Dec 2, 2012

Posted by in Music and Art | 4 Comments

It’s Complicated, by Steve Bell

I am delighted to feature another in this series of Advent essays by Steve Bell, a gifted singer, songwriter, musician, and writer.  Here he reflects on his discomfort with Christmas -  as for me, I certainly recognize the way that false cheer can paper over the reality of loss and sadness that we need to recognize and express before we can find joy. His clear-eyed look into darkness led to the song that is the title track for Keening for the Dawn. You can buy the CD here (and you should!) Here you can also read the account of how the album Keening for the Dawn came to be.

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It’s Complicated – by Steve Bell

Last fall I noticed a growing disturbance in my own soul and quickly recognized it as my recurring dread of the coming Christmas season.

My childhood memories are not all sugary. When I was in my eighth summer, my mother suddenly collapsed under a debilitating depression accompanied by severe anxiety. She was whisked away to a hospital 80 miles away and I didn’t see her again till she came home briefly for Christmas that same year. When she did return for the holiday, she sat huddled and frail in a corner, returning only weak and weary smiles whenever we tried to engage her. It was a confusing time. I adored (and adore) my mom but was too young to understand the complexity of her illness. I wasn’t too young however, to recognize the deep sadness in my father’s eyes or to  feel it in my own spirit. The ironic contrast of my mother’s frail, miserable form against the tinsel and glitter of our festive Christmas tree was certainly not lost on me. Nor did I fail to realize  the impotence of the limp platitudes and bible verses that well-meaning Christians piously lobbed at my vulnerable mom .

Around the same time, my father left his job as a local pastor and went to work as the protestant chaplain at Drumheller prison in Alberta.   In an unexpected way, it was a good thing for us. Whereas Mom’s illness was difficult for church-folk to accept (good Christians, especially pastors’ wives, don’t get depressed) the inmates had no problem with her whatsoever. “Come hang with the rest of us losers” was the unstated, but clear and sincere invitation.  Ironically, a prison was a safe place for my mom to be unwell. Practically though, this meant  (for us kids) that every Christmas, shortly after opening our presents we had to leave our treasures on the living room floor and accompany Mom and Dad to the federal prison to lead a  Christmas service for the wretched souls who weren’t able to get a day-pass for the holiday, and whom no-one came to visit. I always dreaded going initially, but was always deeply moved and glad to have gone. It seemed to really matter. Our family was quite musical and I distinctly remember my sisters and I singing for the inmates who sat stooped in their chairs, heads buried in their hands, shoulders quivering with tears splashing on the floor.  Ironically, the mystery of deep regret, grief and loss first presented itself to me on Christmas Day.

Much later,  in the early 90s I travelled to India where I spent ten days in the north singing at a retreat for indigenous Catholic  priests. Being the son of a Baptist minister, I was a bit out of my element but it remains one of the formational experiences of my life.  It happened to be mid-December and before returning home, I had to stay over in Calcutta for several days before I could catch a flight home. I had never before experienced anything like the extreme poverty and human suffering I witnessed there.  Out on the streets – stepping over the sleeping bodies of whole families huddled together to keep warm on the sidewalk, being accosted by the multitude of desolate beggars, experiencing  the disparity between this world of grinding poverty and the gated, luxury hotel compound in which I was staying – I had a break-down of my own and spent the final 24 hours in a fetal position on my bathroom floor clutching at my stomach, feeling like I had ingested acid.

Having forgotten it was Christmas, I eventually boarded the plane home to find it decorated with silvery garlands and shinywords of cheer. It took everything I had to resist running through the plane and tearing the tinsel down.

Certainly I  have many, many wonderful life memories attached to the Christmas season as well. But for me, it’s complicated, and it is no surprise to me that each year I find myself keening for a better dawn, deeply dissatisfied with things as they are, and cynical that our brokenness can be repaired by mere religious platitudes (Jesus is the Reason for the Season!).  We  have “had the experience, but missed the meaning.”  All this makes our culture’s relentless trivialization of the tradition seem almost unbearably bizarre.

It is no accident that the ancient church, in her wisdom, placed the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen on the 26th of December (a small liturgical fact somewhat obliterated from our consciousness by the incredible sales on Boxing Day) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (the  massacre of the children by Herod’s decree) two days later. The season really is complicated.

And so, recently while in conversation with friends, I heard the word “keening” used. I was only remotely familiar with the word but it seared me like a hot knife and haunted me for the rest of the day. Later that night the following verse bubbled up, and I knew it was time to face this season head on.

 

On and on the night goes on

Brooding dark before the dawn

We are waiting

Wearied lips rehearse our creeds

Bellies swollen with your seed

We are waiting

Hardened shards of broken bread

Small consolations in your stead

Soured wine a tonic for the pain

Dutifully we take our fill

Still, we long to see Your face again

Keening for the dawn as such

Stirs the memory of your touch

We are waiting

We are waiting

(for complete lyrics, and to listen to the song, visit http://keening.stevebell.com)

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  1. This is so beautiful. I feel you have given me permission to face up to my own very mixed feelings about Christmas. I want it of course to be a great time of celebration for my family but I’m always so aware of the dark and draining side of all this shopping and rushing. I wonder how the Church could rediscover a way of making space for this.

  2. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks, Joanna. In fact you’ve hit on the precise thing that Steve did – the need to recall the ancient Christian tradition of Advent. The season of Advent is the four weeks (the four Sundays) before Christmas; it is traditionally a penitential season! The Scripture readings for this season traditionally focus on repentance for sin, and on the coming judgment. It’s a space to reflect on the fact that Christ has come, and he is our Savior, yet we are still waiting for his Second Coming. Customs like the lighting of an Advent wreath (one additional candle each Sunday), themed Scripture readings and meditations, and making time for silent retreat and reflection are some time honored ways to recognize and move through the darkness and difficulty that we face on the way to joy.

    • That is very thought provoking. I’ve tended to be in less traditional expressions of Church where the themed readings, etc are not often used. I think we miss out by not following the rhythm of the seasons.

  3. Okay, must choose words carefully here to not be misunderstood…. Just as in this excellent essay, where Steve intermingles and juxtaposes (now THAT’s a cool word) the saccharin/sweetness of christmas with the bitter harshness of life for most people, most of the time through most of history on this planet…. So too does he intermingle the deepest, sharpest, most cutting lyrics with sweet, almost easy-listening melodies. That’s my impression of Keening For The Dawn, along with dozens of other of my favorite Steve Bell songs from many albums. (especially Mystics, and probably Waiting for Aidan..?). Sometimes I want to jump up at a concert and shout out, Is Anyone Listening to the Lyrics!!?

    There are moments when I feel that the greatness of the message in some of these songs (love is like a fine wine), will emerge only when someone with a rasp and a raggedy-edged, “Tom Waits” soul, rattles them off. But then I’m reminded of that Peter Paul and Mary song about “the radio won’t play it, unless I lay it (the message) between the lines.” or in Steve’s case, “many fans won’t play it, unless I lay it under a sweet-voiced melody” … Or as Mary Poppins might sing, “a spoonful of sugar… ” ??

    Anyways, Keening For The Dawn, is an awesome concept, and overall as an album, a ground-breaking work. And I’m not laying that between the lines. Thanks for the song’s Steve, and thanks for the courage of this essay and its personal insights i to your soul and your history.

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