“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, then it would be a merrier world.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
As far back as I can remember, I used to wake up every morning with a song in my head. I didn’t choose the song, I just woke up and it was there, as if there was a radio in my heart. As a child I called it my ‘song of the day,’ and it would follow me around popping in and out of my mind all day long. Many of my memories include that day’s song, like background music. Every morning an unchosen surprise was just waiting for me. Any song I had ever heard could suddenly be the soundtrack of my day. Others would complain about a song being stuck in their heads, but I always found it a comfort.
Then came the cancer. A few days after my diagnosis, when I woke up for the first time after I really slept, there was no song. Everything seemed so strangely, eerily quite. There was no song the next day, or the day after that. It was as if the music had just disappeared from my life. No more early morning surprises. The soundtrack of my life was suddenly silence.
I soon found that I couldn’t listen to music by choice either. Music is designed to evoke emotions, trigger deep-seated memories and inspire thoughts of the future. At that moment in my life, I felt like I was on emotion overload. I could cry at the drop of a hat, which was particularly a problem since I found myself receiving many messages against tears. If I started to get misty, someone around me would shove a Kleenax in my hand and say “You’re Ok. Don’t cry. Be strong for your son, don’t make him see you cry.” Music pushed all my buttons, the ones that seemed to be surrounded with blinking red warning signs.
I just didn’t have any time or space to let music make me emotional. Yet at the same time, it seemed like music was unavoidable. I was suddenly aware of all the music around me when it began to cause me pain. Catching a few notes of the Hallmark commercial background music could set my eyes flowing. The Walmart overhead instrumental version of “The Christmas Shoes” on more than one occasion made me physically gag. I quickly began to make a conscious effort to avoid purposefully listening to music and to distract myself from it when it was unavoidable. The only music I could tolerate was making up little nonsense songs for my son which, as my own invention and execution, didn’t really seem like music but more like conversation.
I now think that losing the music in my life was a form of grieving, an aural equivalent of wearing all black and a veil. My family were not mourners. I had never seen or experienced functional grief. When I needed to grieve, no method I tried seemed to be acceptable to those who admonished me to “keep my chin up” especially for my son’s sake. With no good outlet, my season of grief was long indeed.
About four months into my cancer treatment I woke up one day with a song. It was such a joy! I thought it must be a sign that the worse was past. I wrote the day and the song on the calender in relief wanting to remember it as a special day. Unfortunately, it turned out that day was not the beginning of something good. That night I became very ill, the first night of a long stretch of teetering-on-the-edge-of-hospitalization illness that lasted for the rest of my chemo, about the next six months. The song of the day did not come back.
After several years of one unmourned grief after another, I finally began to realize that the music was never going to magically come back. If I wanted music in my life, I would have to invite it to return. I would have to open my ears and my heart, knowing that all the buttons were going to get pushed, and I would have make up my mind to be ok with that. Music and grief would have to come hand in hand. Struggling with the idea, I wrote, “Even now I tend to still keep my chin up, but I am learning that I don’t have to. I’m beginning to even feel that if God is near to the broken-hearted, then perhaps it is best to slump my shoulders and let myself be broken. Maybe some day, when I really let the music back into my life, I will be able to finally finish this mourning. Perhaps I will sing a loud lament with my hair down and my clothes torn and not care one bit whether anyone hears me or joins me. Just for once, maybe I will let myself feel what it is like to truly grieve. Perhaps then when I am done and wash my face and walk away, I will be healed of these losses, and I will have learned how to never keep my chin up again.”
In the end, the process of letting the music back into my life was not that dramatic. It was more a series of baby steps. A choice to go to a concert which I cried silently through and felt a little better. Carefully picking out one CD to listen to, and playing it over and over as I came to smile and even sing along through the tears, and feeling each day a little better. Setting a few music channels on my radio to surf through when I felt brave. The man I eventually married tried to encourage me along with the gift of a iPod and a music library, dates to concerts, and begging me to sing, repeatedly reminding me how much he liked my voice. The song of the day has never returned, but I now welcome many songs into all the parts of my day. Some of them still make me cry, and perhaps they always will. I am willing now to accept that as a good thing.
In the midst of all this, there was my son. As a tiny newborn, I sang to him constantly and played him all the fun or lullaby-like songs I loved, a collection of songs I had carefully chosen before he was even born. He was a happy baby, and I did not realize until he started talking (ironically just before my cancer appeared) and his second full sentence was, “No sing, Mama!” that he was not a music fan. I now know that he is sensitive to sound, and so shortly after this demand when a new silence appeared in the car and the house, it must have seemed like an answered wish to him. When eventually I decided to welcome music back into my life, my son did not feel so welcoming. “Turn off the noise!” was his frequent chant.
Luckily, I had a few ideas from my own progress of how to ease him into it. We started with a few kid-friendly concerts that he was allowed to leave as soon as he got tired. Then some music videos I had scouted out with funny characters. Add in noise canceling headphones for truly noisy events like ballgames. A CD of silly-songs about his favorite holiday, Halloween. Finally, he found one non-silly song that he actually asked to hear again, and we played it over and over probably logging more than 200 plays during the next two weeks as I could see and hear him working out the words and the meanings to the lyrics and as he relaxed into finding some comfort and reassurance in sounds that were becoming more than just noise to him. Then one day, he asked to hear a different song and rapidly he was able to tolerate and even sometimes enjoy a rotating set of a variety of music both in the car and at home.
Now that we have invited music into our family, I find myself thinking more and more of the power and influence it has in our culture. Shutting out music from our lives for awhile had excluded some of the emotions that it carries, but it had also shut out ideas that songs convey. Now, the floodgates seem open, and I find myself hearing old songs with new ears and encountering songs from the last few years for the first time. I’m listening to all of them closely, wondering what part they are playing in the fabric of culture that I am weaving for my son. I find myself wishing to be choosy, and wondering what that sort of choosiness would sound like for me.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes a great deal to parents about flooding, the idea of immersing children in so many sources of goodness and light that they are super-saturated with positive influences. I think about this as a sort of reverse censorship. Instead of saying no to songs that convey messages I don’t want my child to internalize, I instead fill his space with so many positive songs that the negative is simply drowned out. I know that to do this in a seemingly effortless way will actually take great intentionality. I need to invest in music playing devices. I need to learn how on earth to download a song from iTunes. I need to seek out and find music that reflects the sort of positive influence I am after, which means I need to listen to even old songs with a critical heart. There are many songs from my own life that hold deep sentimental meaning for me based on the memories that they are connected to, yet devoid of these memories (as my son would be hearing them) they proclaim a culture or a theology that I find false. What place, if any, should these songs have in our family’s playlist?
Like all elements of parenting the biggest investment will be of myself. My time, energy, purposefulness and determination to weave a positive musical blanket around my son. I’m working on a playlist now, and I’m open to suggestions!