Creativity, Loss, White Christmas, Irving Berlin, and You

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin offers warmth, inspiration, and the chance to lift one's own voice—wonderful things to cultivate over the holiday season.

I now have a history to connect with the plethora of charming songs written by this unlikely creative hero—and I want to watch those old movies and sing along.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, survived a traumatic, impoverished childhood, exhausted a sixth grade education, and created all of his 1200-plus songs at the piano. “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Cheek to Cheek” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” have all the pluck and humor and resilience of their author.

Hershey Felder, inhabiting the role, is a wonder. He embodies the above characteristics all while performing Berlin’s music masterfully. 

This Portland Center Stage world premier drew me into Berlin’s life, the bittersweet memories of his family, and his idiosyncrasies. Most of all, though, I absorbed the sadness of all the goodbyes said over his lifetime. A simple, sweet song like “What’ll I do?” reveals a hard, heartbreaking question.

What do I do when I have to say goodbye? What do I do when I feel alone?

Recently, goodbyes have been weighing on my heart. I witness Berlin finding his way despite his own untimely losses.

When the love of his life dies, a friend urges him to write a song about it, but Berlin resists. All he has ever done is write breezy stuff. “What it’s not going to do is make it any worse,” admonishes his friend.

It’s true. Creating in grief doesn’t salt the wound; it helps us own and live and grow through the experience. For this reason, my daily journal, my creative walks, and my poetry have become my dearest companions in loss. 

Berlin, too, came to understand that creating was his ally, and this new “serious” songwriting paved the way for something entirely new and beautiful in his career. Those songs of his that we know best touch the deepest, most poignant places of loss.

“I don’t like being alone,” Berlin says. “What a song does is never leave you alone.”

In our creating, in our singing, we find a witness to all our grief. When we pick up the pen or the paintbrush or sit at the piano, we gather hope and sweetness even in the dead of winter; we stumble upon our own “Russian Lullaby,” our forever “White Christmas,” our beautiful, impossible “Always.” 


Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel

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