A Gentle Light

When I told a friend Roger Whittaker had died, her reaction was not entirely unexpected.

“Who?”

The smooth-voiced baritone occupied one of those interesting musical niches. Depending on where and when you grew up, he was either full-screen or off the radar entirely. He had a fan base of millions that followed him in concert and on TV, but no real celebrity profile. His signature song, “The Last Farewell,” sat virtually unnoticed for four years before abruptly going viral; another piece, “I Am But a Small Voice,” was briefly unavoidable if you were within earshot of a children’s choir.

In short, he had fame without being Famous.

And really, that’s not a bad place to be.

We don’t glamorize that sort of thing, almost by definition. The big dream, after all, is supposed to be what the Muppets once called “The Standard Rich and Famous Contract.” Celebrity with a Capital C, the sort of thing that comes with mansions, awards, screaming fans, gossip writers, obsessed stalkers, nuisance lawsuits, no hint of privacy …

Er, remind me why we want this again?

It’s not wrong, of course. Not entirely. When you look at it closely, the “rich and famous” dream is just an exaggeration of two things we all want very much.

First, we want freedom from worry. The ability to handle crises, needs, even some fun, without it being a stress or a strain.

Second, we want someone to remember us. To think about us kindly. Maybe even to know that something we did had an impact on someone else.

That first part, the freedom from worry, is pretty elusive, to be fair. We’ve all got different lives and situations and they can change with amazing speed. If the pandemic taught us nothing else, it showed us how something as fundamental as health is not a given and how thoroughly its absence can transform a once “normal” life.

But the second part – memory. That’s a little more achievable.

I don’t mean that we’ll all have continents light up at the mention of our name. For some of my more introverted friends, that might even be a nightmare more than a dream. But we all have something we can share, some way to touch a life beyond our own.

For some, it’s music or storytelling. For some, it might be the ability to build or repair or restore. It might even be a simple gift of time, lifting up a neighbor or a stranger, showing them they’re not alone and that someone else cares.

That doesn’t require a limo or a record deal (although I suppose it never hurts). Just the willingness to see beyond your own skin and reach out.

Our lives touch each other all the time, like marbles packed in a jar. We can’t help it.  But what we can do is make that touch matter.

Maybe we won’t set the world ablaze. But frankly, there’s enough burning as it is. If enough of us add a soft light, just where we are, maybe that’s enough.

After all, enough small lights can make a world shine. And the ones who see your light won’t forget it.

So here’s to the Rogers, big and small. Here’s to the ones you labored for, the ones who’ll remember your presence and be better for it.

And when you reach your “Last Farewell,” may the chords you struck linger on.

Lost Treasure

There’s no pile of riches. No treasure map. Certainly no One-Eyed Willie. But shiver me timbers if “The Goonies” didn’t actually have a glimmer of truth to it.

In case you missed the news, National Geographic recently reported that a dozen timbers from a 17th-century Spanish galleon – the Santo Cristo de Burgos – were found off the Oregon coast. That by itself would be pretty cool since the ship had disappeared after leaving the Philippines in 1693.

But the news coverage exploded thanks to a Hollywood connection. Tales of the shipwreck survived among the Native Americans, with later settlers spinning off legends of sunken treasure. Those in turn inspired Steven Spielberg to make “The Goonies,” the 1980s movie about children hunting pirate gold.

Confession time: I’m not a huge Goonies fan, which will probably cost me my “Child of the ‘80s” geek cred. But the connection between a 1690s ship and a 1980s film fascinates me.

You see, in the words of a young Sean Astin, “Goonies never say die!” And apparently, neither do stories.

In a day when so much can be researched, pinned down and verified, it’s easy to forget that stories have a life of their own. They’re strands of memory that defy the line between fact and fiction, often taking a seed of reality and spinning it into something unforgettable.

But as the legends and myths and heroes rise, the piece that started it all becomes a buried treasure:  lost, forgotten, maybe even denied to exist. Was there a British war leader that set the tales of King Arthur in motion? Or a highway robber with a sense of style that kindled later legends of Robin Hood? Even in less time, it’s easy for memory to change to make a better story: the psychologist Ulric Neisser famously told how he remembered hearing of Pearl Harbor attack during a radio baseball game , only to realize decades later that no one plays baseball in December.

So when the treasure of truth suddenly reappears, it’s almost magical. You can start to see how the story began and what grew from it, making both a little more wonderful. It might be the ancient city of Troy, rescued from mythical status by a 19th-century archaeologist. It might be the Santo Cristo, giving reality to a vessel that had long sailed the imagination.

And years, decades, centuries from now … it might even be us.

We live our stories now. Each of us shares and shapes memory, building our perceptions of the world into a personal tale that  explains the world around us. And even in our own lifetimes, we see those stories evolve and collide and change … though we don’t always realize how much they’ve changed until we find ourselves struggling with an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit the narrative.

When our own time has passed, how much more will those stories transform?

It’s a little humbling to consider. And yet, it can be comforting as well. Even if our copious records become lost or meaningless to a far-future generation, something inspired by us may still fire the imagination and grow beyond what we can see.

And maybe, just maybe, some timbers of truth will wash onto the shore.

Or does that sound a little Goonie?

A Dickens of a Tale

Standing in the dark on Friday night, I listened to the buzz of the audience.

A noisy crowd before the curtain is an actor’s favorite fuel, and this one kept building … and building … and building. The entire stage seemed to resonate, ready to light the cast up like a Christmas tree. One step, and the most unstoppable chain reaction since Trinity would be underway.

Not for a world premiere. Not for a screaming-hot “Hamilton” or a Disney-powered “Lion King.” But for the Longmont Theatre Company performing one of the most familiar stories in the Christmas canon.

Mr. Scrooge, you’ve still got it.

***

If there’s anyone who doesn’t know “A Christmas Carol” by now, welcome to Earth, and I hope the trip from Alpha Centauri was pleasant. For the rest of us, the basic plot has become part of our cultural DNA. Even on TV sitcoms, if a character makes the mistake of falling asleep on Christmas Eve after a grouchy day, we know to expect three spirits, a moral lesson, and maybe even a chorus of “God bless us, everyone!” as hearts warm and the audience applauds.

It’s a reflex. A tradition. And after 175 years, it still has power.

Why?

It’d be easy to say it’s just one more stock story. Easy to turn it into predictable melodrama. Easy to just say the familiar words and go through the motions.

But when it’s at its best, “A Christmas Carol” goes through the emotions instead.

This is somewhere we’ve all been.

Scrooge is faced with missed opportunities. With old wounds that become fresh again. With the fear of leaving the world unnoticed and unmourned, having spent a lifetime pursuing the wrong things, until the things are all that remain.

Those regrets still hit home today.

More than that, Charles Dickens gave us a tale of reaching out and truly seeing the people around you. Scrooge’s nephew Fred is joyous because he can see people opening their hearts to each other as the holiday approaches, and he can’t wait to share it himself. The Cratchits overflow with warmth and love because they constantly reach out to each other, turning even the most meager situation into a chance to be a family. Scrooge himself begins as a lonely youth who reaches out for love – and then loses sight of it, and himself, and the rest of the human race.

It’s not about a man who hates Christmas. It’s about a man who’s become closed off and needs to be reminded that other people matter, and that he can matter to them. That the rest of the world isn’t just “surplus population,” but neighbors with faces and names and needs that can be met.

And most of all, it’s about hope. That what you’ve been doesn’t have to be who you are. That while there’s life, there’s a chance to become something new.

Not without effort. Not without pain and reflection. But the best presents are the ones you work for. And this is one that all of us have needed, then and now.

It doesn’t take three ghosts and a visit from Jacob Marley (though a good night’s sleep never hurts). But it does take empathy. Self-awareness. Self-transformation. And it all leads to a perspective that opens doors and tears down walls … not least, the walls within ourselves.

So we revisit the story. We relight the hope.

And maybe, just maybe, we awaken a Christmas spirit that’s all our own.