Carla Carlisle: ‘There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen’

Carla Carlisle on how she brightened her Christmas with music, the perfect balm in stormy times.

An email arrived this morning from the Catskills. Every Christmas, my friend David sends me his homemade Pecan Clouds (it’s a Southern thing) and alerts me when they’re in the post. Today’s subject line was worrying: I GIVE UP. He writes that he’s finally been defeated by the US and UK postal systems.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Last year, his seasonal confection of sugar, egg whites, pecan halves and vanilla extract attracted VAT and duty of £1,000. Although the package weighed less than a hummingbird, was no larger than a bar of Ivory soap and adorned with a little green sticker stating ‘Gift: value $5.00’, on its journey to England someone in the postal universe read the value as $5,000.

I was instructed to pay the VAT and duty bill before my package could be delivered. Maurice, the dedicated and much-loved postman in our village, managed to track the origin of the package (Margaretville, NY). I knew at once that it was Pecan Clouds and not a Cartier tank watch sent by an unknown well-wisher.

I declined to fork out the ransom and the Clouds made their way back to the land from whence they came. For the record, I try to dissuade anyone from sending a package from the US. If they persist, I plead with them to put ‘Gift, No Commercial Value’ on the customs slip, even if the package contains emeralds, which they rarely do.

In fact, my friend in the Catskills didn’t give up entirely. He surrendered to the great dictator, Amazon.com, and ordered the new collection of poems by a poet I love. As he was about to press SEND, a message appeared: ‘Thank you for your order of Playlist for the Apocalypse by Rita Dove. Delivery To UK Not Guaranteed.’ Those last five words tipped him over the edge of giving, but the poet’s title leapt out at me. I immediately ordered it from Blackwell’s.

I believe it is prudent to use the word ‘apocalypse’ sparingly. I also figure the time is right. Lenin said (supposedly): ‘There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.’ The past two years feel as if Lenin was on to something. From the moment a tiny viral particle residing in a bat in China’s Hubei Province made its way to the first human, time has moved with the speed of light. Or sound. Whichever is faster. If this doesn’t feel apocalyptic, with the new variant multiplying at stupefying speed even as I write this, I don’t know what does.

It also happens that I have a playlist for these times. I came late to the playlist thing, but it feels as miraculous as a booster that provides protection in the bipolar world. I no longer linger over BBC Radio 4’s Today, trembling during over-long dogfight interviews. Instead, I enter the peace of John Williams playing the theme song from The Deer Hunter. I kiss my sweet husband and walk my sweet old dog with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel on repeat.

I decorated the tree to Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss’s version of The Wexford Carol. I set out my crèches to The Waters of Babylon by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Joan Baez’s I Wonder as I Wander. Otis Redding sang White Christmas as I lit candles and Whitney Houston joined me over a glass of eggnog

My more enlightened friends consider my new routine Meditation for Lightweights, but I no longer grind my teeth as I grind my coffee beans. I don’t stomp and swear as I head towards the Guantanamo enclosures where my chickens and turkeys are now confined by law. I think I feel a sense of wonder. My chickens don’t know about the bird flu that has robbed them of their freedom, they are simply happy to see me. My Narragansett turkeys don’t believe that confinement is their destiny and they listen intently when I tell them that, although they come from the Suffolk Heritage Turkeys, they are companion birds, not table birds. My vow, tender and uneconomic, is on repeat. I never tire of saying it.

The most eclectic part of my playlist is the ‘Christmas Mix’ created for me by my friend Susan. Last month, she left her home in Maine, where she has lived for 50 years, and moved to California into a community for ‘older adults’ in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Her list chimes with this sedentary older adult.

I decorated the tree to Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss’s version of The Wexford Carol. I set out my crèches to The Waters of Babylon by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Joan Baez’s I Wonder as I Wander. Otis Redding sang White Christmas as I lit candles and Whitney Houston joined me over a glass of eggnog, singing Joy to the World. By the time King’s College Choir sang How far is it to Bethlehem?, I felt that comforting sadness of gratitude.

When my book of Rita Dove’s poems arrives, I may realise that I’m a lightweight in a troubled world. I’ll probably feel guilty that I haven’t created a playlist with a moral compass that makes more sense of these times. The truth is, I doubt that even those great Stoics Seneca (about 4BC–AD65) and Marcus Aurelius (AD121–180) could make sense of a pandemic, a planet on fire, NHS waiting lists that have no end, war, famine, pestilence and cruelty to children in our midst. The best we can do is try to find ways to cope when life seems beyond our control.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how to put Charlie Brown on my playlist. He’s my kind of Everyman Stoic and he tells Lucy how to face life’s adversities and live well in the world: ‘Be kind. Don’t smoke. Be prompt. Smile a lot. Eat sensibly. Avoid cavities and mark your ballot carefully. Avoid too much sun. Send overseas packages early. Love all creatures above and below. Insure your belongings and try to keep the ball low.’ I would add: put Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on repeat. Always and forever.