I am walking through my neighborhood listening to music on my phone. The song playing is by the Icelandic singer Bjork. Her voice floats independent of the instrumentation, rising and falling between beats with disconcerting atonality only to join perfectly in the unexpectedly melodic refrain. It is strange music but I do not hate it as my son predicted. Her lyrics are raw and interesting and I am engaged to the end. I don’t skip ahead.
This is one song on a playlist curated and sent to me by my son. He is trying to share his musical passions and expand mine, which are narrowly focused on banjos and rambling 19th century ballads. He warned, “you may hate some of it” but also gave insights. Details on the bands, context on how the music was created, even highlights of instrumentation or lines to listen for – all of which helps me navigate from song to song.
I imagined myself pushing the arrow forward, forward, forward, gathering just enough snippets to tell him: how very nice, thank you and I am good for now. But I find I like most of it. The real liner note is that the music, some of it released just a few months ago, sounds enticingly familiar. It often features plaintive voices which I love, lush orchestrations that my husband favors, smart lyrics that reflect the literature we all enjoy, and the wonderful combinations and twists of theme, noise, gender play, humor, and social critique that my son can absorb, juggle and explain better than anyone I know. His music blends and echoes of all of us, entirely new but resonating deeply.
This playlist is another gift that reminds me that the roles we once played – parent and child – are topsy turvy. Years ago I took both boys on a road trip down the eastern coast of the US from Boston to North Carolina. We stopped at major landmarks in American history and they received their mother’s version of events leading up and since. It was a decidedly more liberal, activist agenda. Along the way, I also played music and demanded that they memorize the voices and styles. My children would be expected to hear a voice and a guitar riff and know immediately that it was Dylan, Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, U2, Kate Bush as much as they should recognize a Greek myth or a bible story. I did not actually listen to all of this music day to day, but it was important that they experienced it, and knew how the songs and bands intersected with cultural movements. We talked about what they liked and didn’t and why. My part was to turn the radio dial and sift through CDs. Their part was to listen.
Now I do. My twenty something children live in worlds much like the Bjork song. They seem at once unraveling and grounded. There is a decision at every turn and every turn feels like the fate of a lifetime depends on whether they shift one way or the other. They do not have enough perspective to forecast accurately at each dilemma, but they are careful and resilient and surround themselves with good people. Most importantly, they are uncovering wisdom and capacity that before was only potential. They are less becoming and more arriving at who they will be and the contributions they will make. They are discovering, on their own, what will be the cultural touchstones of their life – sometime shedding, sometimes incorporating, sometimes walking to the edge of what they were given and lifting off into the blue sky. I sit back, kicking my soapboxes aside, asking more questions, noticing the connections, flexing to engage them differently. Because they are different and I am trying to be.
Launching my children has led me on a concurrent journey of maturation. I look forward and wonder what my life will be next and then look laterally at my sons asking themselves the same question. I will never outgrow my constant worry, but I am letting go of the singular role of raising them and embracing the broader role of exploring, learning, growing with them and from them. I let myself be influenced by their ideas, forgoing my Appalachian tunes for the high pitched, computer accompanied voice of a young woman named Grimes.
And I don’t skip ahead.