It’s a remarkable meeting of imaginations. In that group, we’ve had the privilege of meeting a published memoirist; an Army veteran who was the first woman to qualify as an Apache attack helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg; an native of Anchorage, Alaska, who loves adventures in the outdoors; an artist-in-residence; an alto who has performed with Seattle Pro Musica; a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program (that’s the program in which Anne and I are currently earning our masters degrees); a woman who is a wife and mother of two boys; and a connoisseur of chocolate and red wine.
Actually, all of those describe just one of the writers in our group.
Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey (2013), in which she details a pilgrimage into Alaska to the location of a family tragedy — the death of her parents in a grizzly bear attack. It’s a beautiful, moving memoir about grief, loss, and faith. And I had the privilege of helping to arrange a visit from Polson to the campus of Seattle Pacific so that she could share with us the lessons of writing that book.
Polson has been published all over the place; you might have read her work in The Huffington Post, High Country News and Alaska and Seattle Magazines. Currently, she lives and writes in the Methow Valley in northeast Washington, where she and her family just posted for a Christmas card portrait next to the most impressively constructed snowman, snow-woman, and snow-boys I’ve ever seen.
And here she is, sharing a Christmas playlist of her own…
“O Holy Night”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ky5E6VwSZpE
In college I auditioned to sing a solo part for this when I was singing with the Duke Chorale. I was too unsure of myself to make a real go of it. I wasn’t chosen, and the bittersweet memories of that audition make me love it all the more. This has all the peace of “Silent Night,” and the passionate abandon of realizing a world changed and renewed, blessed and sanctified, and the revealing of the ultimate power of love.
“O Holy Night can sometimes be a little overwrought, but this version by Patti Smith, sung at the Vatican, is stunning. I’ve never heard it sung quite this way, or quite this low, and the earthiness of her voice itself is a beautiful demonstration of the divine within and among us, which is, of course, the meaning of Christmas.
“A Spotless Rose,” by Paul Mealor
The texture and occasional dissonance of this does not in any way diminish its sweetness, and taken together makes it a beautiful addition to a Christmas playlist. Though the composer is modern, “A Spotless Rose” recalls ancient ideas and story (beginning with the original hymn’s composition in the 1600s, which recalls Old Testament prophecy), which is a part of the best Christmas music.
Seattle Pro Musica included this on their Celtic Christmas CD last year.
(I also love Lo, How a Rose, of the same roots of course.)
“For Unto Us,” from Handel’s Messiah
No Christmas is complete for me without Handel’s Messiah. I’ve sung it more times than I can remember, and love listening to it just as much, especially the tradition of standing up for the Hallelujah chorus! “For Unto Us” is the piece our local choir is performing this year, the words taken from Isaiah’s prophecies, another connection of ancient to old to new.
“Silent Night” is a classic, and I prefer it in German, perhaps because I studied German, and because I love the images of a German Christmas. I associate this also with the 1914 Christmas truce (as we approach its centennial), probably because I recall the movie includes its singing, and that juxtaposition of a silent, holy night against the atrocities of war puts both in high relief.
(Seattle Pro Musica has this on their Weihnachten CD)
In 2008, my husband and I went on a mission trip to Guatemala, high in the mountains. It took two days to get to the village, and we spent a week with villagers filled with a particular kind of joy. The villagers spoke Ixil, which is the language of this hymn to Mary.
One of my favorite concerts to sing was titled Navidad, a Christmas concert drawing inspiration from the Spanish speaking world and the many other languages and dialects of South America. The requirement to learn the various languages as well as the accompanying percussion (in the Seattle Pro Musica recording, by far the best I think) brought us as performers as well as listeners closer to the universal human heart, as art should always do. The song is composed by a Franscisan friar in a more European style, but the indigenous elements are very strong, and I love that there are dark undertones even as the music moves forward in celebration, acknowledging all parts of our human experience.
If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift, I highly recommend that you give them the journey contained in this book: