Thursday, December 23, 2010

Handel's Messiah and parenting

A friend gave us tickets to see Messiah last night, done by a superb chorus. Box seats, no less! It was a major treat, in more ways than one.

As I sat listening to the music twine familiar words into glorious patterns, I thought about how the oratorio repeats phrases in different ways, with some voices coming in from above, while others rumble in unexpectedly from below. Whole minutes and a myriad of notes were devoted to the two words comfort ye. The pile-on of voices in He shall purify brings us a little bit closer to understanding with each repetition. And after a soul-floating stretch of hearing Unto us a child is born tossed back and forth between sopranos and basses and altos and tenors it dawned on me that there is a great deal to learn about how we absorb words and what parenting is about by listening to Messiah.

I heard the words Unto us a child is born at least once a year since I was a child. I've read them in the Bible, and I know the back story. And yet listening to them sung in a glorious concert hall by an excellent choir, they worm their way into my heart in a new way. They come at me from different angles, and in their persistence and echoes and variations of voice, I start to absorb them all over again. I begin to grasp them for what they are.

Think about it: when you became a parent, the words you put on the birth announcement (Susan Smith, 7 pounds, 9 ounces) came nowhere near to the world-changing fact that Susan Smith had arrived and changed your life forever. If you pull yourself back in time and re-live the first time you held your baby, you'll know Handel had it right: Unto us a child is born needs to echo and resound in different pitches for a very long time. The older your child is, the greater the song in your heart -- if you pause and reflect and let it emerge.

And here is where I think Handel's interweaving of words and song can help us as parents: If you could reduce all that your child means to you to three Playbill-size pages of lyrics, and you were to put those to music, you wouldn't sing each word once.

  • How many different ways would you voice "I love you"?
  • How often would you repeat "You make this world a bigger and better place"?
  • How would you weave "You are breathtakingly precious to me" throughout your piece?

We human beings don't learn by hearing something once. We don't absorb things fully by being exposed to knowledge in just one way. Whatever themes we want our children to grasp -- whether it's our views on human relationships or simply how much we love them -- we need to weave those into the very fabric of our (and their) lives. We do this by composing our lives so they contain the melody of the big things we believe in.

Here's hoping your composition becomes a masterwork.

Merry Christmas.


  1. You're awesome. This totally makes me smile.

    Miranda's emailed birth announcement had "O brave new world" as the subject line - which, to my thinking, is rather akin to "unto us a child is born".

  2. You have just described the real reason for Christmas. A wonderful relief from everything I have experienced in the past month which has made me a big scrooge this Christmas. I am going to sit and listen to Handel's Messiah tonight with my family and do a cross word puzzle. Thanks for the reminder and the way you put it into words was beautiful.