12 December, 2008
beauty in the Grosvenor Chapel
All right, you've got me, this isn't the Grosvenor Chapel. It's my own kitchen countertop where Avery and her friend Emily concocted their wax and flocked-tree Christmas village last evening. I took pictures of them doing it, but they've suddenly hit an age where instead of looking up smiling falsely and charmingly when you say, "Hey, look up, girls!" they hide their faces and say, "I hate having pictures taken of me." What a nice memory: the girls getting so involved in the decorations that they couldn't bear to be parted; securing permission for Emily to stay, finding in the freezer a couple of salmon fillets to feed an unexpected dinner guest, listening to her silly family stories, watching the two girls throw their heads back and howl with laughter.
But seriously, I know it's Christmas when the annual candlelit concert rolls around at the incomparable Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. Now in years past we have been the guests of Grosvenor in their capacity as our enormously overcompensated landlords, living as we did in the shadow of the American Embassy. This year I sighed a sigh of both disappointment that we would not be invited because we had moved away, and sheer relief at the lifting of that enormous rent bill every month. And you know what? Someone in the heavenly sphere reached out and said, "Kristen, you SHALL go to the ball even though you live in darkest Shepherd's Bush." That someone took the shape of my dear friend Annie who lately seems to be my partner in crime in so many little jaunts. She has done work for the Home Farm Trust, recipient of the concert's ticket income, and so had four tickets and only herself and her daughter, my dear Emily, to go. What luck! So my holiday season could begin bang on schedule, in the pine-scented, white-pillared elegance of the Chapel.
The concert came on the heels of the afternoon gathering at Avery's school of all the pupils of the two singing teachers. They'd organised themselves into groups, or soloists, and had lovingly chosen their music, according to the staff. (Although Avery, typically refusing the sentimentality of schoolteachers, denied this account of events saying, "I hardly know Emma and the teacher said we had to sing a duet, and do you really think I'd choose 'Amazing Grace' if I had anything to say about it?"). Fair enough, whatever the organising principle, there they were, 30 girls in all, ranging in age from the littlest MIVs (Avery's age) to young women of 18, and filling every conceivable rank of talent as well! There were several phenomenal singers, several astonishingly terrible singers, and lots in between. Avery and Emma were, contrary to the expectations that had been raised by Avery's practicing at home, extremely good and very touching. There is something affecting and pure about that song, and also they looked so very small and defenseless compared to the big girls who had gone before. They had also dressed up, unlike the older girls who seemed to make a point of turning up in ratty tieless sneakers, short skirts with tattered tights underneath, and the ubiquitous fringey scarf. Dreadful sounding, I know, but with their extreme youth, squeaky clean hair, hesitant shy smiles and hands plucking at the clothes with nerves, they were all irresistibly vulnerable and lovely.
Why must I cry at these events? It is impossible to pretend I have an itchy eye. I end up spending so much emotional energy trying not to make a fool of myself with a tissue that I miss a good part of the performance. I'm sure there's a metaphorical lesson there somewhere.
From there we jumped on the bus and headed to Mayfair. In one of the moments that defines living in London, I read on the programme that we would be "In the Presence of HRH Princess Michael of Kent," how thrilling. The lady leading us in gave us each a tall white candle and suggested, "Why not try a seat upstairs, where you will be directly opposite the speakers in the pew?" Speakers! Another quick glance at the programme: the Princess herself! Charles Dance, Patrick Godfrey, Amanda Walker, Tim Piggott-Smith! What a galaxy of stars, and two of them we'd seen onstage in the London theatre in the past year, Charles Dance in "Shadowlands" and Tim Piggott-Smith in "Pygmalion." They did not, I must clarify, so much speak, as READ.
I am an absolute devotee to the art of reading aloud. From the time Avery was born, John and I propped her up between us on pillows and, holding a book above her, read to her at bedtime, each taking a page in turn, for an hour or so before she went to sleep. She thrived on the ritual, taking comfort, I think, in the predictability, the closeness, and in turn she bestowed on the written and then spoken word a sort of trust that has stayed with her all her life, and with us too. Whenever she has one of her periodic and mysterious little day-long fevers, the first thing she asks for is for me to read aloud to her. It is a precious return to a long-ago ritual, one that seemed to last so long for the years it did, and yet now reveals itself to have been short-lived indeed. She is so independent now that those nights of the evening read-aloud seem like a chapter from some fictional person's life.
Being read to as an adult takes on more nuanced meaning, of course. We have all been in situations where someone reads aloud a deeply affecting text. Perhaps the reader is a famously dulcet-toned actor, holding his audience almost unwilling in its rapture, or perhaps only a beloved person close to one's heart. One is caught up in the moment, spellbound by the performance, seduced for that moment into believing the performance to be true. How magical it is, that suspension of disbelief! How ready we all are to listen, to absorb, to take away something that will ease the unexpected pain and confusion of human relations.
How easy it is, really, for one to read aloud something profound: the act requires nothing more than a revealing, wise and emotional text from the writer, concentration and delivery from the reader, and a rapt audience. How much more difficult it is, as an adult, to understand what one has read aloud, and infinitely more difficult still to live by the tenets of what one has read. We can choose carefully all the elements, but sometimes putting them together is beyond our capability.
But there are times when one suspends all such judgment and merely revels in the beauty of the voice alone and hears only the wisdom of the words, revealed by the one wisest enough to have written them down. That was my experience at the Grosvenor Chapel this week. We lit our candles, then watched the collective smoke rise when we blew them out. We listened as each reader ascended the podium and read: from Dylan Thomas and Clare Boylan, from Dickens and "Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus," and from Isaiah. I listened, and as is my wont tried to absorb some bit of knowledge through listening that might help me with my thoughts. We stood and sang when it was time to sing, and sat back and admired the choir and tiny orchestra when we were meant merely to admire. I felt that particular sort of unplaced grief you feel when you look around and remember that everyone in your sight is the most important person in the world to someone. I thought a great deal about the people dear to me who have been delivered enormous losses in the past few weeks, with more to come in the weeks to come.
Sometimes it is awful being an adult.
But then I looked around at Annie and Emily and Avery and I could feel my heart contract at the luck of being with them, in such a beautiful place, surrounded, in the heart of London, by the best and brightest of the stage and screen, by HRH for heaven's sake, and by luscious greenery and candlelight. It all exists at the same time, and in the same place, and that means it's Christmas.