this image of the light-filled tree….?
Because, I think, it makes me feel this:
It really is quite simple. It has a “clarity” that most other pieces don’t. It has crystallized this special feeling in such a way that you are transported to past Silent Nights, and deaths, and gifts, and songs, and meals, and snow, and… smiles, and hugs, and tears. I dare say it may even create memories of things we may never have experienced, but we are sure we had… long, long ago.
It bids us “Merry Christmas” without saying a word or causing a scene.
Oh, little tree, you are so little — you are more like a flower.