In 1888, Brahms wrote five haunting songs for a cappella choir he put to tragic text comparing a falling leaf to the inevitable loss of youth. I sang two of the five songs recently with MacPhail Center for Music’s premier adult choir, Sonomento, on an incredible twelve-day tour in Europe. We sang them among other great choral works, art songs and stirring spirituals in cathedrals of Munich, Prague and Berlin and at the International Brahms Festival in Wernigerode, Germany. I am defying Brahms’s nostalgic lament that “all happiness is lost.”
I have been home now over a week and my brain has yet to arrive from Europe. I daydream about castles and cathedrals and bike rides and opera in the square. I pour over my photos. I am like a teenager just home from summer camp. So many feelings I’d set aside as “when I was younger” and I just learned not only am I still young, but being young has nothing to do with being me–I get to have those adventurous, in-love-with-my-world, making new friends, seeing new things, I feel alive feelings at every age.
Upon my return, my cousin, also a mother of three, asked without judgment, “Is it hard to be home?” The tears that welled up in my eyes answered for me. Others have asked, “Isn’t it good to be home?” And, “Did you miss your kids?” “How is everyone?” I answered, “Yes,” “Of course,” “Recovering,” but those answers weren’t as true. This was the first time I have been away from my responsibilities for more than three nights in over a decade. It felt really, really good.
Re-entry has been bitter sweet. My sons seem cuter and my home more acceptably disastrous. My husband and I are suddenly loopier for each other than we’ve been in years. I feel rested and lighter. But the boys have paid me back with a few days of misbehavior. And come on, I have had to wash dishes, wipe butts and quell tantrums?? No one has made me a morning smorgasbord of fruit, juices, muesli and delicious meats, cheeses and pastries. I have not been offered a trip to a palace with our delightful tour guide or the option to go rogue in Munich on a rented bicycle. I don’t get to sing on a riverboat on the Vltava today or rehearse in a Mercedes bus. And I will not spend the day exploring centuries past, digesting complex histories or simply laughing, drinking wine and enjoying new friendships.
In fact, my weeds are overgrown and the garage needs organizing. Kids are visiting Crankyville and they want to be entertained. By day two, Project Re-entry, I was fighting being overwhelmed by the complexity of our life, my children’s volume and our extensive mass of belongings. I missed my quiet, my suitcase and my songs: so simple.
Being away alone, I woke up. I had excess energy. I had time to feel my own needs. I realized how much I have been missing feeling like my best self. I cried all the way home—it wasn’t jet lag. I was nervous my trip would just be over, rather than transformative, and my newfound joy would fade away as easily as Brahms’s leaf.
But my heart opens up like it did when I was there when I listen to recordings from our trip. I am so grateful to music for providing my fellow choristers and I this experience that has in fact, been transformative. One singer said to me, “This has been the greatest experience of my life.” I imagine few of us would have self-indulged in an experience like this had we not a greater purpose in going: to sing and to represent MacPhail. That air of responsibility allowed us to play, explore and bond in a way grown ups don’t often allow ourselves and that surfaced in our sound.
We surprised ourselves by earning silver diplomas in two categories at the Brahms Festival. By popular demand, we were also invited to sing our African-American spiritual, “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” at the final ceremony. When we exited the stage, tiny members of a Chinese children’s choir flocked to our sides. In fact, that song brought smiles and clapping to reserved international audiences throughout our tour. Our last morning in Wernigerode, I went for a run and singers from a youth choir from Taiwan stopped me for a photograph and told me, “That is our favorite song.” Written out of slavery, it speaks for itself a half century later, bridging community and sharing joy.
As a parent, I feel pressured to say our children are my greatest joy. But I bet you can relate to my truth. I was tired. We have also had losses and hurts and late nights and worries since having children. I was happy and grateful, but I think I’d forgotten what inner joy felt like. And when you don’t realize you’ve lost something, you stop looking for it.
It turns out that it’s up to me to revive my best self when I am lost. We so value productivity and stability in mid-American culture that it can deemphasizes the value of simple joy. But the music, the culture and the people with whom I traveled reminded me that joy creates energy and has permanence beyond youth (sorry, Brahms). I am a better human with more to contribute to my family and community with joy. Two weeks of singing and exploring brought me somewhere totally unexpected: back to me.
What’s more, I now have these memories that will point like a compass back here when I get a little lost:
My first gelato after our inaugural performance in Munich.
The power of singing emotional music in our full registers within a cathedral constructed to synergize choral sound.
Dancing to a live performance of Earth, Wind and Fire under umbrellas in the Old Town Square of Prague.
Hearing the soprano’s notes reflect off centuries old buildings in an outdoor performance of Carmina Burana in Oden Square, Munich.
The German word, “löschwassereinspeisung.” Such a great word.
Singing our final Abendlied surrounded by 360 degrees of blue stained glass at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Riding a bike with friends uphill to a castle and back down again in the rain.
Hearing in my own laugh something familiar and deeply happy.