This Gentle Helper

Photo on 1-16-16 at 10.04 AM“Mom, are you are a princess or a queen?”
“I’ll be the Queen. What is dad then?”
“He can be the Prince until you retire. Then he can be King.”
“Sounds fair.”
“And I am your Royal Wizard,” replies my enrobed seven-year-old.

He pulls out a satchel.

“I have here my wizarding goods. An extra wizard robe and hat. Two magic bandages. A pack of magic pills. Super magnifier. Enchanted sponge. Dark magic. Coconut oil. Mint oil. Wizard crystal. A flaming mirror. A bonker. An oil I made – you should smell it. Petrified wood. Enchanted petrified stone. A cork. Fire in a bottle. And last but not least, flexipotion. If I attach this to the medicine and my ears, it will warm me up.”

His collection is adapted from my childhood Fisher Price doctor kit. He appears to equate wizardry with healing. I inquire further, “what are your plans for our kingdom, Royal Wizard?”

“I am thinking I could help those homeless refugees. Fresh food, fresh water, fire in a bottle and some other potions. A house in a box. You need magic. Unfold it. Tap it with a wand, say “pigtail” and out pops the house.”

What would the Queen do without her Royal Wizard?

It is zero degrees outside today with a -20 degree “real feel.” We are discomforted only by the cancelation of plans to ski. We do not anticipate homelessness, ever, for ourselves or our offspring. We have no need of wizard’s work. But this wizard has big plans.

Across the globe, other families do need his help. They are homeless and growing colder everyday. Or they are in refugee camps. Some are housed among inhospitable neighbors and cannot find work. Others have faired better and are creating new lives. But they are not home. It is unlikely they will ever go home. According to World Vision, “the crisis in Syria affects more than 12 million people,” well beyond the scope of a seven-year old Royal Wizard.

Yet he doesn’t turn his back. He’s thinking, “what could I do?”

O that men like this gentle helper, who saved a wounded man and treated as his neighbour an unknown stranger, may be found all over the world.
Disease is spreading, war is stalking, famine reigns far and wide.
But when one mortal relieves another like this, charity springing from pain unites them.

This prose, translated from Latin to English, is lifted from Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium and tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In September, I listened over the shoulder of my choir director as he played the haunting chords and read to me from this score. Our choir, MacPhail Center for Music’s adult ensemble, Sonomento, had just begun rehearsing this piece for our January 31st concert. It was the week stories of children drowning and boats capsizing and families walking hundreds of miles began to break our hearts. Through wet eyes, I said, “This is about Syria.” He agreed. “You know who our neighbor is…” He looked up, uncertain where I was headed. “The American Red Cross. We can’t sing this without singing for them.” Surprised, Craig revealed, “Britten actually composed this Cantata for the 100th anniversary of the International Red Cross in 1963.”

In that moment, the opportunity to do something on the behalf of the refugees presented itself to us. MacPhail sits a few short blocks from the American Red Cross in Minneapolis. The International Red Cross has been tirelessly involved in refugee relief efforts across Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Our January concert became a collaboration between MacPhail and the International Red Cross.

Music is not a house in a box, but it has magical healing properties, bringing people together and expressing what we fall short of in words.

Misericordia translates, “mercy.” The Cantata concludes,

Who your neighbour is, now you know.
Go and do likewise.

Be a gentle helper. Consider a donation to the Red Cross. Learn more about the crisis. Consider volunteering on behalf of refugee families in Minnesota with a church based or nonprofit program.

And on Sunday, January 31st at 7pm in Minneapolis, come hear us sing for our neighbors near and far.

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.

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BEFORE

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AFTER

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.

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Munich

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.

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Prague

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.

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Wernigerode

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.

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Berlin

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.

  • IMG_8444Dancing 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.

  • IMG_8936Singing 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.