of Soeren and Silas and seasonal singing (aka, Jesus wept)

child singing

Tis the season, friends. By which I mean the season for singing . . . about chestnuts and sugar plums and the wonders of His love. And as someone who mostly doesn’t sing, at least when I have a choice, I have had wonders all my own this season. About, for example, whether singing can ruin children’s lives.

This fall, Silas and Soeren sang with the Capo and Cadenza divisions of the Lawrence Children’s Choir. It all ended in a darkened theater, on a big stage, in full view of the ticketholding public. And friends, it was painful.

Leading up to the concert, we have some inkling that the performance might not go well. Choir practice for the semester gets off to a dreadful start, and though Silas warms up to it after a few weeks, he’s not one for novelty. It takes him weeks to stop actively physically resisting the move from the orchestra classroom to the choir classroom to practice on the risers. What, then, of the much-less-practiced transition from one high school to another, and from classroom to actual stage and live audience?

And Silas is not my only concern. Both of my children march to their own beat much of the time—this is part, in fact, of why I wanted them to have a structured experience in a group of other children. But there’s a limit to what an hour a week can achieve. In fact, there are limits to what can be achieved, period. Soeren spent three years of his life in highly structured Montessori environments. I’m sure he benefited in some direct ways, but love of order and tendency to follow directions are not among them. The long view is that I have been trying to instill these particular values for many years. The deeper truth is that Soeren has been himself, and resistant to being molded, since before that.

Which brings us back to the final rehearsal. Of seventeen (17!!!) numbers, the youngest children are slated to perform in six of them. My sons’ favorite of these, “Turn the World Around,” captures their hearts, but the instructions for performing it have not captured their attention. At least, not in a way that is helpful for choral performance. The entire song is repetitions of three harmonies, one of which predictably includes the line “turn the world around.” The children have been instructed to, upon singing this line, turn slowly and carefully around, exactly one time. All 46 children. 44 of whom appear to follow directions.

Soeren, who is 7 and a dreamer, who loves music and performing in the Nutcracker, but who also lives nearly entirely in his head, is so transported by the experience of the singing that surrounds him that he stands, staring straight ahead, while around him the entire group pirouttes in place. Soeren’s face is transfixed, eyes gazing into middle distance; his body, meanwhile, is frozen. The outside appearance is that a chorus of children are blithely singing and dancing as one child, trapped in the middle, speechlessly beholds an approaching catastrophe that he is powerless to prevent.

The music director says Soeren’s name twice, snaps her fingers, waves an arm in a theatrical gesture. My older son doesn’t so much as glance in her direction. The director shakes her head sharply and abandons the effort as in front of her, the choir continues to sing.

It’s my business, Soeren explains later. I suggest that from where I’m sitting, at least, following directions is everyone’s business, but Soeren states, calmly: our teacher says it’s ultimately my business whether I decide to turn or not. Ultimately means in the end. I ultimately decided not to.

In the same rehearsal, meanwhile, Silas is positioned amid 8 other tiny children on another section of risers. And Silas does turn. He turns, as instructed, on “turn the world around.” He also turns on “we come from the fire” and additionally, for the entirety of the later “Do you know who I am” section. In fact, Silas continues to turn for the rest of the song, and then for the following three numbers, songs that have nothing whatsoever to do with turning.

The music director, perhaps knowing when to cut her losses, barely glances in Silas’s direction, but Si’s own teacher, a woman whose gentleness and humor have only slightly frazzled in the company of my younger son, reaches out to remind him to stop. Silas proves as resolute as his brother, however, and continues his slow, continuous turns until eventually he falls off the riser and disappears from view. He takes another child, a little girl with neatly parted hair and a ruffled pink skirt, down with him. She is fine. Silas is fine. Silas begins to spin, again.

Miss Sara assumes a position right next to my still-revolving child. She shakes her head. I put my own in my hands. Across the room, two of my mama friends laugh silently. One pantomimes with her hands, mouths “Can I help?,” and I shrug, palms up.

The teachers seem mostly unperturbed, the entire choir is singing, and in that moment, what can you do? In the immediate and unforgiving space between the theory and practice of parenting, what can any of us do?

Eventually, mercifully, it ends.  We survive, the three of us, and the bystanders do, too.

We get dinner. I take some of my trademark deep breaths, the ones I began practicing while pregnant, never anticipating that I was preparing not for childbirth, but for the entirety of the rest of my life.

And much later, after bedtime, I retell this story. And then I casually mention to my husband that I’m not sure the concert—the public one, on taller risers—is a great idea. And I remind him, much more emphatically, that I work on Sundays. In a neighboring state. And that it might turn out that I cannot be there to watch this event. That he might be on his own . . as I have been for choir practice all semester. (I actually don’t say that last part out loud.)

And yet, on concert day, I am unwilling to stay away. I tell myself that it’s because it’s one of those moments that you’re always glad you went to. Because I’ll regret it if I don’t. Because what kind of a mother would miss this, though in truth I don’t set much store by What Kind of A Mother. I’m not that kind, whatever that might be.

In actuality, I probably leave church early and drive an hour in pouring, icy rain because I have earned this. We deserve each other, this concert and I, after the hours I’ve spent—hours in which I contemplated the meaning of parental sacrifice more acutely than ever before—singing, out loud, in front of other people, in order to convince my four year old to do the same.

And so, I find Craig, who has dropped the boys off in the specified location, and we take our seats. And we watch.

The audition-only tour choir performs beautifully, notes hanging briefly in the air and then melting away. And then our own children appear.

Si and Soeren take to the stage twice, for three songs each time. For this performance, the older choirs—choristers and above—wear special show-choir outfits. Our children, meanwhile, are in corduroys and sweaters.  Or rather, they were.  In front of 800 people, among small children attired in their Sunday best, Soeren and Silas make their choral debut in Skydive Colorado t-shirts.

Craig goes off to fix this at intermission, and we watch with satisfaction as the children troop back onto the stage, ours, this time, matching the others.

Or not.

No one is watching Soeren, who is entirely obscured by the “grandma choir” which has joined the children for the finale. Whether he turns or not is indeed his own business, as predicted.  Even in front of 800 people.

Silas, on the other hand, is visible.  Or rather, parts of him are. There are nearly 150 people on stage, all singing, and there are instruments and motions and a riot of color. But two of us only have eyes for the tiny blond child at the foot of the risers. Who is swept on stage with the others, and who, in the middle of the crowd, and in the middle of the song, is standing and singing, with his eyes shut and both arms wrapped entirely around his head.

To cover his ears, he tells us later. It is so very loud.

He looks pained up there, and we are pained, too. We should not, after all, have done this to him. To either of them. To ourselves. Choir, with its lessons and its joys, it is not for everyone. It is not for my children. And now we know.

Except that Soeren is ecstatic, proud to have been onstage and to have sung with the big kids and even because I behaved myself. Silas, meanwhile, has fallen asleep, but later, after the post-concert crush and the cold rain and the rather shell-shocked dinner, I take yet another deep breath. I ask, as casually as I can muster:

So . . . how was the concert, Silas?

And Si looks up at me, smiles proudly and says,

It was awesome.

Really!?, I ask, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.

Really, says Silas.

I SANG.

And so he did.

singing kids [Converted] copy

parenting and other cruelties

It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway.  His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps.  He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end.  He disappears.  Si walks away from me, without looking back.  And then he is gone.

And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind.  I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.

And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins.  He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear.  Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!  

That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel.  And so, this was for show.  Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing.  We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.

Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent.  Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention.  The weight, the risk, the fear.  Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.

Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time.  The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right.  I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.

And it’s not just my kids.  Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet.  Save Things.  And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.

Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town.  Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky.  Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them.  Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.

He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground.   He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.

Honestly, he seemed untroubled.  At the very least, he was not visibly panicked.  That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us.  He was beautiful.  He was hurt or sick.  He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain.  Surely I should do something?  I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that.  He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.

I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window.  I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else.  I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird.  I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night.  And then I stood up and walked away.  I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*

I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again.  I haven’t looked for him, either.  I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.

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It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging.  The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green.  These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.

I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it.  They are heartbreaking, a bit.  A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it.  Except that here it has no chance.  This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot.  And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something.  Fix it.

I don’t, though.  I just feel.  I just think.  My grief is not for these trees.

There is no way around it, and also no way through.  I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent.  Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me.  I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.

And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom.  In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be.  To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.

I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud.  I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.

I’m trying to understand.

j

 

my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:

 

In these moments

when what we perceive most acutely

is our own smallness,

when we cling to things we cannot keep

as we are called to love what cannot stay

 

Comfort us as we grieve our failures,

Our incapability, our losses.  

Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,

our children

not as something of or belonging to us,

but as they are . . . as themselves.  

 

And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,

that we may take and recognize our joy

as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.

 

Amen.


*Ok, I looked back once.  I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore.  So I waited a minute.  And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.  

Sanity NOW! (perhaps yelling helps?)

These are my babies, Si and Ren, at our church on Easter.

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On the one hand, I love this picture.  My boys look like their handsome, irrepressible selves on a beautiful spring day in a place that means so much to us.  On the other hand . . . my sons also look like Daddy dressed them.  And they look like it because it’s true; when it was getting dressed time at our house, I was busy doing other things.  Churchy things.

The things, and the place, that used to bring us together as a family now, increasingly, mean that my husband and I are running a “divide and conquer” offense.  And it seems unlikely that this is going to change; if anything, we are in for increasing disruption around, and because of, our church life.

These changes are the third item in the mental list I can’t help but keep about my seminary decision.  It’s a sort of tally sheet; I could call it “the high cost of insanity.”  The top three items are, in slightly shifting order, “I really might fail at this; Everyone I know is going to think I’ve lost my mind; Ultimately, after all of this, we lose the church home that has brought such depth, meaning and joy to our lives.”  If that last point is true–and I don’t know yet whether it is–the beloved community in question does not simply leave your life quietly.  On the contrary.  First it loves you.  Then it eats you.

I have written here about the demands life makes of us to balance that which cannot be balanced, but until now, I was speaking academically.  These past few weeks, on the other hand, the equation seems much closer to home.  As I wade through papers and plan team meetings and stare into a future that contains community and congregational internships, I wonder how–and sometimes if–I will successfully wear all of the hats I’m being given, and how, succeed or fail, merely attempting it will affect my home and family life.

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Have you seen this cartoon?  It’s true, but not to worry: I gave up the clean home battle long ago.  That ship sailed around the time we added a second child and the first one started getting into everything.  The cartoon is funny and, replacing “clean home” with “seminary” or “a career” or even “a passion beyond my family,” also a bit scary.    For one thing, my children are getting older.  Not yet in the way that may eventually mean that they need less of my help.  Older in the way that they notice who’s taking care of them—and who isn’t.

Fortunately, I have a blessing of a husband: a man who was himself raised by a devoted, involved father, and who regards parenthood as a joy and a privilege.  This is a gift to our children, an inspiration to me, and comes with some serious perks–I literally did not change a diaper for either of our kids for the first month of their lives, and C does night duty with Si even now.  (Our second son, God love him, is one of those children who at three still doesn’t quite grasp the sleeping through the night concept.) C has never been a stay-at-home Dad, but from day one, he’s been at home as a dad, and pity the misled person who suggests that my husband is babysitting when adventuring with our sons.

Add to this a great sitter—a salt of the earth, Jesus-praising 69-year old who drives in from a neighboring town to “take care of my boys”–and you might understand, a bit, the loving village who are helping us to raise our children.  Our lives as they currently exist would not be possible without Judy, and we love her dearly (though she did teach Si to say “thread” as a two-syllable word, and Ren to use “Like ah say” as a key introductory clause).

In short, my kids are in good hands.  And it’s not like I was doing a Donna Reed impression before now.  I’ve been in school or working (usually in school and working) for every year of my children’s lives.  My family is used to April and November as lost months–midterms, papers, mommy with her nose in a book or gazing with consternation at the laptop screen.

I feel worried now, though, in a way that I didn’t before.  Perhaps it’s that my children are bigger, more articulate in their demands for my time, my attention, the entirety of my heart.  Maybe it’s that this call to ministry feels entitled to speak to the same things, to make the same claims [Must those be competing?  Please don’t be competing.] Or maybe it’s just that I have always viewed this reading/writing/learning process as a path to a finish line . . . and have suddenly been given to understand that there is no race, and no end.  In different contexts, with varying subject matter and stakeholders, there is just this.  Read, write, listen, learn, repeat . . . forever and ever, amen.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory, and in some ways, it’s a comfort and a relief to simply acknowledge what is.  And yet.  There is just something about the shift from “until” to “always” that changes things utterly.  It’s perhaps like getting married after living together for years, discovering that things you could put up with before—the things you assumed would pass, somehow—are now suddenly just your life.  And they are Not Funny Anymore.  And so, if you happen to be loving and lucky enough, you get your shit together.  You make a new vision.

I need a new vision now.  My whole family does.  And it needs to involve connection and balance, along with the passion that my husband and I both feel for the amazing work that we get to do.

What’s happening in its absence is this: I am leaving town momentarily, missing the weekend with my family (for the third time in four weeks). It’s for something I am so excited about—but my excitement is tempered by some real mommy guilt. On another of these weekends, Ren lost his first two teeth and the tooth fairy came. I heard about it on the phone, and smiled—and then I cried.

And then there’s THIS week.  Where to even begin?  Mid-travels, post-Easter, paper and outlines for final essays due, things at my house have sounded like this: “Mommy’s working!”  “Mommy’s writing!”  “Mommy has a meeting!” “How was your day—I’ll be home from class at 9!”  “Seriously, you’re awake now?  I got FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP.”

And in the meantime, this happened.

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And this.

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And also, something I didn’t get a picture of, but which I can simply describe as a scene that might have immediately preceded the Bonfire of the Vanities.  It was staged in my living room, and involved my husband’s beloved art and architecture books and a montage of CDs, photos, DVDs—all oversprinkled with twine, ribbon, and about 15 small metal crucifixes from my blog photo prop bin.

I haven’t yelled.  I haven’t killed anyone.  I did take the opportunity to introduce the concept of “sin of omission” with Ren, who apparently sat calmly on the couch while Si took the Harold and the Purple Crayon concept for a walk.  And all the while, I am of course thinking about my own sins of omission, of absence, of distraction . . . and wondering what it means to be a PK.  And about what it means, in the interim, to be the kid of a potentially crazy, passionately in love, sometimes wildly overscheduled person in seminary.  To be the child of a person who loves them so very, very much, and loves their daddy, and loves her life and her house with the mostly neutral but also red-in-places walls.

But who is also a person for whom that–this big, beautiful set of blessings–isn’t, hasn’t been, will not ever be enough.  These kids will have to share their mom’s heart.  Always.

Friends, HOW do you do this?*

from the bottom of my passionately crazed heart,

j

*feel absolutely free to talk to me about Jesus if you feel so inclined.  It’s going to take something more than magic eraser to clean up these walls.