Aswim In the Unbearable Exquisite

I've been crying a lot lately. I couldn't be happier about it.

ABOARD THE SILVER METEOR (Dec. 7) — Last week, it started with a question about Christmas carols:

I had an opinion, obviously, and then a second opinion, and it was a fun Twitter moment to be part of, but then I got distracted by the fact that I was laugh-crying all of a sudden — and where the hell did that come from?

I mean I know when it came. It came in the descant verse of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a hymn I’ve sung a bajillion times, professionally and otherwise, without losing my shit. Specifically it was in the descant verse of the David Willcocks arrangement of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which represents for your average smells-and-bells Anglican what you might call A Tentpole Moment in A Tentpole Hymn of the festive season.

(It’s not The Tentpole Hymn of Christmastide, mind you — that’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which has an even better Willcocks descant — and of course Christmastide is not The Tentpole Season, because duh that’s Easter, which (a) is the whole point of Christianity and (b) is also when we get to bust out Hyfrydol, which is stately and badass,

(To say nothing of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today A-ha-ha-ha-ha-lay-LOOOOOO-ee-yah.”)

(Their little treble pipings! I die!)

An aside: I know that Anglicans, pale male Anglicans especially, aren’t meant to have actual feelings about anything, certainly not anything to do with religion, but the fact is that secretly we kinda groove on our church-music tradition, whose sophistication is A Thing We Can Be A Touch Snotty About. It’s a reserved kind of grooving, this enthusiasm for our Willcockses and our Wesleys and our Charles Villiers Stanfords — honest to God, his name was Charles Villiers Stanford, and yes we do stan-for(d) him. Stiffly, with our jaws in regulation Cantabrigian clench, but still it is undeniably stanning.

When our pleasure in these things does make itself actually manifest, though, it typically surfaces as a kind of beaming, clubby “Good show!” sort of thing. I mean, I’ve definitely been part of some high-holy services (hi there, Church of the Good Shepherd) where choir and congregation alike got a bit flushed as we roared our collective way through a favorite hymn setting.

(At one or more of these services it is just a tiny bit possible that my friend Skip and I played the fool and joined the sopranos on some of those Willcocks descants, maybe, because THEY’RE FUN TO SING SUE ME).

(Also our Holtkamp had a zimbelstern mounted high up, front and center, and if you’ve never sung a boisterous Christmas hymn under what’s basically a spinning pipe-organ hood ornament that’s making glockenspiel noises while the organist lays down a boss pedal trill, you Have Not Lived.)

So anyway last week — last week, with the blubbering, was different. I was alone, for one thing. At home, after a bit of a day. It was the end of Thanksgiving week, so there had been all those goings-on out at the farm with my folks, and then the trip up to D.C. and an on-air shift at WETA. And a day up to my ears in music is a day with some live nerve endings, to be sure, so I was probably a little thin, emotional defense-wise, when Prof. Mosley tweeted out that question, which steered me eventually to a video of “Hark, the Herald” as delivered by the Winchester Quiristers, who sing it ravishingly and with the oh-is-it-Tuesday-again aplomb only a boys’ choir with 600 freaking years of English public-school tradition behind it can muster.

ANYWAY I’m singing along with the Quiristers, natch, as I’m loading the washing machine, and we get to “Born to raise the sons of earth,” and I can’t sing anymore because my breath is gone and my throat has closed and my chest is tight and my eyes are burning. And I laugh at myself, which is when the dam breaks for real, and there are the actual sobs — gasping, wide-eyed, guttural.

Which: What the hell, man? It’s a Christmas carol.


Thing is, this has been happening here and there. When Jessye Norman died at the end of September, I listened to a bunch of her stuff, and it was no surprise that there were some tears. She was important in my baby-ghey world, a diva at the peak of her fame when I was coming out, a singular, larger-than-life personality who’d somehow emerged from my hothouse of a hometown and gone on to conquer the world. Listening to her recording of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” — about escaping the world’s tumult, about dwelling peacefully in solitude and in song — on the day we got news of her passing, just as I was starting a new and quieter chapter in my own life … well, you know.

But it’s not been just the sad stuff, or the milestone stuff. I got teary the other day talking to a friend about the softness of Rembrandt’s eyes in the self-portrait I love so much at the National Gallery in Washington. I felt a lump in my throat a few weeks back watching actors pretending to land on a version of the moon that doesn’t exist — a moon the Soviet Union reached first, a moon to which women journeyed alongside men and where ice deposits promise them longer journeys outward — on For All Mankind, the new alt-history space opera from Ronald D. Moore, the ST: DS9 nerd-hero who also rebooted Battlestar Galactica so intelligently a while back. Hell, I choked up watching David and Patrick navigate a relationship hiccup on Schitt’s Creek earlier this year, not because it was a big deal but because they were so tender about it.

It’s something about that, I think. The presence of anything these days that bespeaks kindness, gentleness, mildness, grace. And hope? Forget about it. Show me hope, show me optimism, remind me that we are capable of not just good but great, and I’m done. Not just done — undone.


I was listening to Mahler’s Second Symphony a week or two ago, on one of my drives from D.C. down to the South Carolina coast, down to where Nikki Haley says there are no hateful people and where the flags are about service and honor and tradition, down to where earlier this year a white man was convicted of enslaving a developmentally disabled black kitchen worker — basically caging him up in the back of the restaurant and beating him when he made a mistake or when he just, you know, looked at somebody wrong. And as Leonard Slatkin’s St. Louis Symphony and the massed choirs thundered into the wild and elated faith-claim of the final chorale — Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh! Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben Wird, der dich rief, dir geben! goes the shout of 100 choristers and more, “You will rise again, my ashes, my dust, in an instant, and he who has called you will make you immortal!” — I found myself driving blind. I had to pull over and sit on the side of the highway, shoulders heaving, body clenching and unclenching and clenching again with sobs.

I am not religious, mind you. I’m barely what the twee folk call “spiritual.” This was something else, something to do with that hunger for reassurance in an ugly time, but also something to do with a renewed sense of wonder, and of gratitude, at what towering things we humans are capable of when we are our better selves. If my new, slower life has left more room for grief at how awful we can be, it’s also left so much more room for that wonder. And I keep getting blindsided by it.

I mean, the audacity of the poet’s cry in that text. The titanic wash of sound that is a Mahler orchestra rounding third base, with nothing and no one between it and home. The utterly leveling overload of those final passages, the apotheosis of a hero-figure whose struggle-story the symphony has spent more than an hour unspooling — the choir hurling its exaltation into the hall and then falling spent and dumbstruck while first the warm low horns and then the higher, brighter brass repeat the call up to the heavens, the horns themselves faltering, fading, and then — oh god, oh god — rallying for one last ecstatic sunburst over an earthquake in the tympani and a tsunami of jubilation from the concert-hall pipe organ — there are just no words for it, even were I better at this than I am. You have to hear it, and if possible see it:

The bells! I always forget about the bells until the percussionist gets out his hammer. And three gongs, each brawnier than the last! It is just too much joyful in one place and moment. It is an explosive, agonizing kind of happiness, merely to know that this astounding thing … even is. This luminous thing, and all things that are good on this order of goodness.

There’s this term, to anneal, from metallurgy, that’s long since drifted into metaphor, where it means to subject something to the sort of cleansing and tempering that’s possible only in a fire that burns away the weak, the bad, the brittle.

I am just so crushingly happy that these scouringly good things exist, these distillations of the unbearable exquisite. For me, for us, for everyone, for always.

Not just to watch or listen to, but to partake of, to surrender to, to spread our arms wide before — to be awash in, to be annealed by, just now, when we need strengthening so very much.