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Oh my sweetest little Ruth, oh my goodness you are two years old.  I so vividly remember being truly afraid, when I was pregnant with  you, that I wouldn’t love you as much as I loved Anne, because Anne was my world for three years and I couldn’t imagine loving another child the way I loved her, with a soul-filling adoration, the kind that made me homesick for her when she was away for the day.  And everyone told me I would, that it would happen, that I’d love the new baby just as much but I though, Not me.  I can’t imagine that.

 

Oh, hahahaha, what a good joke that all seems now because, my child, you have Swept. Me Away.  I love you more than the bluest skies and the greenest grass, more than springtime and summer nights.  Wow.  Sweet RuLou, you are a kindred spirit, an old soul, a gentle, loving, nurturing, silly little girl—not a baby—a little girl, and you take my breath away.

 

You love anything having to do with your big sister.  You love imitating whatever she does, even crawling on the floor and growling like a lion.  You hug like no one else—I especially love when I hold you across my front and you wrap  your legs around my waist and tuck your arms under mine and around me and just hold on, nuzzling your sweet little featherhead in my neck.  You call everyone (sissy, Polly, all your friends) “Aiee.”  You wave and say “hieee” and “byee” to everyone we pass and oh, man, everyone we pass in the grocery store and the post office and everywhere else just stops and smiles, and is overcome also by your cuteness.

 

I can’t believe how different you are from your big sister and yet how perfectly you and she belong together.  How well you meld, how sweet she is to you and how much you adore her.

 

You love animals, especially cats and dogs; you love pointing out to me all the things you see, and looking for the moon.  You love music and ice cream, babies and Mickey Mouse.  And most of all you love books, sitting and “reading” aloud for the longest stretches of time.  You are a watcher, you are your own little person, you are sweetness and softness, like a little pink rosebud, with a warm golden glow.  I can’t imagine not loving you, not knowing you, my sweet, edible, snuggable Rufie.  Happy birthday!!!

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+ Riding the Metro into the city the other day, I saw a woman, probably in her twenties, who (like many people riding the rails) had her iPod on, earbuds plugged in.  Unlike many others, though, she was mouthing the words, and dancing to whatever she was listening to.   She wasn’t like some of our friends and neighbors often seen on the train– slightly nutty or inebriated–she was just, it seemed, happy.  And it occurred to me that you can’t dance if you’re unhappy.  I tried to picture myself wanting to dance when I was stressed or sad or angry or even tired, and I couldn’t.   I knew without a doubt that this girl was having a good day, because she was dancing– by herself, for herself–just because.  It was something I’d never thought about, but made me wonder:  what else is like that, what else do we only do when we’re happy?

+ Girls Gone Child had a lovely post recently about children playing in a playground.  How kids like her son will just walk into a playground, go up to the first child they see, say hello and ask, “Do you want to play?”  And then, friends in an instant, the children will play for as long as they’re there– making up games, playing make-believe, having fun, just being.  The author then notes how different the parents appear– all self-segregated, shy, sizing each other up, insecure.  And it is so true.  The children don’t see different socioeconomic backgrounds, they don’t talk politics, judge appearances, worry about looking like a loser.

     I’ve been thinking lately about how we as people really just want to be around like-minded people; that while we may have friends with whom we disagree, the folks we most enjoy spending time with are the ones who share our basic value and belief systems.  You can see people visibly relax when they realize the person to whom they’re speaking gets them, agrees with them.   While some of us may like to debate or argue with people, at the end of the day I’d bet we also just want to relax with like-minded people.  That’s when we can let our guard down, can trust that we’re not going to have to defend something we feel strongly about against the disagreement or skepticism of another.  I find myself feeling very lonely at times in certain circles of my daily life– like I don’t truly relax until I am back in the company of like-minded people.  I might enjoy spending time with those others, but I never feel at peace, at home.

+ I’ve also been thinking about all the things we don’t say to one another, either out of kindness or to avoid an awkward situation, or because we don’t want to offend or because we feel guilty or feel it’s not our place.  Even among our most intimate relationships, among those people we love and know best in the world, think of all the things we don’t say, for one reason or another.  Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means, it’s just interesting, the spaces that remain between us.

+  I had absolutely no idea, when I became a mother, how difficult the daily struggle would be, between balancing work and mothering.  I don’t mean the day-to-day stresses, but the emotional divide I feel.   Every time I drop AE off at daycare I am sad.  And yet, when I am in the midst of doing what  I love (professionally), I am so happy, so energized.  One day last week AE was in daycare for a full 8.5-hour day, which is rare.  And though I had a great, fulfilling, productive day, when I picked her up and realized that I’d missed an entire day, including the couple of hours we usually spend together in the morning, I felt so wistful, nostalgic.  I think it’s a case of “the grass is always greener,” because I know, when I sit there struggling with an essay and longing to just be with AE, hanging out, that that’s not always how it is, that it’s not always fun and games, that I am not, when it’s happening, enjoying every second of it.  And I know that if I chose to stay at home, I would feel this vague sense of something missing.  So instead I have a vague sense of something missing in both roles.  Which is fine, and normal, and healthy, I know.  But sometimes it’s really, really, emotionally taxing, to constantly feel pulled between two heart’s desires.  I knew that these kinds of feelings would arise from time to time; I just didn’t know it’d be every day.  That every leave-taking, no matter the reason, would be tinged with sadness.  Of course, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but one thing parenthood is teaching me is that almost everything is bittersweet, each moment is so precious and yet it so easily slips by.  In one moment you can feel the utmost joy and the utmost pain.  It’s a strange, new way of life.

“Apart from the Incarnation, we would never fully know the depths to which we are loved or the lengths to which God can be trusted. That’s why we celebrate each Christmas.”

~Advent Conspiracy

This struck me as so true, at least for me.  It is so easy for me to slip into that habit of imagining God as distant, the prime mover sort of God, the watchmaker who set things in motion and then wandered off.  Thinking of the Word being made flesh, of Love walking among us, reminds me that God is here.  Always.   Hmmm… I can trust God?  God loves me that much?  God has a plan?   How quickly I forget.

This reminds me, too, that Christmas is also the precursor to Easter, that I so easily and quickly move from kneeling in the stable to standing amongst the raging crowd calling out “Crucify him!”  

The Incarnation is beautiful, but it is also a holy terror.  There is no Christmas without Easter.  John Milton opens his 1629 “Nativity Ode” with a verse of celebration:

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

But he stops himself about 100 lines later:

But wisest Fate sayes no,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe lies yet in smiling Infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorifie:
Yet first to those ychain’d in sleep,
The wakefull trump of doom must thunder through the deep…

And so right now, at Advent, I am remembering not only why Jesus was born but why he had to die.  Let us celebrate the innocent beauty of Christmas but give due reverence to the terrible beauty of Easter.  So, an Easter poem:

7 Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

~ John Updike

I’ve been sitting in on a graduate class my advisor’s been teaching this semester (for three reasons:  he’s a fabulous teacher, the subject matter overlaps with much of my dissertation, and just to be back in the classroom with my fellow grad students, most of whom now look at me like I used to look at those ghostly dissertation-writing grad students who’d appear once in awhile on campus, looking pale and lost and completely lonely).  Last night we discussed The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote solely on his own (he collaborated on several plays throughout and at the end of his career).  Specifically, we focused on music and sound in the play, which takes place on an island and which opens with a storm at sea, complete with thunder and lightning (which would’ve been created using various stage conventions, including explosives).  The leader of this class discussion was a fellow graduate student who studies music and sound in early modern literature.  Shakespeare’s a perfect site of inquiry, because most of his plays feature music, all feature sound and rhythm, and so many of them have had second or third lives as operas, symphonies, and ballets.  The Tempest’s Prospero, in particular, is a sorcerer who uses music, like he uses the weather, to control people’s emotions and even their actions.

In our discussion of the play, we talked about the sorts of music that would have been known to Englishmen and women in the 16th and 17th centuries—ballads and drinking songs, sacred music used in church, and not much more.  We compared this to the kinds of music early modern explorers encountered in the New World or in Africa and Asia, music that would have seemed—literally—foreign and bizarre, if not completely disorienting.  For example, imagine if you were used to this:

12_Morley__O’_Mistress_Mine

And then heard this:

03_Sidi_Musa_Ferda

Or this, which was music composed—using natural, conventional instruments such as lutes and woodwinds—for use by the witches in Macbeth and, like a soundtrack on a horror movie today, must’ve really freaked people out with how unnatural it sounded:

 24_Johnson__The_First_Witches_Dance

 

It’s easy to forget, in a multicultural, global society complete with iPods and YouTube, that someone living in Europe in the 17th century would have absolutely no idea that there were other types of music out there.  I remember feeling exhausted and discombobulated at the end of the Brazilian film, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) because in the film, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, there is a nonstop background soundtrack of rapid percussion, to the point where you feel swept up and away, almost unable to concentrate or relax.  (I recommend the film; you can get it on Netflix. It was made in 1959, won an Oscar; it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, that famously enchanting musician from Greek mythology.)

When we got on the subject of music vs. noise, our discussion leader introduced us to the work of Michel de Certeau, who was fascinated with the aspects of everyday life that we come to ignore.  Particularly, de Certeau calls attention to noise:  everything that is in the background day in and day out, the ways we tune it out and only notice it when it’s gone:  “We are immersed in sound just as we are immersed in air and light, we are caught up willy-nilly in its hurly-burly.  We breathe background noise, … .  Background noise is the ground of our perception, absolutely uninterrupted, it is our perennial sustenance, the element of the software of all our logic.”  Because we take for granted the soundtrack of our daily lives, traveling somewhere new, with its attendant, differing sounds, can be completely disorienting.  My advisor shared his experience of travelling to India for the first time and feeling overwhelmed by how noisy it was, even compared to, say, New York City or London, but also how eventually he became accustomed to the noise and ceased noticing it altogether.  (Or like Vinnie in My Cousin Vinny, who can’t sleep at night in the country because it’s too damn quiet.) It’s really fascinating to stop and notice all the sounds around you, but also to notice how secondary hearing is in Western culture, how sight is the privileged sense, how even when we hear something new or strange we immediately want to see what’s making the noise, to locate its origin and identify it visually.  But it’s also worth considering the way that music and sound (like scents)  can affect or excite bodily responses much more easily and palpably, viscerally, than, say, a sight or a touch. 

What is music, then,  and what is noise?  The first European explorers to Brazil classified the music made by the natives as “noise” rather than “music”—noise being natural, tribal, and music being cultivated and refined; reminds me of the parent, whose child is listening to heavy metal, crying out,“That’s not music, that’s just noise!”

To end, here’s the noisy song I’ve been listening to a lot lately; it may not be the music of the spheres, but it makes me pretty happy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoaTl7IcFs8

** All music provided by my friend Jennifer, musician and literary critic extraordinaire, and leader of last night’s discussion.