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December 18, 2019

from Keeping Time, by Ann Copeland

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, late Advent, a drizzly evening in Salem, Oregon. In the large house at the end of the street, set in among evergreens blinking with red, green, and silver lights, some thirty or forty folks of various ages have gathered for the annual party. Most have been connected to Willamette University for years, as has our host. Some, new to the faculty, bring small children. Others, newly retired, bring themselves and anecdotes about elderly parents or grandchildren. Many bring just themselves. The deadline for getting exam results to the registrar’s office is tomorrow or the next day. Nonetheless, this evening’s space is reserved; it holds the desire to gather and to sing.

After milling about and chatting over mugs of homemade Northwest Cioppino, accompanied by wine, cheese, bread, and too many sweets, we gather in the long living room near the large twinkling tree. Song sheets appear. I go to the piano. Seated around in chairs and on the floor, guests call out numbers of the songs they want. If the key is too high and they change it on me, I try to fake along, often failing, but nothing stops the singing.

I love this version of surround sound: the spontaneous hamming up of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” the variations on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the quieter rendering of beloved Christmas hymns, “Silent Night” always saved till last. Sometimes Charlie brings out his penny whistle or recorder. Sometimes Jo plays her flute. Now and then we also have Delana’s harp.

This is no utopia. We’ll all return very shortly to the contradictions, ironies, puzzles, and pain that mark adult life. For the long moment of this evening, however, usefulness, duty, and deadlines are held at bay while voices merge in song.

—Ann Copeland, Keeping Time

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