Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Listen for the Bells

I've been increasingly reminded lately, even in the midst of the almost ceaseless migraines, of just how fortunate I am and how much I have been given. It seems like so many dreams that I had become practical and given up on have suddenly been laid out before me, wrapped in silver paper. If I were to try to write them out, I don't know that I would ever finish.

I wanted to give something back. So many people have entered and enriched my life this year; somehow, it wasn't enough just to thank God for them. I wanted to thank them, too. I wanted something more than that, even; I wanted to hear the bells.

There's an old story that I remember reading years ago, which made quite an impression. It was about an old chapel whose bells would only ring when someone gave a gift of true worth and love. Kings and other wealthy and important men traveled for many miles to reach the chapel, where they lay down gifts of jewels, gold, and beautiful garments on the alter. But the chimes remained silent. Week after week, the gifts continued to be given, and the chimes continued to stay still. People grew angry, believing that the bells were broken, or that their beautiful music was nothing but a lie concocted to gain wealth for the chapel. Many people took back their gifts and went on their way. Then, one particularly cold and windy night, a little boy came upon the chapel. He searched his pockets for something to give, but he had nothing. Finally, his face brightened into a smile and he took off his thin little coat and laid it on the alter. Instantly, the bells sprang to life, and the air was filled with the most beautiful chimes anyone had ever heard.

I think about those bells a lot. I didn't hear them last year, because I was too caught up in my own misery (largely self-imposed) to listen. But I did think about them then. I thought they had gone silent. So did one of my favorite poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once. In 1862, he was having a miserable year. He had lost his dearly beloved wife, Frances, in a fire. His first-born son Charles had left abruptly earlier in the year to fight in the Civil War, and had been severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church. The war itself was ongoing, with no end in sight, and an entire country torn in half. On Christmas morning of 1862, a broken, heavy-hearted Longfellow put his pen to paper and the words poured out:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Yesterday morning, sick with a migraine, I had to stay home from church. I started to feel sorry for myself, something I've been prone to with all of the health woes this semester. Then I thought about my favorite professor, one of the dearest people in the world, and the much worse health problems he is battling. I thought of some of the hard-working people I know who get over-looked or under-appreciated, and of some of the people with power whom I know, who deal with stress that completely dwarfs my own. I thought about how kind they have all been to me, and about the daily encouragement I receive from them.

I started baking. For the entire day, I ignored the migraine and stayed on my feet, until the entire kitchen and dining room were covered with warm, fragrant cookies. Although the pain and nausea never left, I didn't seem to feel as much of them. I focused on the people I was baking for and felt very, very blessed. In the back of my mind, I thought I heard a faint chiming.

Today, loaded down with an enormous box full of bags of fresh cookies, I played elf, going from office to office. I delivered cookies to all of my coworkers and professors, as well as a few deserving people who work in stressful offices. Nothing is quite as much fun as surprising frequently-overlooked and under-appreciated people with yummy baked goods. I got some hugs, a few cheers, lots of surprised looks, and lots of smiles. That's really one of the best parts of the holiday season: when you give something to someone, thereby letting them know that they matter enough to be thought of. The bells are beautiful then, unlike any earthly music.

It's amazing just how many deserving people get taken for granted, even people with the big offices and their own secretaries. I guess everyone just assumes that they know their own worth. I know that I often do. Maybe people don't think about it at all. Maybe a mass-mailed e-card seems like enough. Somehow, though, nothing brings quite the twinkle and smile that cookies or handmade gifts do.

It takes time to make things, a lot more time than it takes to fill a shopping cart. Especially now that online shopping makes it so much faster. You can sit, and you're comfortable, and your feet don't hurt. You don't burn your fingers, and there's no mess to clean up afterwards. The bells don't seem to ring as loudly, though. Sometimes they don't ring at all. I guess most people would say the bells don't really matter; after all, only the giver can usually hear them. And you can't keep them, or wear them, or replay them over and over. They're old-fashioned, maybe even corny. Sappy and sentimental, surely. But they are so beautiful . . .

The whole time you make a gift, you think of the one you're giving it to. A little bit of love goes into that stitch, or that paint-stroke, or that cookie batter. You're thinking about them, not yourself. That's a foreign concept today; I think some people would even laugh about it. What do you really get out of making things? Sore feet, sore back, burned fingers and palms, headache, a bit of sweat. It takes time; time is valuable. Time is ours; it ought to be spent on the things most important to us. Oughtn't it?

Last year I spent that time feeling sorry for myself, and I never heard a single bell. I missed those bells, but I was too busy with me to notice. A funny thing happened; the more I thought about my misery, the more miserable I felt. Misery loves fertile ground to grow and thrive in. Sometimes it generously invites its friends: regret, sorrow, bitterness, jealousy . . .

This year, I decided to spend the time better. I spent it remembering the hearty "good morning" that greets me every day, the offer of help when the copier gets stubborn, the concern when I don't feel well, the explanation of how to write the book review better next time. I spent time thinking about the helpful advice, the phone call that straightened out my student account, the joke that lightened a stressful day. People spent their time on me; yesterday I remembered. I gave back a little bit of time. The migraine made it cost more, but, for once, I spent it anyway.

And yesterday and today, I heard the bells.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"