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.

 

Princess for a Day

Today on the way home from school I readied my kids for a trip to the bakery by giving them each $2. As I was getting out of my car a woman asked me, “can you give me enough money to buy my kids and I a loaf of bread?” I don’t always give money to the men (it’s usually men) on the corner we pass in our car everyday. They stand on the wrong side of the street for me to give them money–which is a nice excuse for me to avoid deciding if I think I should give them any.

But she asked me on foot and in front of my kids. She was so brave and so polite, standing a safe distance with her hands in her pockets. At first, with iPhone in one hand and credit card in the other, I told her I didn’t have any cash. This is also a convenient excuse.

She said, “Ok thank you. Have a good day.”

What am I to say in response? “You have a great day too?”

I remembered I had a coin purse in my car that had been there since the coin meters were replaced downtown. Money I could put aside and forget about for years.

“Actually, can you wait a second?” I climbed in my car. “Thank you so much,” she responded.

“Do you know what a loaf of bread costs these days?” Because I don’t. I just throw it in my cart (I think to myself).

“I’m sorry but it’s probably over $2.50 at this store. We just moved here and it hasn’t been working out like I hoped.” She kicks the dirt as I search. “My kids and I are staying with my sister but we’re homeless. I tried Family Partnership but they weren’t that helpful.”

I just spent the morning at the Minnesota Legislature on behalf of parents everywhere. I’ve done this kind of work in committees across health, environment and education over the last decade. Today I observed the House Education Innovation Policy Committee. In this moment it hits me that the whole reason I am at the Capitol is to do what I can to make sure money gets put into the hands of the people that need it most.

I have my opinions on how that money should get allocated: early learning scholarships, career and technical education, smaller class sizes, better assessments of student growth, teacher development, concurrent enrollment, American Indian education, special education, free breakfast, help, hellllllpppp HELP!!!!! It is so incredibly complicated.

And here, I almost missed an opportunity to put money directly into the hand of a parent who needed it.

We chatted a bit. I gave her some ideas. Told her not to give up on Minnesota. We take care of our own here.

At least I want to believe that we do. Most days, the truth is, it seems so hard with such limited resources to get the people the help that they need. Sharing is hard work.

I sometimes wonder why I care so much. Why can’t I quit these kinds of jobs and sell cupcakes?

UnknownWe were watching Star Wars with our kids a few weeks ago when Princess Leia bent down and put the message in R2D2. The Princess. The wise and brave Princess–daughter of a Senator–she would save the world. I loved her. I said to my six year old as we watched together, “I think I’ve always wanted to be Princess Leia.” He looked up at me, “If you are the Princess, I am your clone.”

And when it was over I said to my ten year old, “I’ve been to church, I’ve been to the Capitol, I watch the President on TV, I travel, I search and I wonder, where are the wise people, the great and noble Senate that is trying to save the world? Maybe there isn’t one!” The kid doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh there is, mom, don’t worry. It’s just in a galaxy far far away.”

She turned left to the grocery store with my quarters and we turned right to the bakery. “Oh shoot boys; it’s closed! It wasn’t our turn today.”

In 20 fast steps they catch up to her and give her their $4.00.

Just for a day–the Princess and her clones.

It was so easy.

Season of believing…

santaphotoI am not “ready” for Christmas. On my commute this week, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at Christmas Day with no gifts. My feet lifted off the ground and for a moment I was suspended above the great Mississippi River bluffs. Woozily, my senses grabbed hold of my boots just in time and I settled back into planning who will get what.

My kids, well beyond the years when many give up the dream, wholeheartedly believe in Santa Claus. So we welcome him into our home for the entire month of December.

And that man has some serious baggage.

My husband and I both have great childhood memories of cutting out pictures of toys from the JCPenny catalogue and dropping thick, pasty letters into the red mailbox at the mall. My brother and I would endure sitting on Santa’s “helper’s” lap to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, despite his cigarette breath.

Our kids are much more choosy about lapping men in red suits. They have a list of Santas they suspect are “real,” including the one we saw hopping on the Amtrak at the historic train station in Red Wing, the one that helped us strap our Christmas tree to our car, or the guy with the white beard walking down our street in suspenders THE DAY of the first snow – they were suspiciously magical beings. The ones that invite them to their laps – nope/never/no way/utterly destructive to the reputation of Mr. AwesomeClaus. I am glad they are choosy.IMG_9038

As new parents, we started simply – a tree, cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and one present. By two kids, we wrote letters to the North Pole and allowed one request of Santa. By three kids, we had engaged the myth he was watching them for good behavior. And suddenly this year, all our halls are decked, the elf makes daily appearances, an advent calendar marks the days, the Polar Express is real (and costs $80) and St. Nick has to find a way to live up to the puppy he left in my kid’s boot last year.

And there is no going back.

My youngest son, being new (in his limited memory) to advent calendars, found the thing stuffed with exceptionally difficult to find itty-bitty toys and candies and little tiny notes from mom and dad, and must have thought this was the craziest, coolest THING upon which he had ever stumbled. Being the 3rd, I realized in retrospect that he never got the one-per-day and oooooaaaaaahhh this is such a cool thing it should be respected talk (as if that would have helped—whom am I kidding?) Poor thing gave into his urges, ate every bit of candy, lost, destroyed or claimed every toy, and for some reason (omg) sunk every little note in his cup of milk. It’s done for the season. His big brothers were so horrified they weren’t even mad I basemented it instead of refilling it. Its like we decided collectively we couldn’t go through that again.

Now let’s talk about the Elf. My kids received Elf on the Shelf as a gift. I think the gifters might even find it funny how undone we’ve been by him. If you don’t know this homely creature’s story, the rules are 1) he moves DAILY, 2) he must never be touched (his magical powers at stake) and 3) he sends messages to Santa about the kids in the house (I lobbied for husbands too but the husband didn’t buy it). You might think one could bend the rules, but no, he comes with a storybook, which amounts to a contract for all parents who have naively welcomed elves into their homes.

This is a lot of work for parents: manic morning elfscapades, midnight fights over elf-relocation, the transcription of children’s letters-of-complaint to Santa (like when he is “lazy” and does not move). I fully planned to ditch the elf this year. Then mom upon mom recounted their kids’ sweet morning discoveries, my children started asking about Marlog (our elf), and I caved. His first morning was magical – there he appeared, riding the Swedish reindeer decoration. By morning two, I had forgotten, the kids were disappointed, and I stepped into my familiar role of writing new rules (excuses) for Marlog’s poor behavior. “Oh he only moves after all the kids in the house have seen him and since your brother had a sleepover last night, he’s stuck there awhile.”

Hook. Line. Sinker. My neighbor’s kid had his doubts about the gluey-eared “elf” who gave him a legit PRESENT at a Christmas party. But the Elf on the Shelf seems to beg no uncertainty, which is even wilder if you’ve seen the thing.

Melfphotoarlog has skinny legs, a cherubic face, a jester’s collar and no feet. He had hands but the puppy from St. Nick chewed them off. One evening last year we were eating dinner and our “cute” elf was catapulted to the salad from his spot in the light fixture above. I went to pick him up and my oldest yelled, “No – you can’t touch him – he will lose his magic!” My kindergartner wailed, “Marlog is dead!” Time stood still long enough for me to imagine the merits of this option: an elf funeral could put an end to this nonsense.

But I couldn’t do it. I picked up Marlog and put him in the crèche scene with the angels and the wise men. My children bemoaned me until I explained, “Spending a little time here will bring back any special powers I stole by touching him.”

Speaking of the manger, this season I’ve heard some colorful commentary on this old story. For instance, Nadia Boltz Weber, an amazing minister, author and as it applies, veteran of childbirth, wondered if the little drummer boy was really a “gift” to Mary? Did Mary honestly give a dam that the 9-year-old banging his drum throughout her barnyard labor with a bunch of strange men and stock animals was “playing his best for her?”

And one of our favorite local musicians, John Munson, recently reflected on Joseph. Imagine the love and trust it took for Joseph to look at his beautiful, young, virgin wife and say, “An angel said, WHA?” and believe her.

Christmas is entirely about believing. First Jesus, angels on high, then Santa, also St. Nick, the Christmas Spider, the Polar Express, Rudolf, the peppermint pig, talking snowmen and now, ubiquitously, Elves on Shelves. Unfortunately, children’s wonderment is particularly marketable. We’ve put incredible pressure on families to buy dreams-come-true for their kids. But Amazon and Walmart and Macy’s don’t make decisions for us. They offer stuff (too much stuff). We are still in charge of the limits and the magic.

The stuff in Santa’s baggage can’t hold a candle to the magic–we can’t get enough of it! Take it from someone who sustains elfscapading against her better judgment, who once stayed up until 4am to guard a discontinued electric train on Ebay auction, and who rigged a system for placing Christmas presents under the tree invisibly in order to evade her son’s video surveillance system. I know someday Santa’s fairytale will crumble and we are bound for a little disappointment. But so far, there seems to be very little harm, and a good deal of humor, in believing.