This weekend I visited my family in Pennsylvania. I went down to see a CD release concert by Constant Recourse, Ben and Jess’s band. I went down to see their daughter Lydia, whose presence I’ve pined after since July. I went down for family dinners and walks with Mom. I went down to admire Dad’s home improvements; to see the beard Isaac has grown; to hear what Nate is reading these days.
I love visiting my family, but I knew better than to expect perfect serenity of spirit. Overcast skies foreshadowed a hyped-up storm, and I felt heavy with my own internal clouds. Old errors ached in my mind like rheumatism. I mulled over all the ways I’ve hurt my family and let myself imagine that they do the same.
What luck to have Lydia among us, with her bright eyes and basic, uncontestable needs. We echo her high-pitched coos and primordial grunts. We take turns holding her puny hands so she can lurch around the house with no aim. We abet her efforts to lay hold of Steve the cat.*
With Lydia, things are still simple. She hurls herself at each of us with blind assurance, and we leap up to prove ourselves worthy of her trust.
Ben and Jess spent Saturday in rehearsal, so Mom and I took Lydia for the afternoon. I marveled equally at the joys and the inefficiencies of attending to a nine-month-old.** The mere act of navigating a stroller felt like a cosmic lesson in slowing down.
Part of the allure of babies is that we can derive our own message from their wordless communications. Never mind your mood, Lydia seemed to say. I don’t demand your happiness, just your complete attention.
At Saturday night’s concert, I saw people I knew years ago, back when I was fresh-faced and earnest and no one imagined I was capable of really screwing things up, least of all myself. These folks remember that I left; they don’t recall how long ago or to where. They’ve heard that I got divorced; they don’t desire the details. We hug each other and swap bland genialities. You look great. It’s been such a long time! Where are you living now?
I always feel equal parts relieved and disappointed by these exchanges. Our lives overlap with so many others, and naturally we cannot keep up with everyone. Facebook grieves me and gladdens me in the space of a single breath. I’m thrilled to see pictures of a friend from high school appear in my feed. I’m still a little sad that she stopped returning my letters years ago without explanation. I don’t bother dreaming up ways I offended her; she probably just doesn’t send many letters. But still. I’m a glutton for connection. Nothing deflates me like skimming the surface of the lives around me.
As Ben and Jess started in on their set, I moved around the church hall, sitting with different friends and family members in turn. When I sat in the back corner with my grandparents, I finally let the silent tears roll down my cheeks. Grandma was whispering stories she’s told me before, and my brave little brother was singing his heart out from the stage. Nate leaned against the sound booth and bounced Lydia in his arms while Dad stood in the lobby, manning the popcorn machine. I wanted nothing more than to bask in the reflected glory of God. I could see it all around me, but I felt heartbroken and petty and small. I stopped trying to be otherwise.
Sometimes we cannot offer up our shiniest selves. No one knows that better than family. So I took a lesson from Lydia, who stayed awake through the whole concert, despite Dad’s best efforts to put her to sleep. Never mind your mood. Life doesn’t require your happiness, just your complete attention.
*It has yet to be a real contest. Lydia announces her interest in Steve loudly from afar. The cat dashes to the door, then meows his outrage that no one has the decency to open it. Lydia and her current accomplice close in on him; he hightails it to one of his many hiding places.
**I spend a lot of time with little children, but I’m well aware that teaching them music primes me for motherhood about the same way that playing Guitar Hero might ready me to solo on a Stratocaster. It’s not that there’s no overlap in the skill set, but there’s a lot more to parenting than singing, dancing, and hugging kids in the hallway.