Living Between the Hallelujahs

I’ve been listening to Pandora’s classical Christmas station for two weeks now, which is a mistake for a couple reasons.

First, there are approximately six songs total on Pandora’s classical Christmas station and five hundred thousand different arrangements of the six. Honest to God, if I have to hear another classical arrangement of The Holly and The Ivy or its tied-for-most-mind-numbing-Christmas-song-ever, Here We Come A Wassailing, I can’t be held responsible for my actions. Although, in defense of Here We Come A Wassailing, it’s a song meant to be fueled by booze like One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall or the movie, Dude, Where’s My Car, which are awesome but only after some seriously questionable amounts of imbibing, and I was listening to it stone cold sober, so… my bad.

The second reason Pandora’s classical Christmas is a mistake — and the reason I keep listening to it — is the Hallelujah Chorus.

The Hallelujah Chorus, you guys!

So bold!

So triumphant!

So beautiful and BIG and powerful and filled with joy!

I love the Hallelujah Chorus.

I mean, I love LOVE the Hallelujah Chorus. 

I can hit that high A note, too, so I’m practically obligated to sing along every time it comes on. Which is a lot. A lot, a lot. It’s like every second song on Pandora’s classical Christmas station, and sometimes, when my children are very lucky, it’s every song. Song after song of nothing but the Hallelujah Chorus.

Let me tell you, my kids think the very best part of Christmas is their mama twirling in her nightie and bunny slippers throughout the wreckage that is our house and singing the Hallelujah Chorus full throttle, rockets firing, tearing down that runway and TAKING OFF toward that high A like I mean it. Which I DO. And, sure, they compare my singing to the tragic wails of a dying walrus, but their words belie their hearts which are crying out for more. “MORE SINGING, Mommy!” their little eyes say, filled with hope/dread, “MORE SINGING.” And so I do even though their words say “NO!” and “STOP!” and “I’LL GIVE YOU ALL MY MONEY, MOM!” Their words are just kidding, and our house is filled with joy, so I’ll take it.

I’ll take it.

The mess. The madness. The music. The magic. The mundane. The mystery. The magnificence.

I’ll take it.

I’ll take all of it.

Except the parts of the mess and the madness I don’t want, of course.

I’m not quite so eager to accept those with open arms.

The cute messes, yes; glitter and flour spills; shirts on backwards; the 8-year-old who lets one rip in church during quiet prayer time, fine. And the adorable, quirky madnesses? The middle schooler who believes in unicorns; the kid who washes the same pair of socks every day in a load all by itself; and the 2nd grader who can’t sleep without a separate, second bedtime snack every, single night? Great; I’m in. Whatever.

I’m just… less of a fan of the messes that wind their way to the murky darkness and the madnesses that cut us past our core.

My cousin’s cousin died last week. Overdosed on drugs. I didn’t know him, but I hugged his aunt who’s also my aunt tight on Saturday and whispered, “I’m so sorry” in her ear and she whispered, “me, too” before she squeezed tighter and said, “stupid boys; stupid, stupid boys.” Next month will be 15 years since her own boy died, lost in a maze of depression and confusion, and there was a whole world of grief and love and longing in her voice. We hugged in the middle of a party. A party celebrating a graduation and a milestone for yet another cousin. An enormous accomplishment. A BIG DEAL. A joyful day. My aunt released me but grabbed my arms and locked her eyes with mine and said, fiercely, “But now we celebrate.” And I gripped her back and said, “We party like we mean it.” And she said, “We party because we do mean it.” And I said, “Both/And.” And she said, “Both/And.” And it was magic in the mess.

This is the Season of Light in the Darkness.

My Jewish friends begin Hanukkah — the Festival of Lights — at sundown tomorrow, and we Christians wait now in our Season of Advent. 

This is the Season of Anticipation. The Season of Hope. The Season of Love Made Flesh. The Season of Light With Us. Of Divinity and Humanity Intertwined. The Season of God, as finite and eternal and fragile and strong as a baby, which is the best miracle I know.

But the darkness persists.

Doesn’t it?

The darkness is resilient, too.

Damn it.

Light walks among us and darkness still exists, and I find in this whole season and all of life, I am so very Both/And. Both deeply content and always unsettled. Both certain of the Light and sitting in darkness. 

‘Tis the Season, friends.


Both Joy and Grief. Both Light and Dark. Both Steady As She Goes! and Brace For Impact! Both Human and Divine. Both Steady and Unstable.

I got an email last week from a friend who’s recovering from major surgery. He linked to a blog by Fred Smith about Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, which is so very different from the Hallelujah Chorus I’ve been singing around my house.

So very different, and yet… the Hallelujah Chorus and the cold and broken Hallelujahs are only as different as two sides of the same coin, I suppose. And so it’s not difficult in the end to consider that both joy and grief — both mess and magic — spill out as Hallelujahs, after all

“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled,” Cohen has said, “but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’…

“The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!’

My friend signed his email, “living between the bookends of hallelujah,” and I thought, yes.

Yes, this is it, entirely. We are living between the bookends of Hallelujah. A whole, messy life lived inside of Hallelujah.

Because there is a Light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And through it all, together, somehow, Hallelujah.

Living Between the Bookends of Hallelujah,




P.S. Please, if you feel so inclined, share your Hallelujahs, friends. Whatever kind. I keep meaning to ask you for updates — to inquire how this season is for you — but my season is busy and I haven’t and I miss you.

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26 responses to “Living Between the Hallelujahs”

  1. Right around my son’s first birthday in November the test done on a small lump on my thyroid came back. The doctors are shrugging their shoulders, so I got to schedule a surgery to remove it and find out whether or not I have cancer. A bit scary. Then the glorious. I just found out I’m pregnant with number 2. The surgeon says it’s fine, we will just postpone until after the little one comes. So this tired nauseous momma is holding her squirming son close, grateful for the wonderful gift of him. And trying to be excited for another little miracle. But I am also wondering how I am going to handle a newborn, a 21 month old, and a surgery to find out if I have the big C word. Both/and for sure.

    • Chrissy, even if it is cancer thyroid cancer is not as scary as the typical cancer diagnosis. 98% live long lives. If it is cancer and it hasnt spread they will take it out and then you will take synthroid. If it has spread you will do radioactive iodine. None of it is great to have or to go through but it isn’ all that scary. I just went through surgery in the Spring and RAI in the summer. Try not to worry too much and if you have any questions I would be happy to answer what I can.

  2. Beth, I honestly had never really taken the Hallelujah Chorus as seriously as I should. I watched that clip and was blown away. How have I performed that in choirs and still never been hit with the magnitude of it? Oh yeah, because I was a depressed college student with little concept yet of how the glory of God could bowl me over and rescue me from the pit. Goosebumps. Thank you for posting that. Oh yeah, and/but both/and. Yup. So much yupness to that.

  3. I have an appointment for custody mediation today. With my personality disordered (read sociopath) ex. I’m both excited to finally have this settled and terrified of how he will behave. I’m also both excited for this weekend because I get to have Christmas with my three amazing children early and saddened that I will spend actual Christmas Eve/Day by myself for the first time in almost 10 years. I’m both glad for the path my life has taken because many good things have come my way and saddened that I have to still see my children suffer through so much mental anguish due to their father’s illness. BOTH/AND Thank you for this.

  4. Thank you Beth. What a beautiful message. Both/and. There is no other way to live into the facing of this hour or these days. After almost 3 years of one or more of my kids essentially being “in crisis” of the mental health/special needs variety, the past month or so has seemed rather odd – quiet, still. I keep bracing for impact. My own depression is rearing its dark head. Taking advantage of the momentary loosening of the grip I’ve had on life. The clench I’ve had in my jaw. And I think it’s also due to a small raw piece of my heart finally having some breathing room to acknowledge what has been lost. What the cost has been for the successes of the past three years. It’s hard to feel ok about grieving when “they are sure doing better now”. And they are. And I am grateful. And I’m proud of how hard they and we have worked to get here. And/but. Some things are very different now. And won’t be the same again. I’m different. And won’t ever be the same again. I’m seeing forward and backward with new eyes. And what I see is painfully beautiful and beautifully painful. Both/and. Sometimes the deepest pain comes not in the midst of the crisis but in the stillness afterwards when things appear to be fine. But. And.

  5. The Pandora thing? Try the “Peaceful Holidays Radio” station — that’s my kryptonite late Nov through early Jan. There is a bit of repetition but the mix soothes … and it will give you a break from the Classical Christmas one. Enjoy!

  6. My dads favorite holiday was Christmas. He loved making things in his woodshop for us girls and his grandkids. Getting up when he couldn’t sleep anymore at 3:30 am to sand or stain some beautiful creation. And then, at a checkup because his brother had just been diagnosed, he was diagnosed with that awful disease. And told he wouldn’t be around for the next Christmas. But Hah on you nasty cancer because he lived through 2 more! So there! And then he went to heaven at Easter and is really hearing the Hallelujah Chorus!

    So every December I live between the hallelujahs of my daughters birthdays and the grief of not having my daddy. Not in a way that I can’t function, but in a sad little corner of my heart that reminds me of what is no more. And now I’m anticipating the birth of my first grandchild, A BOY!, and I find myself between the bookends of joy and grief again. Wishing dad was here to share my joy, knowing that he sees from above.

    Thank you Beth, for giving my tears a reason to release this morning! Hallelujah Christmas is coming! Hallelujah death does not have the final say. Merry Christmas!

  7. Both/And, that describes my view very accurately. December has become a painful and stressful month. It started three years ago with my breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy surgery. Unfortunately the cancer is back and has metastized. I get to go in for another scan right after Christmas to see if the current treatment is holding it at bay. The not knowing is torture!
    My baby has a Dec birthday and she really loves Christmas. She begs for us to carry on our secret Santa game but I can’t seem to get on board. I’m just so tired and scared…

    • Debbie, I pray God’s peace upon you and your loved ones in the middle of the storm. I pray God’s grace enfolds you and allows you to meet your daughter in her joy and imagination.

  8. 1) The Roches. Hallelujah Chorus. Feel it.

    2) Oh the holidays! Oh the Hallelujahs! Are they…strictly necessary?

    What happened was, 3 years ago today I was on my way to the oncologist for the followup on surgery, by way of my sister’s house because I had to meet my new niece who was the instigation of a life-threatening PPD for the new mama, and the plane had to be de-iced a second time and I had an actual hand-to-God panic attack for the first time in my life.

    So, in the spirit of giving me something to cry about, when the plane landed, safe but late, the restaurant was closed and the commuter train was sold out and the oncologist wanted me to see another specialist for another biopsy because it’s fun to cut holes in my face I guess, which forced me to choose between turning down the diagnostic testing even though my child was 12 OR risking the loss of the ability to speak on the phone, which is kind of how I support my child.

    And then my wife got off her connecting flight and dragged me along with her to a happier place, for 3 days in which we were alone together for the first time in years and I wasn’t sick and my sister was OK and my wife’s friend hadn’t taken her own life while I was in treatment (which was kept from me for 2 weeks while I got fit to leave the hospital because I guess I’m fragile or something). There were 60 hours of hallelujahs.

    When we got off the Amtrak at 3:49AM my other sister was up already, waiting, because our mom’s doctor had called her (professional courtesy) to ask her to come to mom’s appointment later that day. So we knew the labs were back and it was positive, which means really bad…

    I’m not over any of it. Tried to cancel Christmas for the 3rd year in a row, but my family won’t allow this because it’s time for me to wake up and live.

    I’m working on it. Painted the kitchen (where the dirt wasn’t amenable to lesser forms of removal), because we’re having our holiday open house like we used to Before. I am not who I was Before, I am someone else; maybe she LIKES parties! Anything can happen.

  9. This season. It is so dualistic for so many I think. I was just talking to a friend today who was sharing how she feels blah at the holidays. No huge horrible things to endure, but since her mother passed away a few years ago and her traditions have so now changed, the holidays are just different, and blah. Since we have no grand traditions this time of year, and even no small ones, I always just feel like I can’t wait for this season to be over, so I can stop anticipating the nothingness. I enjoy watching others celebrate, but there is no celebration in me. It was actually nice, refreshing, to share this moment with my friend today. We got it, we got each other.

      • P.s. I was thinking all day today that I wanted to check and see if there was a new post in the last couple of days, because I’ve been slacking, and…I missed you too. When I finally laid down tonight, before I drift off I thought I would check. You had JUST posted! And you said you missed us too 🙂 Perfect timing, and a beautiful post. It felt like a hug <3

  10. My darkness is nothing compared with that of so many. But I stepped on our pet bird and killed him Friday afternoon. My sons (26, 24, 22 and 19) have all been wonderful – saying its not my fault and asking if I was okay. My husband cried with me. The bird spend way too much time on the floor for a fragile little bird and we have been telling him that for years. and I know I couldn’t have avoided him, but it was still my foot and I am the one who held his never still in the past and now so still body.

    So, my light is the husband that supported me through this and the four young men we raised to think about other people’s feelings when it really matters. Hope the dark fades quickly.

  11. My divorce was finalized and my ex is still living with me and our autistic son. I’m living the Both/And. Between the bookends. Really just trying to get through something painful and not being bogged down with guilt or failure. Trying to find my Hallelujah. Thank you thank you thank you for chronicling this dichotomy and giving us hope.

  12. This was beautiful, Beth, and exactly how I feel this year. My oldest’s birthday is December 14, so for the past two years I’ve celebrated the opportunities laid before my daughter (who just turned 7) while mourning for those moms and dads and siblings and grandparents and aunts and uncles who aren’t celebrating with their little ones – well, they would have been in 3rd grade this year. Not so little.

    (And on a much, MUCH lighter note – because it’s both/and, after all, I had to reread the line about you hitting the high A three times. I feel like I KNOW you, you know? I mean, we’ve had some good times and some good cries in the last couple years, you and me. And I always, ALWAYS hear your voice as an alto. You just blew my mind.)

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