Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mouths to be kissed

Here in northeast Illinois, the sun has set on 2006. Streaks of bright but fading blue appear behind the drizzly grey clouds in the western sky. Farewell to the old year. The sun rises tomorrow on 2007.

But first comes the night, and as Steven Sondheim said in a song, "there are mouths to be kissed, and mouths to be fed . . . in the meanwhile." In the dark, there will be parties, penance, toasts. Truths to tell, truths deferred, temptations. Movies to watch, curled up on the couch in pajamas. Emotions to master, feelings to indulge. Glitter, gaiety, the unfettered festivities of all of us who live to see another year begin. Bitterness, sorrow, confession, forgiveness.

Tonight's passage is like the part of a Shakespeare play where the characters are transported to the Forest of Arden, or the magical isle in The Tempest, a place where fools and clowns play at a story line that parallels that of the noble characters. Life is turned inside out or propriety is laid aside, showing lovers and tragedians their flaws, mistakes and folly. At the end of Act Five the ones whose fates we have followed most intently emerge with greater self-understanding, prepared to love unselfishly or repent in preparation for death. Drama and poetry make meaning of the whole mess of life.

But what meaning is to be found in tonight's revelries? Today, December 31, the news is full of year-end stories, attempts to find significance within the arbitrary dimensions of twelve months of calendar time. What was most important in 2006? Who mattered most? Where are we--heavens!--trending? Is there wisdom for the future encoded in the Top Ten This-and-That of 2006?

It's simpler just to look at the hard news of the day, which included the story of the hanging death of Saddam Hussein, and reports on the funeral events of a 93-year-old ex-president of the United States. Different heads of different kinds of states. Different ends.

I read a news story this morning summarizing comments from European governments on the execution of Saddam. Foreign ministers affirmed sovereignty of Iraq and the execution of justice but deplored the execution itself. Someone (I suppose I could go back and look it up) said, more or less, that revenge gets you nowhere, especially in a troubled, violent society. "Live by the sword, die by the sword" is not, apparently, a recipe for peace.

Stories about Gerald Ford have focused on his role in healing the nation after Watergate. He pardoned Richard Nixon, despite accusations that a deal had been made, that letting Nixon go was a corrupt and cowardly thing to do. I remember friends who were outraged that Nixon was not brought to trial, not held accountable deed by deed, document by document, tape by tape. Yet the passage of time has vindicated Ford's decision. What would a Nixon trial have been like? What would the punishment have been?

My evening begins at church, where fortunately, there is a box of Kleenex on the organ, near my choir chair. I do not much like meditating on the passage of time. The years gone by are too evident in my face, in my attitude toward life, in my growing and near-grown children. Later, I must dress up and go to a party, where I will be wise and witty, or more likely, dim, dull and out of it.

The high points of life--the times of real insight, joy, deep pain--do not come at calendar celebrations like New Year's Eve. They do not come with fireworks at midnight, confetti, champagne, or beef tenderloin. The real Forests of Arden or the storms on the heath that transform us come in the course of living, when we must seek peace and not revenge, ask for and give forgiveness, seize happiness and serve our neighbor.

Yes, there are mouths to be kissed and mouths to be fed, but as part of everyday life. Which is kind of the point of Sondheim's song, in which the singer finally states that she will settle down someday and marry "the miller's son."

Time to get ready for the evening. Peace to you in the new year.

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