When my son was two or three, we started playing musical games after dinner. We had a regular evening dance schedule when he was a baby, but the games were a whole other level. We would listen to instrumental music and let it speak to us, imagining the story that might go along with it. Did it sound like cowboys, or aliens, or like fish swimming through the ocean? I asked, “what’s happening in the music?” and we acted out the answer together. As I look back on it, this time was the foundation for the philosophy and structure of the preschool music curriculum I would create years later, but back then, it was just precious, sometimes silly, heart-to-heart time with my boy.
We listened to Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’, and came up with a complex, multi-faceted story for the whole twenty-two minute long piece. We were trees swaying in the breeze, then cowboys going out to feed our cattle. Then we were fishermen, and then the river itself. It was nighttime, morning, and nighttime again before the piece was done. Torrential rains poured, then quieted. We pulled on big boots to set out to check on all of the animals. We rode wild horses around the circular floor plan of our house. As the music softened, we came back to rest at the ranch, or on the open prairie, nap for a few seconds, and then start a new adventure. Our tightly choreographed, twenty-two minute number became a daily post-dinner ritual which remained until my daughter was big enough to join in, and for a bit after that.
At the end of the piece, there is a soft, slowed down lead-up to a set of variations on the tune of ‘Simple Gifts’. By then, we were cowboys after a long day of work, sitting down around a campfire made with pillows or ripped up colored paper. We watched the sunset together and offered each other cocoa, coffee, or fresh fish from the fire. We sat back. We were grateful. Those last seven minutes of ‘Appalachian Spring’ were the most precious part of each day for me. We held up a new finger each time a new variation would start, lit up when the brass instruments came in at the fifth variation, marveled at how it sounded like kings and queens. We were really listening. We heard something that sounded like fireworks, or like someone sliding down a rollercoaster. By the last variation, we had heads on pillows and were watching for the first stars to come out in the night sky. The music quiets down quite a bit then, and you have to be really patient to hear it. To most, it would sound like three bright bells ringing in succession, but to us, they really were stars, truly capable of wish-granting. We held hands and squeezed at each sound, wishing on each star, silent and happy in waiting for them together.
Today, I was at yoga, during shivasana, the last bit of class where your body stills and your mind is finally free from focus. Since the death of my mother a year ago, I often cry during this part, and I hear that’s not uncommon. Lately, I find myself missing her take on mothering, especially as we enter the mysterious teenage years. More than anything, she loved my kids, thought they were amazing, and said so. She thought I was a really good mother, and sometimes she was right about that, but not always. Teenage years are a particular crucible, a whole other landscape, and I often can’t find sure footing. I was thinking those thoughts during shivasana, and crying of course, when the teacher suddenly rang a low, bowl-shaped bell. The sound brought me right back to those evenings in which I held my little boy’s hand, our heads on hunter green pillows, our eyes to the night sky. She rang it again, and I squeezed the hand of my little boy who was not next to me but who is always in my heart and my thoughts. Then one more time, the last bell, and the last wish. I squeezed his hand in my own again and wished only goodness for him as he travels from me and becomes the man God intended. I asked my mother to guide him, and help him to know just how abundantly he is loved, and for that love to fuel him forward. On that mat, surrounded by strangers, I cried some more.
As we make our way on twisting roads, it sometimes feels too dark to know where next to step, and impossible to know where this road is leading. Thank God for stars.