On Batman, Ancient Flutes, and Paint

Last Sunday Sonny ascended a stage at his first guitar recital and carefully plucked out the Batman theme song, an accomplishment weeks in the making. His serious expression transformed to one of obvious delight upon reaching the final note, confirming that the practice sessions had been worth it. “I felt kind of embarrassed,” he explained later, “but it was fun. I love to make music.”

So does nearly every child on the planet. Even those who do not beg for violin lessons at age 3 or sing with perfect pitch at age 4 or play concertos at age 5 love to make music. Sonny and Ace’s vocal repertoires are extensive and spirited, if slightly off-key and rife with mondegreens. They puff cheerfully on recorders and harmonicas and kazoos and train whistles, gifts from people who do not live in this house. And almost nothing is disqualified as a possible percussion instrument: oatmeal canisters, rubber bands, forks, books, tongues against teeth—you name it, and it can be an agent of whatever rhythm is currently occupying their imagination.

Paleolithic children, too, probably wandered the forests singing ancient versions of “Let It Go,” humming into auroch tusks, shaking pebbles in a seashell, tapping rhythms with a rock, whistling, crooning “Your toes are stinky, stinky, stinky” melodically into their brother’s ear. These children would get along well with today’s children. They’d squawk on a grass blade and become instant friends.

And then, perhaps inspired by blowing through a hollow stem, one of these children eventually fashioned a device solely for music-making purposes. Flutes made of vulture bone were discovered in Germany in 2009. The world’s oldest known instruments, they were made by an inventive music lover who lived 40,000 years ago.

Of course brilliant artistic minds existed in the Paleolithic age. Why wouldn’t they? But 40,000 years ago, surviving was a full-time endeavor. One might predict that this genius would remain latent in deference to gathering berries, chipping an axe blade out of stone, slaughtering the wild boar, fashioning crude clothing from animal skins. But it didn’t. Ancient musical instruments and cave drawings and even specially painted concert halls show that music prevailed despite life-threatening lifestyles. This probably would not have been the case were artistic expression not such a vital part of being human. It matters.

(I wonder what Paleolithic folk, who managed to create music and art even while evading the saber-tooth tiger, would think of their descendants, some of whom, despite their comparatively cushy lives, cannot rustle up the wherewithal to preserve music and art classes for schoolchildren. Not to digress here. Just wondering.)

Recognizing this essential nature of musical expression should help answer the lingering question, “Why can’t I go anywhere without hearing the nearest kid sing ‘Let It Go’?” It should help us better appreciate the enthusiastic strumming on the ukulele and the intrepid attempts to pick out “This Land Is Your Land” on the nearest piano and see beyond the challenges inherent in guitar practice with a six-year-old.

So play on, kids. Paint on. Sing on. Don’t ever let it go.

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Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Lies and Otherwise

Once upon a time, before I became a mom, I believed that I would never lie to my offspring. I believed this firmly, as firmly as I believed that a few exposures to any given food would guarantee that a child would learn to accept it—yea, even love it. Or that a toddler cleverly offered two acceptable choices (for example, that between the red pajamas or the striped ones) would dutifully pick one instead of, say, fleeing the room mightily protesting bedtime. Or that there was never any reason to bribe a child.

But parenthood divested me of these notions. My sons have yet to willingly consume black beans despite the beans’ frequent presence at our table. The “just give them a choice and they’ll automatically cooperate” tactic: futile. And if M&Ms are the key to persuading a four-year-old to swallow his medicine? So be it.

And despite my lofty aspirations, I have told Sonny and Ace things that aren’t true.

To wit:

“Close your eyes, and I’ll push a button so the car will fly over that overpass. It only works if you close your eyes, though.” (My dad used to feed this line to my sisters and me, and we turned out okay. Besides, it’s fun.)

“It’s against the law to whine on your mom’s birthday.” (Don’t judge me. It works.)

“If you walk around with food on your face, the bunnies will come and lick it off.” (Do I get credit for saying “bunnies” instead of “cheetahs”?)

“I guess I’m getting a cold.” (This on the terrible evening of the Sandy Hook massacre, when at bedtime Sonny asked me why my voice sounded funny. Even the simplest honest explanation—“I’m sad because some people got hurt”—would have spawned more questions whose answers I could not give.)

“I can tell always if you haven’t brushed your teeth.” (Regrettably, this is not true; my mom-skill set is incomplete. I can sometimes tell, though, and they need to brush their teeth, right?)

“You can’t have a cookie because the jackals came this morning and ate them all.” (Dinner was being dished up at the time. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.)

“The class I took on how to be a mean mom recommended never saying yes to anything.” (Contrary to his contention, I don’t say no to everything. Just so we’re clear.)

So it’s true. I’ve lied to my kids. This should probably unsettle me more than it does.

But I am more unsettled by the truths I tell my children. Oh, I believe them wholeheartedly, and I want Sonny and Ace to believe them, too. But sometimes I worry that my actions will belie my words so that Sonny and Ace will regard as lies truths such as the following:

  • God loves everyone. He doesn’t hate anyone.
  • It’s okay, often even good, to make mistakes. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect.
  • Apologizing when you’re wrong is essential and is not a sign of weakness.
  • I will always be there for you, no matter what.
  • You are not better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.
  • Comparing yourself to others is pointless.
  • Cutting down others is a sign of insecurity. Remember that when someone cuts you down; remember that when you are tempted to cut down someone else.
  • Money and contentment are unrelated.
  • Money and is unrelated to one’s worth.
  • It’s much easier to judge than to show mercy, but mercy ought to trump judgment.
  • You don’t have to be the best at something, or even good at something, in order to enjoy it.
  • If someone needs help and you can help them, it’s your job to do so.
  • You have many gifts.
  • Everybody deserves respect. This means you; this means everyone else.
  • God forgives, and so should you.
  • You are loved—not for what you do, what you’ve accomplished, what you own, what you say, or how you look. You are loved for being you. Nothing will change this.

How many inconsistencies between words and actions will it take before they reject these messages? How many slip-ups am I allowed?

It’s a lot easier to stop threatening my kids with fictional face-licking bunnies than it is to always demonstrate mercy or to always show respect to everyone or to brush off one’s own mistakes. But I’ll try to clean up my act on all counts.

And that’s no lie.