Mique Beltrán illustrations, undated. (source 1, source 2)

And lots more at the obvious source, here.

I don’t participate in a lot of Catholic traditions these days, but one of my favorite against-the-US-culture-grain traditions of the Church is that of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Most of us only know of the idea from the song, and assume that it’s talking about the twelve days leading up to Christmas; but in the liturgical calendar Christmas Day is the first day of the feast of Christmas, which lasts for twelve days until Epiphany on January 6th. In many traditional Catholic cultures, the entire two weeks are a holiday, and presents are given throughout.

Not to get all First Times about it, but it seems to me that modern US society has no patience for celebrations which last over several days — it’s not economically efficient — and the logic of spectacle required by mass media requires that you lead up to a blowout and then it’s over; according to television and the marketplace, Christmas is the climax, rather than the fulcrum, of the holiday season. I prefer the Catholic version, if only because it allows the seasonal cheer to last longer, and to be more varied; you can celebrate with different family and friend sets over twelve days rather than being yoked to one place and social setting; and the dark, cold week between Christmas and New Year’s needn’t be as depressing and hibernatory as it often is. The fact that my birthday falls right in the middle of the Twelve Days has, of course, nothing to do with it XD.

All of which is to say that some of my presents, good wishes, etc. may be a little “late” this year, and every year.

I am trying not to let too much through here, to retain my self-possession, what Didion would call my self-respect. But this is the album I have listened to more than any other this year, and if I make it to the end of the year I might argue sentimentally someday that it saved my life.

I’m only beginning to come to grips with what it means to me, so these are just sketches towards an impression; but the underlying thing to know about my approach to the album is that I think of Beyoncé much as I imagine a fictional child in the DC Universe would think of Wonder Woman: first in her class, regardless of putative history; at least somewhat divine; rigorously, almost frighteningly, capable; and in some secret sense having nothing to do with politics or governance, queen of the world.

It’s been a bad few months. I’m not going to get into why, except to say that most of it was my own damn fault and I don’t deserve anyone’s pity. But Beyoncé has been a lifeline, a tower of strength and certainty that I can cling to when I have neither. Which has lately been all the time.

“This is for them thirty somethins who didn’t turn out exactly how your mom and dad wanted you to be,” she croons during “Schoolin’ Life,” the most dynamic of the bonus Target© Corporation tracks. It’s a line that hits me particularly hard; as a thirtysomething who has almost as many attempts to start over at adulthood under his belt as he does waistline inches, I need to hear the wisdom of the outro from the same song: “There’s not a real way to live this; just remember to stay relentless; don’t stop running until it’s finished; it’s up to you, the rest is unwritten.” In the back of my mind there’s something almost indecent in taking comfort in platitudes sung by someone a few years younger and several hundred million times richer than I am, but it doesn’t stop me.

Beyoncé’s prescription of attitude and effort for every ailment, whether romantic disappointment, life failure, or the systematic oppression of women, is extremely attractive to my American sensibility, even though I know it’s an incomplete recipe. Her hyper-competence spurs me to want to be as ambitious and driven as she is, but her mature acceptance of everyone under her umbrella of emotion and rigor is also soothing, comforting in a strangely elemental sense. These things are old, these things are true, I guess: self-respect, heartbreak, love, and the urgent appeal to dance.

I’m a singles listener at heart, so I never listened to any of Beyoncé’s previous albums all the way through; though I’d like to speculate that the cool maturity and womanliness she displays on 4 is due to her stable marriage and the wisdom of years, I don’t actually know that it’s all that different from the self-esteem anthems and big achey ballads she’s always trafficked in. But the obvious care with which the album is produced, its classicism and even its stateliness — it’s more than halfway over before we get an actual banger — also makes me think of the long view taken by the grown-assed. She has obvious taste, and can afford to surround herself only with beautiful things — and if her sophisticated refinements aren’t met with instant approval from the marketplace, that’s okay; she can also afford to wait.

I love every song on the album, even the self-important Diane Warren ballad — if anyone’s earned the right to be self-important, it’s Bey — but I do more often listen to it on shuffle than in the original running order. I’m still working on an improved tracklist that will make it flow like a motherfucker (and incorporates the Target© Corporation bonus tracks), but for now, simply playing the album back-to-front is a viable short-term solution.

And this is me running out of steam and not knowing how to end this. Well, okay. It’s been a while. I guess I’m rusty.