I helped decorate a Christmas tree up in Connecticut last Friday. It was traditional in every way, from the homely handmade star to the old-fashioned tinsel and fifty-year-old strands of colored lights that my hostess and I draped around its sweet-smelling branches. Even the music playing in the background, Johannes Somary’s 1970 recording of Handel’s Messiah, was conventional, if artily so.
It happens that I played bass for more than a few Messiahs in my college days, and before that I took part in decorating a dozen or so of my parents’ Christmas trees. As any working musician can tell you, Messiah is more fun to hear (or sing) than it is to play, but trimming a tree is one of the most purely pleasurable activities known to man, especially when you are, like me, lucky enough to have had a more or less uncomplicatedly happy childhood.
Why, then, did I never get around to putting up a tree of my own after I left home? The answer, I suppose, is that since I made a point of coming back to Smalltown, U.S.A., for the holidays each year, I never found it necessary. What began as a convenience hardened into habit, and by the time I was forty the notion of buying and decorating a Christmas tree seemed to me senseless. No doubt that said more about the confusion of my private life than it did about any domestic urges I was sweeping under the rug, but whatever my deeper reasons might have been, the fact remains that the tree I trimmed last week is the first one I’ve had in thirty-two years.
To be sure, I can’t claim to have been deprived, at least not by comparison with Louis Armstrong, who was born into a poverty so dire that he never had a Christmas tree of his own at any time during his New Orleans boyhood. Like most musicians, he spent his adult life living out of suitcases, and it was Lucille, his fourth wife, who bought and trimmed his very first tree, which she put up in a hotel room not long after they were married in 1943. He was so stunned by the gesture that he sat and gazed at the tree for a long time, and when he and Lucille moved on to the next gig, he insisted that they take it with them.
Yet I felt more or less the same way Armstrong did as I looked at the tree I had helped to decorate, thinking as I did so of the illness that struck me down last December. A year has gone by since the snowy morning when I called 911 and put myself in the hands of strangers, and since then I have been happier than at any other time in my adult life. Could it be that life–real life, not the unexamined kind–is like a roller-coaster ride in which happiness and fear are woven together in a twisty strand of feeling?
After the tree was trimmed and Handel’s Messiah had run its jubilant course, I put on Lambert Orkis’ recording of Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, played on a Graf fortepiano made in Vienna in 1826, two years before the composer’s death. Of all the great composers, Schubert is the one most in tune with life’s melancholy. Surely the uneasy, unceasing fluctuations between major and minor that dapple his music are harbingers of the ultimate inevitability of sorrow–and mortality.
But even as Schubert reminds us of what must be, he hints at the prospect of joy, and it was joy with which my healthy heart overflowed as I gazed contentedly at my twinkling tree. In a matter of days it will be stripped of its ornaments and consigned to the trash, but until then it will glow brightly, reminding me of Christmases past, even as Schubert’s music reminds us of the chubby, bespectacled man who once walked the streets of Vienna, haunted by the knowledge that he would likely die young. So he did–but his music is still with us, giving joy two centuries after the man who made it was laid in earth.
I’ve been much preoccupied of late with Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual who is the principal character in The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of history plays, whose first installment I reviewed in The Wall Street Journal the other day. I haven’t yet read the second or third installments–I want to see them first–but I’ll be surprised if Stoppard doesn’t find room in one of them for a remark Herzen made in his autobiography: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.”
I don’t know whether Herzen was right, but I do know that art and happiness are at least as real as my Christmas tree. To be happy, not in memory but in the moment, is the shining star on the tree of life.
Goethe said it:
All theory, dear friend, is gray–
The golden tree of life is green.