In a funk, not quite functional, preoccupied and a bit derailed – so I felt a few days before Christmas. We all have known a stray day here or there like this. I suspect the homeless man currently ranting across the subway car at another passenger who somehow insulted his honor has had quite a few himself.
Last week, I experienced a much lesser version of such a day, bewildered by past emotions from months and even decades past in the face of present and future circumstances. Wondering if I would regret the choice to RSVP to attend Nancy Wertsch’s caroling-centric holiday party on my only full day off from singing in weeks, I dragged my issues and attitude up to Riverdale nevertheless. My good friend Alex asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” I responded not terribly enthusiastically.
We went to a local nursing home, Schervier Nursing Care Center, and donated our time and talents to wander the halls singing carols. Given the quality of the singing, we discovered many patients who seemed surprised to hear such caroling streaming through their rooms and corridors. It didn’t all go smoothly, of course. After cleaning vomit, into which I accidentally stepped, off my new boots, it seemed that one of the residents who requested our presence in their room really wanted to watch Family Guy instead. On the contrary, the patient loved us despite the background noise of the television, and everyone we encountered from the elderly to the nurses, supervisors, and maintenance workers greeted us with kindness and gratefulness.
On the fourth floor, a lovely pale-skinned woman in a wheelchair thanked us, offered to pray for us, and insisted that she would include us all in her will. Another woman painstakingly left her room with her walker to greet us in the hallway and listen. On the fifth floor, after a fantastically talented whistler couldn’t remember what carols he liked but kept whistling “Silent Night,” we began the song again for likely the twelfth time that evening.
Reminding me of our earlier encounter, my friend Alex said, “Why don’t I give you a ride home after this, and you can explain to me why you just feel fine?” At least an awkward twenty seconds later, I finally remembered to what he referred – my mood upon entering the nursing home. “Oh, I had forgotten all about that! I’m actually doing something productive and worthwhile,” I responded, insisting upon basking in the goodness that for an evening filled the Schervier Nursing Care Center.
In an instant, I remembered caring for my grandmother for a couple of days in a similar center in Malone, NY years prior. Unlike most of the patients with whom we interacted at Schervier, she couldn’t walk by herself or even operate a wheelchair to sit and socialize with the others. Most often alone in her room, she began to lose her sense of reality, and I found it incredibly difficult to help her in conversation. Finally, on my last day visiting, I gave her a back massage. As she sat there, moaning a little and thanking me profusely, I thanked God that I could do something to make one moment of her final days just a little more livable.
Living at a much more rapid pace this year upon my return from Washington, I launched immediately into the hustle of a classical singer’s Christmas in New York, rehearsing or working at least two and often three gigs per day. I honestly forget how many Messiahs I’ve sung these past few weeks, and I know some of my colleagues worked more. Between performing in Amahl, the Messiahs, the Mozart Requiem, three Christmas services, and two temple services and recording a voice-over and with a choir for an Iranian composer, I had plenty of stimulation. Friends somehow still managed to schedule time for lunches and coffees, two operas, overnight conversations, and a social media party. My apartment morphed a bit further, with new lighting fixtures and a few new shelves and pictures on the walls, and I survived an exhausted trip to visit family in Pennsylvania for Christmas and a blizzard that dumped a foot and a half on our Washington Heights roofs and vehicles.
Ultimately, after a moment to pause and reflect, I have so much for which to be grateful. What a wonderful, if hectic, season I’ve had! I feel infinitely better about the present and optimistic about the future. I’ve had a chance to let go of expectations and longings and, perhaps more importantly, to embrace the grand gestures of those interested and willing to make investments of time and effort in my life. Such time and effort spent for free on my only day off at the nursing home caroling party, after all, turned out to give me even more joy and fulfillment than any of the truly wonderful gigs for which I received payment.
Unfortunately, the time between Christmas and New Year’s has a reputation for inciting more depression and suicides than any other throughout the year. During these days, we pause, we reflect, and sometimes we don’t like what we have or lack. Another friend tonight confided in me that he often doesn’t feel good enough or worthy of affection from loved ones. Once we sense ourselves entering such a holiday funk, we have to climb out in ways that sometimes seem to make us uncomfortable, challenge us, and help us to refocus. I may have stepped in some vomit along the way, but giving joy to those gorgeously happy faces in a nursing home made every minute worth my time and investment. This truly is a season best spent in giving.
On a personal note, I have a very dear visitor from Washington this week and may not have a chance to write again until after the new year. May yours excite and enliven you, give you joy for the present, and show you infinite hope for the future to come. I can’t wait for us to share next year’s challenges together.