Thursday, November 29, 2012

amahl and the night visitors

As a child, I was required to sit and listen to the Metropolitan Opera (sponsored by Texaco) on the radio every Saturday afternoon. Mother would allow us to read, play quiet games, draw or even lie still with our eyes closed, but we had to be in the living room for the whole opera. Mother did her best to make it exciting. Before the opera began, she would explain the story to us, sing a little of the music for key scenes so we would recognize what was happening when we heard it. She would also tell us a little about the composer and the musicians scheduled to perform that day.

I complained bitterly, of course. No other form of torture was quite as exquisite as the opera torture. I would whine and beg in my most theatrical voice and drag myself into the room on zombie legs, rolling my eyes and sighing heavily. Mother ignored my mini-operatic antics, determined to infuse us with some culture.

Years later, Mother would confess to me that she had originally dreamed of becoming an opera singer when she was a young girl. Her voice was a choir voice, not an opera voice, so she lived her dream vicariously through Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne and Jessye Norman.

My first exposure to Amahl and the Night Visitors was during this time, although I have no clear memory of listening to it on the radio. Mother had a record of the opera and we listened to it during the Christmas season every year that I can remember. And now I listen to it every year, because I have come to love the story so much. Amahl and I are old friends!

Here is a synopsis of the story:

Amahl, a disabled boy who can walk only with a crutch, has a problem with telling tall tales and, occasionally, lying. He is sitting outside playing his shepherd's pipe when his mother calls for him (Amahl! Amahl!). After much persuasion, he enters the house but his mother does not believe him when he tells her there is an amazing star "as big as a window" outside over their roof (O Mother You Should Go Outside; Stop Bothering Me!).

Later that night, Amahl's mother weeps, praying that Amahl not become a beggar (Don't Cry Mother Dear). After bedtime (From Far Away We Come), there is a knock at the door and the mother tells Amahl to go see who it is (Amahl ... Yes Mother!). He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings (the Magi). They tell the mother and Amahl they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous child and they would like to rest at their house, to which the mother agrees (Good Evening!; Come In!). The mother goes to fetch firewood, and Amahl seizes the opportunity to speak with the kings.

King Balthazar answers Amahl's questions about his life as a king and asks what Amahl does. Amahl responds that he was once a shepherd, but his mother had to sell his sheep. Now, he and his mother will have to go begging. Amahl then talks with King Kaspar, who is childlike, eccentric, and a bit deaf. Kaspar shows Amahl his box of magic stones, beads, and licorice, and offers Amahl some of the candy (Are You A Real King?; This is My Box). The mother returns (Amahl, I Told You Not To Be A Nuisance!). Amahl is told to go fetch the neighbors (All These Beautiful Things; Have You Seen a Child?) so the kings may be fed and entertained properly (Shepherds! Shepherds!; Emily! Emily; Olives and Quinces; Dance of the Shepherds).

After the neighbors have left and the kings are resting, the mother attempts to steal for her son some of the kings' gold that was meant for the Christ child (All That Gold). She is thwarted by the kings' page. When Amahl wakes to find the page grabbing his mother, he attacks him. Seeing Amahl's weak defense of his mother and understanding the motives for the attempted theft, King Melchior says she may keep the gold as the Holy Child will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. The mother says she has waited all her life for such a king and asks the kings to take back the gold. She wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send. Amahl, too, has nothing to give the Child except his crutch. When he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed. With permission from his mother, he leaves with the kings to see the child and give his crutch in thanks for being healed.

The scene in which Amahl leaves with the kings (to go see the baby Jesus) is particularly poignant. It didn't stand out for me when I was a child. But now that I have a son of my own, I feel Amahl's departure in my very soul.

Mother: "Don't forget to wear your hat!"
"I shall always wear my hat."
together: "So, my darling goodbye! I shall miss you very much."
"Wash your ears."
"Yes, I promise."
"Don't tell lies."
"No, I promise."
together: "I shall miss you very much."
"Feed my bird."
"Yes, I promise."
"Watch the cat."
"Yes I promise."
together: "I shall miss you very much."

I cry every time I hear this part. I know the pain of the mother, letting her child go. And I know the pain of saying good-bye to your mother. But then I imagine Amahl traveling to Bethlehem to visit the Christ child. I picture him standing in the stable, just behind the three kings, waiting for his turn to approach the baby. I imagine his eyes widening as he looks at Jesus for the first time, recognizing the awesome gift sent by God.

Every Christmas season, I look for Amahl in every nativity scene on display. He isn't always there. Sometimes there are no shepherds. Sometimes the shepherds are all grown men. But when I see a young shepherd boy, I always think, there you are, Amahl, my old friend! Am I not blessed to have such a friend?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

furry reading

My cat is CEO of a fur production company, my ceiling fan is the distribution center and I am funding the entire operation. It is safe to say that the only thing in the house that is enhanced by the addition of cat hair is the cat. But still he soldiers on, eating his kibble and growing more orange and white hairs, then shedding them so the fan can do its work. I hate to admit it, but he’s stuck with this same job for almost thirteen years. The longest I’ve ever done the same job is six years, so I suppose I should show some respect.

This morning I resolved to read a book. I haven’t been reading books lately. Instead I’ve been playing Bingo on Facebook and watching television shows and movies that I recorded on my DVR. I am now so accustomed to fast-forwarding through commercials that it is agony to watch anything in real time. If I find myself watching something in real time, my index finger hovers over the fast forward key, itching to move things along. I’ll even hit the pause button when I get to the commercials and go do some task. This sometimes backfires on me if I am flipping back and forth between two shows and I forget I paused one, flip over to the other show, then flip back to find that I missed an entire section of the original show. I want to beat myself in the head with the remote control when that happens, but I can usually restrain myself.

Until a few years ago, I had over 1500 books in my house. I read every day and sometimes well into the night if it was a particularly good read. I enjoyed literature the best, but I could also go for the occasional mystery or suspense or even certain non-fiction.  I’ve often been deeply affected by a book, thinking brand new thoughts or feeling things I hadn’t realized I was feeling, or feeling stupid that I hadn’t known something or noticed something. There are a handful of books that have been life-changing.

But a few years ago, I found myself being transferred by my company for the fifth time in six years. I could not face packing all of those books again. Plus, I would be downsizing from a 3500 square foot house in Memphis to a 950 square foot loft apartment in Philadelphia. Something had to give! So I weeded through all of those books and got rid of all but about 150. I know that sounds horrifying to anyone who loves books! But I was careful to pass my books on to true book lovers.

So, why did I stop reading? I was working incredibly long hours and was exhausted when I got home. Facebook was easier and required less energy and thinking. Computer games allowed me to escape. Television was even better because it required no energy AND it allowed escape. There were lapses in my full stop. After I watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO, I immediately bought all of the books and read straight through them all. Fantasy isn’t my preferred genre, but I admit that I loved them. I did the same thing with The Hunger Games trilogy after I heard people talking about the books. Again, SF is not my preferred genre, but they were good, though not nearly as good as the Game of Thrones series.

So anyway, a switch was flipped in my brain this morning and I walked over to the bookshelves to peruse what is left of my collection. I settled on Growing Up in the South, An Anthology of Modern Southern Literature, edited and introduced by Suzanne W. Jones. The first piece is a selection from the autobiography of Harry Crews entitled A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. As I read it, I can feel my brain stretching just a bit. It is out of practice, since it has mostly been focused on Bingo games, television remote controls and a level 71 Undead Hunter named Amathyst. (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) And I have even taken a break to write this.

Since it is late morning, the sun is shining in the window next to my chair. I can see individual cat hairs occasionally floating through a ray of sunshine. It makes me smile. That production factory may have been in operation for almost thirteen years, but I've been reading for over FIFTY years! Maybe I'm not as much of a flibbertigibbet as I originally thought!