May 5, 2008

A Signpost By The Wayside

Today my husband got out our old Concert Choir cds from our college days. He was playing Haydn's Creation at high volume and the kids loved it. They love music as much as we do. I was cooking at the stove and thinking within the noise. The music was fabulous—the psalmody of centuries and the most glorious compositions and arrangements. I was immersed in it, and found myself thinking back to what now seem like golden days.

Singing in the choir was an important part of the whole experience of awakening. I was studying literature, poetry, science, Bible, and Greek. Every day I was introduced to new ideas, new thoughts, and new ways of thinking about the world. Even when I thought they were stupid or useless, there is no doubt (now) that it was a formational time. And of course much of it wasn’t stupid or useless. In addition, the professors and the church community, the activities and friends, the books and art and language and music—it all formed an incredibly rich milieu. It was an electrifying time. I felt very awake.

I was reminded of all this when a band on tour from a sister college stopped in my town last week. Our church hosted the members in our homes, and we hosted a young couple (both 20) who had been married 4 months. Four months! I remember what my life was like when I had been married four months—mostly because at that particular time I was still a year from graduation, and broke my ankle in a car accident. It was its own kind of difficult time. Anyway, this couple was very nice, and accepted our hospitality with good grace. My husband and I know how difficult it can be to tour with a performance group! Still, there was something about the young man, whose name was Thomas.

He was a Bible major, and when he mentioned the name of one of his main professors, I started. This man had taught me as well! He had moved colleges shortly after I graduated, but I had the privilege of studying under him before he left; I took Christian Ethics. I recall him with great respect, primarily because he is a man of true integrity. He acts upon the principles which he professes. For example (to be fair, this is something Thomas probably didn’t know) he and his wife lost a baby to miscarriage. They both believe that life begins at conception, and therefore once the baby was delivered, they named her. They buried her in a tiny white casket, with a funeral service. They grieved. She was their daughter. This is just one example. Also, this man taught with passion; he believed in his students and their ability to learn; he pressed through the attitudes and the facades and tried to lead his students to a place within themselves where they could confront some of the most difficult questions, the moral dilemmas, the soul-struggles we all must experience if we are ever to grow.

However, when I asked Thomas what he thought of this teacher, he gave one of those noncommittal shrugs and said, “Oh, he’s all right. He’s a pretty good teacher.” He paused, then said, “His politics are a little left-of-center for me.” I think I was so taken aback that I couldn’t respond. And then I didn’t want to. This professor no doubt encourages his students to think critically about their own politics as well as his. He certainly knows that this is necessary if he is ever going to help them move past the pre-critical stage (which is where they are before they arrive)! Though I chose not to say anything, I probably derived a little too much pleasure from reminding myself that Thomas was still in the pre-critical stage. And that I, of course, was far beyond it, having evolved to an entirely different plane of existence following my college experiences!

Anyway, I was still thinking about all this while stirring at the stove today, with the voices of the choir washing over me in waves—a fugue that kept me in its grip for minutes, mesmerizing as art. But within the waves I was parsing the voices, too. Was that soprano Talley? Was it Angela? Neither of us recognized the tenor soloist, having eliminated those we remembered. We eventually decided this cd was from the first year, or maybe from after our time. Hearing the choir sing was such a combination of familiar and foreign. It was truly bittersweet.

While in college, we took the music for granted. I remember rolling my eyes at some of the pieces, wishing the director would just stop picking ugly music (which is to say, music which is difficult to appreciate). I remember complaining about singing at these little churches, their attendance and spirit so sparse that they engendered pity. The people we met were nice, usually a lot of older folks. I now know that this is because those congregations were dying, slowly, one by one. I have to chuckle, since I am talking about it as if it were ages ago. Well, it feels like it. It was actually ten years ago, which is truly a long time, long enough at least for my life to look very different. For one thing, I am now attending one of those churches. I cringe as I write it. I do sometimes ask God, quietly, submissively, what He is doing with my life here. Being part of a church community like the ones we visited on tour is just as dry and hard as I thought it looked then. And it is infinitely more difficult, since I have come to care for so many of these discouraged (and sometimes discouraging!) souls. Ah, well. I must simply sigh, and trust, and continue to serve and love. But I could see that Thomas and Mara pitied us. It is difficult to be pitied; it is nearly intolerable to be pitied by ignorant (in the kindest sense) college students! Hmph!

I remember the hours I spent during my college years wandering under the green trees, writing poetry. I used to listen to Mozart’s piano sonatas and the ticking of antique clocks in the office of the English professor for whom I graded papers. I would stare out the window at the grassy park, the students lounging or walking and talking, the sun gilding the blue sky—it all seemed like a beautiful painting, a living painting set to Mozart’s music. Just hearing the choir sing brought it all gurgling up from the well within me. And I was nourished by it, because it reminded me that I am still that girl.

These days my life is filled with the conflicts and struggles of parenting two children under three years old. I am nursing my son; I am helping (!) my daughter move through her own struggles for autonomy. It is not an easy time. The sleep loss, combined with the household duties of laundry, cooking, and cleaning, the church activities that require planning, cooking, or volunteering time, and my own difficulties giving up time in which I’d rather be reading, writing, or gardening—all this makes this a difficult time in its own way. But I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to look back and think, “I should have enjoyed it more.” Like my college years, I want to look back and say, “It was so wonderful. I love to remember. It is gone, and that brings some sentimentality and sorrow, but I enjoyed it while I had it. Still, there is joy here and now, too.”

And then it occurred to me: In some form, college is meant to teach us how to think about the world, to introduce us to ways of thinking about the world, and to teach us not to take the whole thing so seriously. After all, these conflicts have been ongoing for centuries, and many worthy (and unworthy) minds have considered the difficulties in questions about the meaning of life, the nature of death, the role of art, the justifications (or lack thereof) for war, why we love, etc. And as the Teacher says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” This process of understanding and perception is energized and built upon during the college years.

In the same way, the parenting years have their role. It is not only (though this is important) to learn to nourish and bless the souls of our children. It is to teach us not to take ourselves so seriously. When I want to believe that my will and desires are the most important, that my thoughts are worthy and should be listened to, that my abilities are well-honed… along comes a little face that turns up to mine and says, “Mamacita! Come here! I want to show you!” Or an angry little voice echoing my parenting back to me: “No!” accompanied by finger-wagging, “That is UNACCEPTABLE!” Or the unadulterated joy of my daughter looking forward to playing her version of peek-a-boo (called, “Jack-In-The-Box”) with her brother while she is in the bathtub. Anytime I start to take myself too seriously, I am called back to the concrete and mystical present of a world populated by the most unreasonable and wondrous creatures on the planet. Life is far to precious to take myself too seriously. There is more grace in my world when I don’t.

So, though I am nostalgic for the freedom and ignorance of college days, when I felt completely justified in my superiority complex, I am grateful that I can take those days with me. I am still (to my regret) somewhat that girl. I am also a woman, wife, and mother. I have tasted pain; I have experienced self-denial; I am wise enough to willingly admit my ignorance. And thanks to my children, I am learning to be humble enough to laugh at myself.