From the long line of mothers, it came
A week ago, I sat in the control room at Tiny Telephone studio, holding the plastic Nintendo gun that controlled my talkback, the mic you use to be heard in the recording room. Todd Sickafoose was playing piano on one of my new songs. Hearing Todd’s piano parts, I started to feel the songs again, feel them as did when I first wrote them. I remembered how each song came to me.
The first song came after the birth of my newborn son a few years ago, as I held his tiny self in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Following a traumatic birth, we were separated for five days while doctors performed tests on him. I’d just had a Cesarian section. My body felt hobbled, hunched, not my own. Older than any grandmother. Every few hours, when visiting time came around, I made the trek back to the NICU, that eerie room of tiny, dreaming souls. My child lay in a plastic bin, stuck with electrodes, IV and wires.
I sang. I tried to commune with him. I wanted to tell him we’d get him out of there soon. That those torturous needles would be out soon. That we were there, ready to enfold him in a life of safety and love.
The other songs came during Ember’s first two years life, as our priorities rearranged themselves to meet the needs of this new little soul. To our surprise, we came to see that much of what we had been culturally programmed to think about child rearing could be seen as peculiar when looked at in context of the whole human continuum.
Our awakening was ongoing, as day by day we came to question and upturn almost every one of our expectations around parenting. That our child would sleep in a crib in a separate room. That swings, bouncy seats, or any other baby gear had anything on us when it came to soothing him. That most of life should be lived indoors. We learned that regular, uninterrupted sleep, while nice, was actually not necessary for survival. I learned to slow down, to value presence over activities designed to stimulate my child. My striving became to really receive each day, filled as it was with tiny miracles.
Each day, I marveled at him and at us together. I saw now that mother and child are not really separable. We are an interlocked duality, a communicating system. Once I’d held independence to be of supreme importance, for myself, for others. Now I began to see that interdependence was equally important to honor and facilitate. I wondered at all my body could provide for him– nourishment, transportation, soothing. It followed that I actually did not need the stroller, the swing, or much in the way of toys. That stories and songs spoken aloud were better medicine than books. And that almost anything worthwhile I could do could be done while wearing a baby.
But it was deeper than this, too, the initiation of motherhood. Unfortunately, after the NICU stay, our son faced some medical challenges during his first years of life. Over the first two years, we had four more stints in the hospital. Each time was unbearably difficult. It took all our resources to carry him, and ourselves, through these experiences. Day after day, I found myself reaching deep, looking for the strength and comfort to sustain me through long nights of holding my child as he cried in fear and pain, not understanding what was happening to him.
To my relief, strength came. From the long line of mothers, it came. From my own mother and the mother of my mother, mother upon mother upon mother, stretching back into the sea and ground. It came through the milk of endless nursing. It came through walking, rocking, singing. It came in opening my soul to pain. It came in the imperative to surrender to and love what is, and find beauty there.
The strength came also through finding my fight– the power to question the authority of experts, to challenge them when necessary. It came in accepting what I couldn’t change and actively changing what I could. It came in new, empowered thoughts. Thoughts about my son. Thoughts about myself, and about all of us.
It is a vast thought, but I will speak it– I came to feel our unendingness. To trust that somehow, we had to go through this. I didn’t understand why, but I came accept these experiences as an integral part of our story together. We were being initiated into aspects of reality we’d never been called to know before– deep pain and sorrow, but also gratitude. Incredibly, after each grueling experience, we felt our feet touch the ground again. And found that we still had each other, and the gift of another day.
Our medical journey with my son in his first two years of life taught me that painful experiences transform us. But they need not make us less whole. Life remains perplexingly beautiful. When I forget, I pray to remember.
And so, those long nights after each surgery, I carried my child, singing. I sang and new songs came. Sometimes, later, I wrote them down. The songs came with clarity and immediacy. It was like how I used to write when I first started, all those years ago. Before writing ever became overwrought or over thought.
These songs are simpler than my earlier work in some ways. Less self-conscious. They are like we become, in that last, mad, dreaming moment, when we face the cliffs edge with a fire behind us, and have to no choice but to leap. They are not afraid.
Mothering can do this to us, I think. Bring us back to the universal truths, and teach us afresh how much they matter. Maybe it’s a universal moment in the life of a writer. To one day realize, most of the things that need to be said have already been said.
But the wisdom of mothering is this– they need to be said again. They need to be said by you and me, with the freshness of our discovery of their truth.
As I write, our new baby is due in weeks. Sadly, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to finish the new album by then. But I’m starting to feel like it’s okay. I’m excited to see how it will evolve, given a longer period of gestation.
How will this new person shape us? Perhaps new songs will come to tell me.
I’ll look forward to sharing them with you.
Thanks for reading.