Sondheim and Parenting as Spiritual Practice
The greatest achievement of any artist, I think, is to clarify what it means to be human, to evolve our understanding so that we may live more honestly, more compassionately. Shakespeare was one of those artists. So was Stephen Sondheim. The composer - lyricist brought a never before seen nuance to the human story told through the most American of art forms - the musical theater. We lost Sondheim on Thanksgiving weekend. Appropos since it is probably his shows that I am most grateful for having worked on.
Sondheim was at his core a collaborator. He worked with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Madonna. We’ll come back around to Sondheim, but let’s talk about the process of collaboration.
The spaces I love most in this world are collaborative spaces. I love the pop of ideas and conversation that only come when people show up in presence to make connections together. It’s for this reason that I love the work I do as a spiritual director. It is a ministry of mutuality which means I get as much out of it as the clients, maybe more. I am taught, I am encouraged, I am held in sacred space. And that’s because it's not me doing the work. There’s me, the “directee” and the Spirit. It’s a collaborative.
I don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit here in this blog. Maybe that’s because it feels a bit more culturally taboo than talking about God or even Jesus. But if I’m honest, in my Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is the part of the Trinity, that I feel most connected to. It is the Go-Between God.
Jim Finely says that God loves us so much that if God were to stop loving us even for an instant we would cease to be. I love the metaphor (though I think he’s being literal) in that image. Our existence is inextricably tied to God’s love for us. Not in a weaponized, you-better-be-good, Santa Claus kinda way, but in a self-emptying, God-IS-love, unconditional kinda way.
Well, in the same way I think that while God’s nature is Love, the Holy Spirit’s nature is connection and belonging. Were the Spirit to unpresence herself from us for even an instant - we would cease to exist in a world filled with life, beauty and art. We would float, isolated from everything. It’s the Spirit’s presence that allows us to feel love for another human being, allows our hearts to break at another’s suffering, allows us to rage at injustice. It’s also the Spirit that connects us to nature, to art, to Beauty.
Think for a minute about a piece of Art that resonates with you. I’m thinking of Sondheim’s Being Alive from the musical Company.
I think I could spend an entire day listing the art that has impacted me over the years. My teacher in college used to call the connection between man and art an annunciation. An announcement of an impending incarnation.
The Spirit whispers in your ear, “God’s here.”
“Where two or more are gathered…” Even me and a Rothko can make church cause the Spirit is there to go between.
So last week in a session with a beautiful woman (we’ll call her E) who has taught me much in the short time we’ve been working together, the collaborative Spirit was present and I walked away with something I wanted to share with you all. E gave me permission to write about this.
We were talking as women for whom parenting has been hard. I know, parenting is hard for everyone, but you have to admit there are degrees of hard. For E it has been significantly hard. We were relating to the feeling of looking at families that seem to have it all together with perfect, well-adjusted children and thinking “How? How did you do that?” At the same time, our love for our children who walk the path differently or who choose to take an alternative path, is so full, we would never trade our kids for “easy.”
Her eldest daughter is named Faith. E told me at the beginning of the proclamation of faith in the Catholic church the litany starts by saying, “We proclaim the mystery of Faith.” When Faith started to make radical changes in her life, E and her husband started to say to each other with a wry smile, “We proclaim the mystery of Faith.”
This struck me as perhaps the most profound statement a parent can make.
As we continued to talk, we would stop and interject what we ended up calling the Litany of the Children. We talked about our youngest children who both are flourishing in alternative learning spaces. After years of feeling like outsiders for whom traditional school feels like constant overwhelm, our kids are finding success and relationships as they learn how to install GFI outlets or take care of a three legged dog.
“We proclaim the Mystery of Matthew.”
It felt world shifting. To acknowledge that these human beings who so often worried us, frustrated us, needed our care and comfort and also needed our space and trust were in fact wholly mysterious to us. Like God, who in mystery, is not unknowable but endlessly knowable, so too our children have the capacity to endlessly surprise us. To have endless resources and resiliency.
“We proclaim the Mystery of Annie.”
The proclamation also felt like an effort in non-attachment. The mystery that someone that came from you (whether birthed, adopted or step-parented) is NOT you. Is fully and totally separate from you. Just as we are not what we do, what we have, what others say about us - we are also not our children. Their greatest achievement is not ours. Their greatest failure is also not ours. We suffer and celebrate with them, but out of reverence for the mystery that is them, we allow them to own their achievements and failures. Until, of course, they realize that these things don’t define them either.
“We proclaim the Mystery of Ethan.”
As parents we want so desperately to hold tight, to protect. But too often that protection is controlling and co-dependent. Rather we could approach our children as Mystery - being curious, reverent, and spacious. Opening ourselves up to unknowing and avoiding certainty. Committed to a transformational rather than a transactional relationship.
It is a huge accomplishment for me that today when my daughter calls me in a stressful situation, I no longer stop what I’m doing and pave a clear path for her, taking on all the what-if’s and stress. Instead, I calmly acknowledge that I’m sorry and that it must be difficult for her, but I know that she’s capable. She has a right to her own troubles and has a right to figure them out on her own. She has a right to that kind of confidence in herself separate from me. And she has a right to be BIG - to be MYSTERY. When I try to control or solve - I take that away. My need for certainty makes her small.
“We proclaim the Mystery of Hannah.”
One of the gifts of creative collaboration is that what comes out is so much better than the sum of the parts. As a parent, we are collaborators, co-creators, and our role, in most instances, becomes less significant as they grow up. It is great spiritual work this letting go of our children. I don’t think we talk about it enough as such. So I am grateful for E and her teaching me the Litany of the Children. Try it. Next time you are at your wits end or you are in deep grief or you are feeling a sense of pride, say the words:
“We proclaim the Mystery of Emma.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Ryan.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Jack.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Cooper.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Sam.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Vasco.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Liv.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Mary Cate.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Henry.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Cleo.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Elia.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Elaine.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Paul.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Tommy.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Sebastian.”
“We proclaim the Mystery of Mae.”
So…. what do we do?
Let’s take a page from the songbook of Stephen Sondheim.
When Hannah was a baby I’d put her in her swing and put on Sondheim’s Into the Woods and act out the entire show to her giggling. Later as I’d drive her to daycare every morning, before she could read, we’d play Name That Tune in the car. I’d hum a few bars and she’d try and guess the song and the musical it came from. Then we’d reverse it and she’d sing. Many of our guesses included Woods.
Into the Woods was Sondheim’s (sort of) version of Bruno Bettleheim’s 1976 classic The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. In the musical, all our favorite characters from Cinderella to Jack and his beanstalk, go into the woods to solve a problem. The classic spiritual journey of going into the wilderness, the hero’s journey. What they find is that there are no clear cut happy endings, instead there is community, and in community we find something deeper than happiness. We find joy - an abiding state of contentment and belonging.
There it is. The Spirit again. Community and connection and belonging. That go-between God. It is honestly the best we can hope for in this world. There will always be pain and loss, but we can hold it if we have others to bear our burdens with us.
So as a parent we make space for non-reactive, deep listening. We listen beyond words. We understand that this moment is not the final moment and that we are, most likely, only part of the community that will lead our child out of the woods. And that’s ok. And above all, we are careful what we say because the gift and the curse is that they will listen.
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey
But, children will listen
Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say
"Listen to me"
Children will listen
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen
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