My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true
It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.
Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.
I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.
So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.
And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain
This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.
Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me.
God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true
It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.
It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.
It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.
It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.
And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?
Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.
I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.
Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow
I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.
I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.
Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.
And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.
So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.
A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.
Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.
A portrait of paradox.
. . .
In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!
The boys and I have been playing lots of piano lately. (Or I should say: I play while one bounces on my lap and the other bangs on the bass or slams on the treble, depending on his inspired accompaniment.)
During the day we play all the old favorites, the childhood standbys: This Old Man, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, every tune Woody Guthrie ever dreamed up. The toe-tapping, hand-clapping, doesn’t-matter-if-mama-messes-up-that-key-change-we’re-rolling music that I always dreamed would come when we had a piano in the house.
But at night, after the winter sky sinks dark and the boys are wrapped in bed, I’ve been sneaking down to play alone.
Foot pressed down on the damper pedal so I don’t wake them, I settle into my own old favorites: the Beethoven and Mozart of high school, the Rachmaninoff and Chopin of college. A practice equal parts delightful and frustrating; nothing so humbling as seeing how quickly skill slips away without careful attention.
If I want to sit down and race through a piece without thinking, I’m stuck back around 9th grade for now. To tackle anything I touched in college, I have to take a deep breath and go slow, no matter the marking. Lentissimo.
And if I do slow my rhythm down, slow way down, painfully slower than my normal pace, then and only then do my fingers relax into what they can handle. My mind relaxes, too, slipping back into the deep memory of what these fingers still know: the tricky passages, the troublesome chords. My hands, my feet, my whole body can remember how to play, but only if I slow way down. Lentissimo.
What do I bring to Lent this time around? What do I crave, what do I need? Where is God’s call to go deeper, draw closer?
What might I find if I slow way down into the space set apart, step out of life’s ever-tempting swirls of more-more-more and remember how often I encounter God when I do less?
What would happen if I go lentissimo into Lent this year, simply slow down and let my mind, body, spirit and soul re-remember their way in this world?
It’s aggravating work, this deliberate halting, this restraint of a racing mind and antsy fingers. Lent is aggravating, too, when done right. Why not just binge on chocolate and gorge on Facebook and neglect prayer and forget about justice and ignore the nagging thought of millions of millions who will not settle into such a peaceful sleep as mine tonight?
Lent is humbling, hard work. I need to go slowly and deliberately into these forty days, if I go at all. Lentissimo.
Hold on to sixteen as long as you can.
Changes come around real soon, make us women and men.
I always shake my head when “Jack and Diane” rolls on the radio. Because the memory that comes back strongest of all the times I’ve heard the song, shouted it out with high school friends, yelled it across college bars, danced to it at weddings, listened while driving windows down, is my memory of speeding to school when I had just turned seventeen, glancing down at the car radio in astonishment.
I’m not sixteen anymore, I realized with surprise at a stoplight. Is it all downhill from here?
I think I laughed at the idea, even as a teenager. Of course seventeen wasn’t the quick slip slide into adulthood, not yet. I think I secretly knew I was still a child in so many ways.
But that moment was an awakening. A realization of a culture that prized youth and lamented age, that praised freedom and begrudged responsibility. That saw changes that “come around real soon, make us women and men” as killjoys. Getting married. Having kids. Getting a job. Growing up.
No thrill in that, Mellencamp assured.
I heard the song this morning driving home from preschool drop-off, the familiar guitar beat strumming as wipers sluiced drops off the window. The baby was babbling in the back, hungry for breakfast. The dog whined from the floorboard, oblivious to the treat of getting to ride along instead of cowering outside in the pouring rain. Plans for the morning stretched out as boring and grey as the sky overhead: laundry, dishes, email, errands. Blah.
Long after the thrill of living is gone.
I flipped on our favorite music for breakfast and after I bustled around to get cereal, fruit, milk, tea, bib, spoon, baby all ready, I finally sat down as another familiar song started.
A song I first heard when my second was three days old. A song I snatched up and sang to him as I jostled his newborn cries. A song about how quickly time passes, but how stubbornly good the present moment stays, good all on its own.
One day I’ll be a year, then I’ll be two, then three, then four.
But as for now, I’m five days old. Five days old and no days more.
Are there thrills in my days? Does it matter?
How often do I soak up the goodness of this present age? The miracle of getting so many good years on this spinning globe, the hope that many more are still to come. I’m always pulling towards the next thing, the next stage, the next idea, the next want. The next thrill just out of reach.
But here I am today, fifteen years older than John Cougar claims life slides to boring. And I find myself blessed in ordinary-ness of a life full to bursting.
One day I’ll be forty, then I’ll be sixty, eighty, more? But as for now, I’m thirty-one and no years more.
Right where and when I need to be. Even on grey rainy days more full of living than the thrill.
I finally found his song. It only took a year.
When he was first born, in that bleary, dreamlike blur of the early weeks, I sang anything – show tunes, rock songs, church hymns, folk ballads. I had all the time in the world to sing, awake with him through the wee hours. His tiny new ears didn’t care how tired my voice rasped. Sometimes I sang just to keep myself from nodding off.
When he crawled into the alert baby months, needing more of a routine to quiet down for bed, my songs grew shorter, more repetitious. One verse for the diaper change, one for the rocking waltz towards the glider, one for the last gentle lift to crib. I didn’t pay much attention to song selection; we’d go through weeks of one, then I’d wander into another. The effect was nil: he hated the changing table, preferred jostling en route to rocker, and slipped so quickly into sleep after nursing that it didn’t seem to matter whether I sang or not.
Force of habit kept me going, but I figured he simply wasn’t a snuggler.
Then a few weeks ago, as we wrestled through our nightly post-nurse, pre-bed squirmy-baby-wants-off-lap, I paused in my mindless humming of the same song I always sang his brother. I started singing something new. A song deep from my own childhood, echoes of my parents tucking blanket under chin, kissing forehead, turning off lights. A song that thousands of babies have been sung before, but a song I’d never sang to either of mine.
He stopped squirming. He stared up at me with round owling baby eyes, inquisitive even in the evening dark of his room. His body relaxed into mine. His eyelids lowered. And he let me sing.
It’s his song, of course. I’d just never found it before.
Bedtime is different now, since our discovery. We both want to be there, in the lilting lullaby and the rocking chair rhythm. He lets me sing two, even three rounds before he starts to stretch towards crib. I kiss him softly, keep singing as I turn to go. What a wonder to find the song that was in both our bones all along.
Lullabies are overlooked in importance. Our first encounter with word and rhyme, rhythm and song, comes from the lips of those closest to us when we first enter the world. The simple songs are the most ancient, wordless hums from our ancestors. Some are universal, others are particular to the era or music or poets our parents loved. We hear them hundreds of times before our brains even understand what language or music means. But they can set our pulse to music.
My bones are strong with song. Many nights when I was young, I had four different lullabies sung to me. With two older siblings and two parents making the rounds of rooms to tuck us in at night, I often heard an alto, a soprano, a baritone and an almost-tenor before my eyelids shut. Like any child resisting bedtime, I begged for endless rounds of infinite songs. But my special ones were always the same, always particular to the singer.
My mother crooned “A Bushel and A Peck” from Guys & Dolls (though I thought she wrote it just for me). My father drummed his fingers to “Lullaby and Goodnight.” My sister sang “Edelweiss” in a voice sweeter than Julie Andrews. And my brother grinningly sang “Wee Willie Winkie” with our own lyrics, full of silly jokes. I delighted in each lullaby and its singer. For a few precious minutes every night, at the end of a noisy day in a big family, I had each of them to myself. I knew those moments were to be savored.
But my own songs weren’t the only ones I loved. For years my younger brothers shared a bedroom next door to my own, and as our roving band of singers made the bedtime rounds, I listened to my brothers’ lullabies, too. I can still hear my dad bellowing through the open doorway – “Camptown Races” rollicking for one brother, Ireland’s anthem “The Soldier’s Song” proudly proclaimed for another.
Why did it take me so long to remember the truth I learned in my own childhood, night after night? That the beauty of each child is reflected in the unique songs we sing them. That what works for one will not always work for another. That we each need our own lullaby.
Each of my boys has their own song from me now. It took us awhile to get here; I’ll likely have to relearn this lesson a thousand times as I keep going – to delight in their differences, not to force them into another’s mold. But the way that sweet baby relaxes his busy limbs and breathes deep into my lap as we rock and I sing, the way his brother faithfully requests the same lullaby every night, even when I try to slip in something new, they remind me what they need from me the most – to be a mother to each of them in their own way.
With their own rhythm, their own words, their own song.
Music lovers can mark the seasons of their lives by what they were listening to at the time.
A beloved band or a favorite song or even a few notes take us back to when we loved that music. Sometimes for me the memories are so strong – for good and for bad – that I have to open my eyes and remember I’m no longer there.
In the years that come, Elizabeth Mitchell‘s voice will always pull me back to these early days of mothering. I first discovered her gentle lilt on a Putumayo children’s CD, and then one by one her albums have crept into our home. We are all better for it.
Elizabeth’s music is balm to my frenzied days of parenting. She has become the soundtrack to our evenings, the antidote to our witching hour. I push “play,” and her soft soprano fills the air, accompanied by gentle guitar and the sweet sounds of her daughter and husband harmonizing in the background. Family folk music at its best.
(The fact that they cover Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” AND the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” on the same album only makes me love her more.)
One song in particular has been lifting me up lately. I first heard “Peace Like A River” when a friend and I were lucky enough to hear Elizabeth live in concert last year. The song was simple enough to teach to the audience in two minutes or less, and we all sang along as Elizabeth strummed the guitar and her daughter Storey played the harmonica.
When I discovered this track was on her “You Are My Little Bird” album, I was delighted. It came along during a week when I need more than a little peace like a river in my soul. On one especially awful day, I reached the end of my rope and was thisclose to screaming at the children. But that song serendipitously snuck into my head, and I decided to sing instead of scream.
I kid you not, it was one of those rare, magical moments of parenting. The toddler stopped whining, the baby stopped screaming, and smiles crept across both their faces. The song is simple enough that by the third go-round, S was singing along. Later that night, I heard him singing it to himself in his crib as he went to sleep, and I smiled again. We all need peace like a river, joy like a fountain, love like an ocean.
I hope this lifts your spirit today, too. Enjoy.