Category Archives: Musical notes

Do you hear what I hear? — Praying with the carols


“Favorite Christmas Carols” is the book on my mother’s piano. Its paperback cover shows a 1960s-era drawing of Victorian carolers singing by lamplight. There are a few elongated circles scribbled on the cover, courtesy of my cousin Tim who, thirty years ago, spent several happy minutes alone with a pen and my mother’s sheet music. 

The pages are fragile with age, and are splitting from the binding. But within those covers are sturdy, beautiful memories of family Christmases, of singing carols around the piano with relatives and friends.

Simple line illustrations decorate each song. “O Come Little Children” shows a boy and girl on rocking horses, near a sign pointing the way to Bethlehem (“They won’t get very far on those horses,” my sister and I used to quip). “Go, Tell it On the Mountain” features a man standing on a jagged cliff, stretching to touch to a faraway star.

I know those images and lyrics by heart. I adore that book. Every year that I can remember, it has heralded the season of Christ’s birth, filling my mind with song.

Even today, I’m a Christmas music junkie. I delay my indulgence until after Thanksgiving (I believe in giving that beautiful holiday its due). But when Black Friday comes, I’m never at the malls. I’m at home, happily sorting through CDs of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the Harry Simeone Chorale.

Though I love “Rudolph” and “Marshmallow World,” I have a particular affinity for the religious songs that we sang around the piano. They ground me during a season that feels far too frenetic. Though I try not to be caught in the spin cycle of holiday stress, I always am. Trips to the mall and post office, December weekend traffic – the immediate needs of the season can creep like frost over the windshield of my vision, obscuring my view of the Incarnation.

But listening to a religious carol – “Silent Night,” John Rutter’s “The Angels’ Carol,” or my father’s favorite, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming “— can melt those distractions away. Those songs always help my harried holiday self settle on the beautiful mystery at the heart of the season. My favorite way to pray during December is to curl up on the couch and listen to those songs, staring at the fireplace or a lit candle, letting that wavering light and those waves of music seep into my bones and saturate me with the beauty of Christ’s coming. The songs restore and renew me, always.

And now that my son is three, I’m realizing that the carols are not just for me. As I wonder how to help Matthew find Jesus among all of the tinsel and gifts, I’m learning anew the power of music. In the car, at home, my son hears what I hear. Just as these carols sank into my bones years ago, so they are sinking into his: one little child learning about the birth of another little child, the sweetest story ever set to music. 

Yes, this is one from the archives, from 2009 (!).  But though my youngest son is now older than Matthew was when I wrote this, my love for carols hasn’t abated.  And my mom still has the book of Christmas songs on her piano each holiday season.  

A song for parents

Sometimes, when I tell my kids to put away their toys and I have to repeat myself five times before they actually do, I wonder if they hear anything I say.

And then there are other times when, completely out of the blue, they reference something I said months earlier.  It comes back, that obscure comment I made, and I’m always astonished to discover that the kids not only listen to what I say, they retain it.  It makes me realize that a parent’s words are more powerful than I tend to think.

That’s why I love this song.  It’s  by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, sung here by the incomparable Bernadette Peters.

Careful the things you say 
Children will listen

Enjoy the music, the singing, and – if you’re a parent – the gentle reminder.

Gratitude, Beach Boys-style

Pandora keeps me guessing.  Every now and then, random rock songs slip into the lineup of Broadway anthems on the Showtunes channel (one of my current faves), and just like that, we’ve gone from  Idina Menzel to The Beach Boys.

Specifically, we go to this song from The Beach Boys, which I’ve heard at least ten times in the last few days:

I can’t complain about the mixing of genres, because I really do love this song. (You’ve heard it before, right?)  God only knows what I’d be without you say the lyrics, over and over and over. God only knows what I’d be without you.  Simple, but effective.

Because somewhere around the fifth time I heard this song last week, I started to think that maybe there’s an opportunity for mindfulness here.  If I were going to dedicate this song to someone, whom would I choose?  Who are the “God only knows what I’d be without you” folks in my own life?

The choices just kept rolling in.

My folks, for unconditional love for forty-one-plus years.

My husband, for proving that good guys do exist and are interested in me  (and for always solving my technology problems).

A doctor of my past, for catching something before it turned into something very very bad.

My writing friend, who encouraged me to take my personal scribblings to a wider audience.

My sister, for a lifetime of laughs that have sustained me through any number of challenges.

A terrific therapist, for helping me finally take on  my OCD several years ago.

My kids, for pulling me out of myself and for stretching me in ways that I need to be stretched.

Some key friends over the years, who have helped me sift through all of my questions about faith.

What’s great is that I could keep going and going.  But I’ll stop here, because now it’s your turn.   Who are the “God only knows what I’d be without you” people in your own life?

If you have a minute, try making a list.   It’s a revealing exercise, and — to use a Beach Boys-inspired metaphor — a surefire way to find yourself surfing a tidal wave of gratitude.


Why this mom loves “Let it Go”


The song “Let it Go” has grown on me.

When I first saw “Frozen” in the theatre, I thought “Let it Go”  was a visually impressive number.  I loved the images of Elsa gliding through  the bluish snow and the ice palace rising around her.   But for some reason the song itself didn’t grab me, though I did mentally applaud the singer for her impressive range. (I also thought, “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘fractals’ in a song lyric.”)

But since then, I’ve heard it many times.  I’ve had an increasingly hard time getting it out of my head.  Just a few days ago I heard it playing in the pediatrician’s office, and I started singing along, which caused my seven-year-old to say politely, “Mom, could you stop singing?”

Because while he enjoyed the movie, he is sick of the song.  “The girls ALWAYS sing it at recess,” he complained.  I’m sure he’s right, because from what I hear from my friends who have girls, they love this movie with a passion that goes beyond the popularity of most Disney films

I’m a forty-one-year-old girl, and I can relate.  This song gets me; it really does.  And here’s my theory: Females understand this song in a way that guys don’t.

What’s the song about?  It’s about a girl with a unique power she’s been told not to use.  She’s different and her power can cause problems, so she learns to hide it.  Then her gift accidentally comes out, and it’s scary and upsetting, but then she finally says the Disney equivalent of “Screw it. I’m tired of holding back.  I’m going to let it rip.”

It’s a far cry from the Little Mermaid who, as a college friend of mine  once memorably explained, gives up her voice to have the perfect body so she can get a man. “Let it Go”  is about female empowerment.  You actually hear a Disney princess singing, “That perfect girl is gone,” and it’s a good thing.

I love that.

We women have come a long way, but it’s still so easy to get into a “don’t rock the boat, don’t be a troublemaker”mode.    I’m not saying women should stop  being sensitive and compassionate, because sensitivity and compassion are qualities that I wish more people (men included) possessed.  I’m saying that you can be sensitive and compassionate and cause trouble.  (In fact,  compassion for others is probably the catalyst for most social justice work.)  

A lot of the positive change in this world has come about through women who did cause trouble, who grew tired of being someone else’s  idea of what it means to be perfect.  You see this in the suffragettes, in the women of the Civil Rights movement, in so many places in history.   These women probably each had to have their own “Let it Go” moment where they realized that they could no longer live the careful, fearful life they’d had before.  I’m grateful they had the courage to smash through the expectations that held themselves and others back.

Now that I think about it, maybe boys can relate to this song more than I thought at first.  My kids are so young that they haven’t yet started expressing pressure to be “the perfect male,” but I’m know that pressure does exist, especially as they reach the teenage years.   But as a former girl,  I know why this song is so popular with Matthew’s female peers.  Even at a young age, girls can sense the need to fit into a narrow definition of “perfect,” be it in their behavior or their weight or their dress.  I think there’s something in Elsa’s liberation from that that touches a chord, and powerfully.

Just recently, Matthew and I attended a birthday party for one of his female classmates.  An hour or so in, two costumed and bewigged young women arrived, one dressed as Elsa and the other Anna.  They gathered all the kids together and played the soundtrack and invited them to sing along to “Let it Go.”  (they also supervised a fake snowball fight and painted faces.)  I sang along too, and loved it, and  I noticed several other moms doing the same.

It’s a message we can’t hear enough: When the perfect girl is gone, the real woman can come out.

Music as caffeine: My top picks

End-of-the-quarter is always a rough time for teachers.  You find yourself  grading vast quantities of student work under the pressure of an unyielding deadline, plowing your way through stacks of essays while your spouse kindly shoulders both the childcare and your frequent complaints about how you really should have chosen a career in which you didn’t have to get so much done, such as a career as a member of the United States Congress.

Even if you’re not a teacher, you’ve surely had those days when you rely on sheer dogged drive and determination to get going and make it through your to-do list.  Coffee and prayer are helpful in times such as those.

Music is good, too.   In fact, I’ve found that certain tunes never fail to get me energized, no matter how exhausted I am.  Here, in no particular order, are my Tired Working Mom Survival Songs.  (I warn you: it’s a really eclectic list.)

1.  Any fast-paced Irish folk song, such as “Hills of Connemara.”  Gaelic Storm does a great rendition of this.

The only downside is that if you listen to it repeatedly in the car, your child will eventually ask, “Mom?  What is this song about?”   Then you have to decide whether you really want to say, “Well, it’s a sympathetic ballad about brewing illegal alcohol and then running like mad to avoid the tax men.”

2.  I’m a child of the ’80s, the era known for having terrible hair and good rock.  And “Take On Me” by A-ha,  or “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure, or “A Little Respect” by Erasure always get me smiling and singing along and wanting to dance like I’m at  my high school prom again.

3.  “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay.  I don’t know what it is about this tune, but it gets me energized every time.

4.  Aretha Franklin and “A Little Respect.”  (Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me …)

5.   For a little calypso flair, there’s “Jump in the Line” by the incomparable Harry Belafonte.  (I told you the list was eclectic.)

6.  Glenn Miller and “In The Mood” makes me smile and want to dance, except that I’m a child of the 80s, and I can’t dance swing.  (My parents can, and it’s always fun to see them cut the rug to this song at weddings.)

7.  Speaking of weddings, Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything” is the song that was playing as Scott and I danced our way into the reception hall.   Maybe it’s the happy memories of this song that inspire me at least as much as the song itself.

8.  Any fast song by ABBA.  “Waterloo” fits the bill perfectly.  (And if the 80s were the era of bad hair, the 70s were clearly the era of bad fashion, as evinced by this video which I just had to share, it is so stunning in its kitschy awesomeness.)

Those are my energy songs.  I’d love to hear yours!  Share away.