Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” Is More Relevant Today than Ever

During the winter of 1863, America was embroiled in its most violent and bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. Divided over the ethics and economy of slavery and states’ rights, communities turned against each other, families were torn apart, brother fought against brother.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life mirrored the turmoil of the country. During the summer of 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Frances, died tragically from injuries sustained when her dress accidentally caught fire. Then in March of 1863, without informing his father, Longfellow’s eldest son Charles left home for Washington D.C. to enlist in the Union army. That November, Charles was gravely injured from a bullet wound to his shoulder and back. He survived, but the near-fatal wound would end his career as a soldier.

Longfellow composed his “Christmas Bells” poem on Christmas day in 1863. As he listened to the peal of bells, he penned his first stanzas that speak of the true spirit of Christmas, of “peace on earth” and “good will to men.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow doubted the message of the bells though. How could they sing of good will to men when thousands were violently dying within his beloved country? How could they sing of peace on earth while his own son was a casualty of a tragic war?

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

However, Longfellow recognized the hope that exists even during times of desperation and hopelessness. He concluded with the truth that the right will always triumph over the wrong:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

“Christmas Bells” was first set to music as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in 1872 by English organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin. Since then, there have been several renditions, most of them omitting the 4th and 5th stanzas of Longfellow’s original poem that reference the war.

In the century and a half since the Civil War, America has continued to justify division among her citizens. The country may not currently be mired in a war with itself, but politics and differences of opinion have succeeded in creating contempt and conflict among communities and within families. This Christmas, I urge all to listen to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and embrace his message of “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

My Writing Process is Better than Yours

I wake up early and refreshed, while the family remains blissfully asleep. With my hot mug of black coffee and freshly toasted, cream cheese-slathered blueberry bagel, I settle with my laptop at the desk in my office, which has a gorgeous view of the autumn forest in the backyard. The morning sunlight filters through the trees and falling leaves creating a visual wonderland, while the deer family saunters across the yard munching the grass. Inside, my houseplants, oil diffuser, and salt lamp surround me to create a calm and serene atmosphere. The radio softly plays my favorite music in the background. Inspiration – images, phrases, poetry – flows through me with the ease of the changing seasons. I stretch my fingers out over the keyboard as Zen overtakes my spirit, and beautiful words and ideas flow from my soul through my hands onto the screen, creating stunning, captivating and visually enticing prose in a perfect, harmonious flow.

Not.

Writing Process

Are you one of those mythical unicorn writers that are able to pull this off? Perhaps you’re able to profusely bleed your soul and creativity all over the screen or notebook, but in a non-messy sort of way. Maybe you come up with the most appropriate content at exactly the right moments. (#jealous) Do you have a secret? (It’s the salt lamp, isn’t it?)

Believe me, I’d give my analytical left brain to be able to function like this.

 

So maybe that process doesn’t work for you either. If you’re unable to create like this, agonize no more. I’ve created an alternative. The following is my actual writing process in a convenient, easy-to-follow, step-by-step process. Feel free to imitate it if it works for you.

  1. Set yourself down in front of a television sitcom or drama and allow some vague idea to pop into your head when a character says or does something stupid or funny. This also works with superhero movies or your in-laws.
  2. Go to bed and wake up at 2:00am with your head full of unique, subconsciously-created sentences and phrases so breathtaking that Thoreau himself could have crafted them. Don’t write them down; they’re so amazing, there’s no way you’re going to forget them.
  3. Wake up late and bleary-eyed the next morning, promptly forgetting the inspiration that materialized during the middle of the night.
  4. Go about your day, executing all your life stuff, job stuff, parenting stuff, house stuff, etc.
  5. Sit down in the evening and word retch all over your laptop monitor. Make sure you do this while one kid is crying over her math homework and another is arguing with you about unlocking the computer for more screen time. Bonus points if the parakeets are angrily chattering with each other and the dog is staring at you while performing his trademark “Chihuahua Shake.”
  6. Edit the hell out of what you just wrote: chop 25% to 40% of your writing, spend a ridiculous amount of time with the thesaurus searching for the perfect word, and rearrange sentences until you’re cross-eyed.
  7. Change the ending of your story or essay or blog post because the right side of your brain just now decided that it has a better idea. Then rewrite the rest of it too because now nothing makes sense with the new ending.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 ad nauseam.

I hope this is helpful. Now, please excuse me while I go and revise this entire post.

Why I Finally Started Sharing My Writing

As a kid, I read a lot and wrote a little – I knocked out a few acceptable essays and poems, some for my own pleasure, others for school assignments. But then adulthood, kids, jobs and life happened.  Then life threw me a damn curveball, and suddenly, my entire universe was turned upside down. While I’m grateful for my devoted family and circle of friends, and otherwise content and happy life, I felt a pull to do something more. I just wasn’t sure what that something was at first. Then I decided that – without possessing any real experience – I was going to write and share it.

But I didn’t know how to start.

Pen on Paper

Fear, The Almighty Barrier to Creativity (and everything else)

What propels you to take action or begin a project? Why do you get to work on time? What motivated you to start your blog? How did you decide it was time to take that karate class? What is it that provides that kick in the backside?

I’m capable of inventing plenty of reasons why I avoid sharing my writing, but procrastination is my go-to excuse. But procrastination is only a pretext for other, deeper pitfalls. Those may include perfectionism or poor time management.

But I believe in most situations, the underlying force behind our procrastination is fear. It’s possibly the most fundamental cause of failure to grow or progress. Fear that we’ll be criticized or laughed at. Fear that we’ll get it wrong and appear the town joke. It’s scary out there, and it’s intimidating to put yourself out there where everyone can see you at your most vulnerable.

So how did I get over this fear? Well, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t completely. But I did get one of those proverbial kicks-in-the-butt one day while listening to the radio.

The song “The Motions” by Matthew West was playing and it spoke to my immobilizing fear of sharing.

This might hurt, it’s not safe
But I know that I’ve gotta make a change
I don’t care if I break,
At least I’ll be feeling something
‘Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life

It will hurt and it’s definitely not safe. You will be judged; and not everyone will appreciate your content or creativity. Some folks will even let you know about it.

For introverts, this can be downright terrifying. I’m the most introverted introvert ever. Not that being an introvert is the problem; it’s not. The problem is when you let it impede you from moving forward, connecting with other humans and sharing your gifts.

I composed enough prose and ideas to fill journal after journal before sharing anything. Hell, I’m still petrified of the Publish button. Fear is a powerful obstacle. It takes a miraculous amount of strength to ditch it.

But what’s the alternative to remaining fearful? Stagnation. No forward motion. And no growth.

So yeah, you might break, you will be judged, and you will most certainly screw up sometimes. But that’s OK. We move on, and the world even keeps turning on its axis.

A Word on Perfectionism

You don’t have to be perfect.

Which is great news, because guess what? None of us will ever reach that level.

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” –Margaret Atwood

Not that we shouldn’t strive for constant improvement. Striving for better is what keeps us growing. It’s what generates progress, innovation and development.

As you practice and spend time with your craft, progress will occur naturally. But don’t wait for perfection. Go ahead and hit that Publish button. Once you do, you’ll immediately realize that something could have been better. Oh well, you’ll know better next time. And that’s ok.

No regrets, not this time
I’m gonna let my heart defeat my mind
Let Your love make me whole
I think I’m finally feeling something
‘Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of this life

It’s time to command those voices in your head to beat it; you know, the ones that tell you no one will want to read what you have to say, or appreciate your art, or that it’s all been done before. It’s time to let your heart have a turn for once. The trick is to muster up all your strength, kick fear to the curb and forget the regrets. The voices in your heart are the ones that tell you that the world requires, even demands your unique point of view. And I guarantee there is someone out there who needs to hear your message or identify with your creativity, and his or her life will be changed for the better because of it. And that makes it all worth it.

I don’t wanna go through the motions
I don’t wanna go one more day
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me
I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking,
What if I had given everything,
Instead of going through the motions?

Don’t spend the rest of your life just “going through the motions.” Find the source of your passion; perhaps it’s God, your family, or somewhere deep inside your soul.

Or perhaps it’s a song you heard on the radio today.