Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Tag

So This Is Christmas   1 comment

Christmas lights in a park near where I live in Calgary.

Christmas lights in a park near where I live in Calgary.

I was telling an interesting story I once read about George Frederick Handel to some friends the other morning in my favourite coffee shop. They seemed to find it interesting and I hope you will too.

We were (well, I was) talking about the fact that great art is often born of arduous circumstances. This is why I sometimes have trouble with the rather new age take I see on art and artists on my Facebook, for example.  I know that it is an exalted calling, but I would have to say that more often than not great art comes from profound despair, even grief, not great joy or happiness.

The best example I know of this is Handel and the writing of his famous (especially this time of year) Oratorio, Messiah.

From what I understand, the story went like this. Handel had moved to England and had scored some magnificent successes, making him a fairly wealthy man relatively early in his life. He decided to invest his money in a publishing venture and ended up losing his shirt.

(I actually run a small publishing company, B House, here in Calgary, and I can tell you there is no better way to lose money, while investing heaps and heaps of time and money and energy and everything else, than publishing. So it was, so it is till this day.)

So, Handel had lost his shirt, and in England in the 1700’s when that happened they put you in debtors’ prison. He was living in a cheap apartment in the east end of London literally waiting for the bailiff or the beadle or whomever to come and take him to prison.

As you can imagine, he was extremely depressed about the turn of events his life had taken, and as I understand it, was resigned to the possibility there was no way out of it. He was broke, and going to jail and that was that.

I’ve always thought this would be a good scene in a movie. We see Handel in his slum apartment, perhaps sitting at the kitchen table, staring into the middle distance. Perhaps he is thinking of the great successes of his life, such as The Water Music, written some 25 years earlier. He could have been thinking of literally hundreds of works he had composed over the years. Handel was very prolific.

So there he is, at his table in his grimy kitchen, and from his point of view we hear the outside door to the apartment open, and then footstep approaching down the hallway. The footsteps stop at his door. Close up of Handel’s face. Close up of the door. Back to his face. Then there is a knock at the door. Handel sighs, slowly getting up from the table slowly. He opens the door.

The door opens slowly, revealing a man clutching some papers. But these were not papers to serve in Handel’s arrest, Rather, the strange visitor had with him the libretto for an Oratorio based on the life of Jesus Christ. He wondered if Handel would be interested in composing the music for it.

Handel was. Of course, he didn’t know how much time he had, and so in a fit of inspiration fueled more by despair than anything else, he composed the entire work in less than three weeks. If you listen to the music carefully, you discover it starts off quite gloomily, often in the minor key. It takes some time to reach the sheer exhilaration of the Halleluiah chorus.  By the time you get there, though, you know you’ve been on a hell of a journey.

And this, my friends, is all by way of saying Merry Christmas. I know there is incredible pressure to feel the joy, the love this time of year, but obviously for many it can be a time of great sorrow and loneliness. I know, I’ve been there. But to this I can only say, have courage, have faith, sometimes things work out better than we can possibly imagine.

Whatever the case, I hope you find some small inspiration in my little story of Mr. Handel. (And I apologize heartily to any Handel scholars who happen upon this.) On any account, here’s a wonderful rendition of you know what . . .

Thanks for reading.

Posted December 25, 2012 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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Attention Must Be Paid   6 comments

The Stardale girls receive their amazing Christmas stockings from Ried's Stationers full of Christmas goodies.

The Stardale girls receive their amazing Christmas stockings from Ried’s Stationers full of Christmas goodies.

When I teach a course in contemporary drama, I always include the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. At the end of the class, I get my students to vote on their favourite. In this survey, which contains many of the great plays since Ibsen or Chekhov, Death of a Salesman always come in first or second, usually first.

That the story of a down on his luck salesman penned over half a century ago should resonate as it does surprised me a bit at first. Clearly, it still speaks to young people so many years later, a different time and a different place.

The heart of it, I think, has something to do with a speech by Willy Loman’s wife Linda that goes as follows:

. . . I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person . . . 

Attention must be paid. Surely one of the reasons we go to the theatre or study literature is to come across lines like this one that transcend their context and possibly become dictums that can influence our behaviour and how we go about living our lives.

No surprise to my readers, I am not here to talk about Arthur Miller or Death of a Salesman, at least any more than I already have, other than this idea that attention must be paid.

Last night, I attended the Stardale Aboriginal Girls Christmas party. (I wrote about my teaching experience with the girls in October in the post titled Do No Harm. You can find it in the archive section on the left side of the screen.)

Their confidence and charm and humour came through in all aspects of the evening. So much care and preparation went into the Stardale Christmas party that when I arrived and saw all of them dressed up to the 9’s, I almost felt like running home and putting on my best suit. (If I had a car, I probably would have!)

The girls actually got up and performed some theatre  improv games. They’ve been working on theatre and acting with Jamie Dunsdon and the folks from Verb Theatre. (They do so many things, they work with so many great people, it’s impossible to list them all.)  I was impressed that they could get up and perform in front of a bunch of people the way they did. Of some of them, an old theatre gentleman like myself could actually say, “She’s got it!

All in all for a host of different reasons, it was perhaps the finest Christmas party I have ever attended. No matter what else happens to me this Christmas season, I have a warm feeling from last night that will last me through the holidays and well into next year.

Many of the girls end up at Stardale after a horrendous journey earlier in their lives that would simply debilitate many of us. I’m sure they have their own bleak moments, same as the rest of us. And I know they have many rivers to cross yet as their young  lives unfold. You have no idea how much I admire them for their courage and spirit. But last night, at least for a few hours, everything in the world seemed right.

Looking around the room at the staff and volunteers who help make Stardale work, your eye is always brought back to Helen McPhaden, the director of Stardale, whose energy and enthusiasm for this program is nothing short of infectious, probably it’s even miraculous.

I realized last night – and this is why Linda Loman’s speech was going through my mind – that Helen, more than  anything else she does, pays attention. If she has an agenda other than the good fortune of these girls, I’ve never seen her push it on anyone. Stardale is not a government initiative or a program run by a board of education. It is, more than anything, one extremely well-intended and generous person, with the help of many of her wonderful friends,  paying attention to a group of girls that we, as a society, tend to ignore. To our shame. To her credit. To their benefit.

Attention, attention must be paid. And in this case, it is.

Thanks for reading.

Helen with Alyssa and Chelsea.

Helen with Alyssa and Chelsea.

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