Christmastime 2021, Merry Christmas from Jeni
It’s been so long since most of us have been able to travel freely and gather as we once did. Rather than send out Christmas cards by the mail this year, I thought I’d share a letter. I had so many Christmas cards I wanted to send that I realized I'd just end up having time to sign my name and address the envelopes, but I wouldn't be able to write personal notes or say much of a hello. So, I'm writing here!
I’ve spent most of the last two years writing songs. I’ve written many of them with my longtime friend, Brother Alfred, who lives in York with his wife Sarah, a multi-media artist. Writing songs long distance with a friend is a fine adventure. Sometimes I would send Alfred lyrics and he would return them in the form of him speaking over a chord progression. I would then sing over the speaking, finding a melody within the chords. I would return my sung version of the song to Alfred and he would send it back with beautiful instrumental solos and harmony singing. This is just one of the many ways we came up with songs.
Alfred and I thought we’d start running out of ideas or melodies, but that still hasn’t happened nearly seventy songs later. Last December, when we both bought instruments belonging to my musical mentor, Norman Cross, we began writing a whole album of songs inspired by Norman. We finished the album in January and we sent it to him and his wife Fiona for Valentine’s day (we plan to bring the album out to everyone in spring 2022). In May of 2021, Norman passed away in hospice. I was able to be with Norman and Fiona for the last week of Norman’s life. Fiona and I sang and talked to him every day while he tapped his feet and often looked at us with great intensity. Norman had Parkinson’s and dementia for many years before he passed away, but he had been a musical force in the lives of so many people as both a player and repairer instruments, so his memorial service was filled with stories of instruments saved from the ashes and of Norman’s exceptional memory for tunes. He had music around him to the very last hours of his life.
After rehearsing in a Fiat 500, a Skoda Felicia, and at hot desking office in Yorkshire, Alfred and I played a few magical concerts in the fall, but we felt reluctant to plan a fuller tour because of the uncertainties around attendance and gathering due to Covid. Still, I was so happy to be able to sing for people in real life again and experience playing live with my old friend. Thank you to all of the folks who came out to see us play! We were really inspired by your enthusiasm and sheer numbers!
One of my favorite things I’ve done in the last two years outside of songwriting is collect hedgerow and garden plants to make them into dye! I dyed wool from many small flocks of British sheep. My friend Jan gave me silk offcuts from the haute couture industry which took up natural dye like a sponge. I also found linen clothes, tea towels, and table cloths at charity shops and boot fairs which I dyed. I was truly in the spirit of advent all year in 2020 waiting to discover what plants I would find on my walks in Carnforth, Northwest Lancashire. I did do one batch of dyeing in Southeast London from hypericum and dandelions which came out electric yellow. I plan to make a quilt from my dyed fabrics, but in the meantime, I first felt compelled to make a doll. I named her Ms Adeline Hedgerow. Her hair is made from the wool of hearty Herdwick sheep kept near Penrith in Cumbria. Her body is made from tea and onion-dyed cotton and her clothes are made from elderberry-dyed linen. I dyed the silk for her belt with turmeric. She's a fine companion. I love how the natural world changes color so dramatically with each season. This is something I didn't notice as much when I was always traveling to sing and perform.
One of my favorite exhibitions I saw this year included the art of Vanessa Bell. Just before I went to the exhibition, I came across a very tiny (3/4 inch) handmade doll at the Pimlico Car Boot Sale (flea market). So, I took Pimlico to see the Vanessa Bell paintings and she enjoyed pretending to be walk through them.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really absorb the idea of advent – the waiting for light embodied in the birth of Jesus. Though I understood the nativity story, I didn’t make the connection between the “Star of Wonder, Star of Light” and the coming and going of the shortest day of the year. Later in life, this connection became clear to me when I spent some days of December in the desert in California and saw a haloed moon. But, though I may not have understood the liturgy or theology behind advent when I was a child, I lived the spirit of advent with gusto.
Starting around Halloween, I began to wait for Christmas because Christmas meant going back to Smith Ridge, Jewell Ridge, and Richlands in the small corner of Southwest Virginia where I was born. As you know, I used to spend my summers with my grandmothers and great-grandmothers plus all of my aunts and cousins. So, by October I was really missing them all very much! I could hardly contain my excitement about going “home” for Christmas. I loved the presents we received, definitely, especially dolls – I’ve never stopped loving dolls. And I looked forward to seeing the Christmas trees decorated with favorite ornaments. But most of all, I just wanted to sit there among all of my beloved people.
In the end, I have spent most of my adult life writing about my beloved people – my family. Through photographs and stories I’ve come to learn about many of them who died before I was born, but I love them nevertheless. The last time I was in the USA was on July 3rd of 2019. I miss my kinfolk very much . The songs and stories I’ve written about them, their voices on the phone, their gifts of old photographs, and quilts made by their hands have been the golden thread keeping me knitted to them from such a distance of time and geography.
Since that July in 2019, many of my kinfolk have died. Because I could not grieve in person with my family, I have honored them with their own songs. I’m still waiting on some of them to send me the words they want spoken.
I will end my letter to you, dear friends, with a prayer of hope for reunion. Because I grew up with so many people around me – with such a big blood-family – I have travelled through life increasing my family by making songs, patchwork, and stories to share with friends. I love very many people now and I used to see everyone as much as I possibly could in the course of my travels. To spend nearly two years in a small town in Northwest Lancashire with only a few meetings with friends has been radically opposite to my way of navigating the world. Few hugs, few overnight stays, few songs voiced together. So, my prayer is for fellowship always in whatever form we can experience gathering – in person, on line, or in the spirit.
Here are links to some of the songs I’ve written for my kin who’ve gone on up to the Picnic in the Sky. I hope you enjoy meeting them in song – beauty queens, weather girls, gurus, my Cousin Joe who took me to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream, and Dad who sang Bob Dylan songs with me at the top of our lungs while we rode on his yellow bike!
So much LOVE to you all. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,
Blessings always. I'll see you down the road.