Fill Them With Music

I sang softly as I sorted through the vegetables. Red tomatoes, yellow squash. Dark green kale almost black with phytochemicals. A few minutes earlier, I had been belting out a tune, repeating the childish phrase eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a tiger by his toe, which Pema had used to select between boxes of pasta - rotini or penne. We ended up with penne, then a long outro as I shaped my voice onto the back of that phrase. Pema returned to her play. I returned to my vegetables, relaxing into a gently pulsing rhythm – dyem-bum-bum-bayou – filling our afternoon with song.

I sing frequently, often to soothe myself, but also out of sheer joy. Whether humming quietly to myself, or crooning the texture of an interior grief, song accompanies nearly every task I perform. It’s in my slicing, my walking, my weeping and eating. But rarely do I sing a “real” song, as Pema calls them, preferring instead to lift the actions and phrases of my hands and feet into the melodies of my moods. Pema is so accustomed to this that, as she played on the other side of the room, it was as if she didn’t even notice. Then I ducked my head in the fridge and stopped for a second. Instantly, but without turning or really acknowledging me, as if speaking into the ambient womb of space between us, she simply said, “keep.”

Dyem-bum-bum-bayou… I picked the song back up. Pema returned to her matryoshkas by the window overlooking the garden. One of the chickens, which have the run of the backyard, hopped onto the sill and stared longingly inside. It had been like this for much of the afternoon, me interrupting Pema here or there with a question or a snack, but mostly leaving her to her world, me to mine. I have come to treasure these moments, common after a long school day. We are together, but inside we are in different worlds altogether. And yet, there is a bond between us that is worth the devil dipped in sugar.

I lit the stove, glancing out the corner of my eye. Pema was pushing the black office chair, the kind that spin pleasantly, to the center of the room. I dumped the mushrooms into the pan, then uncorked the olive oil. Still singing, I turned back to the counter, then watched as Pema placed the largest matryoshka on the chair and spun it. While glaring at the spinning doll, Pema extended her arms left and right, fists clenched at shoulder height, a posture of excitement so uniquely her own. When that happens the earth opens up, the sky cracks, and doves pierce my heart with swords of light.

My brother used to do that too. It wasn’t exactly the same, but I can picture him like it was yesterday – balled up fists, rubbing them together first at waist height, then chest level, back and forth, back and forth, somehow squirrel-like, as if his joy was uncontainable and he had to rub it out. I did something similar too, this clenching joy, but what makes it so fabulous is that, by and large, its invisible to the one doing it. It’s a movement solely for oneself, not for anyone else, an expression without an ounce of self-consciousness. Until you get old, and then you start noticing. Self-awareness creeps in and innocence drains away. No one wants to be seen frolicking in their own majesty. We prefer to be tough, poker-faced, or unreasonably friendly.

I put the knife to the squash, the gentle rhythm of my song lending a sort of dance to its movements. Donk, donk, donk the knife sang as it touched down to the wood cutting board. Turning to the stove, I dumped the onions and squash into the pan, then – tink, tink, tink – knocked off the last pieces stuck to my knife. Dyem-bum-bum-bayou…

The matryoshkas are a set of Russian nesting dolls, the kind that open at waist level and reveal a smaller doll inside, much like the first, then a smaller doll inside that one, and so on. Hand-painted, sleek and exquisite, they are the kind of thing I would expect to find at an antique store, along with a lace doily, a fake fern and a silver dish on top of an impossibly dark and oily table. These particular ones originally belonged to Silke’s children, now to Silke, but it’s as if they have become the chattel of the house itself. Pema has taken to them.

There are several sets of matryoshkas, each one a slightly different shape, a different color and with fewer or more dolls inside. The largest set is mostly red, the picture of a plump and happy woman in her babushka, and the largest of these is the grandmother. It was she now riding in the office chair. Another set has only a few dolls, and another yet has lost the interior dolls entirely. But one, the yellow set, whose faces and clothing resemble that unique place where Russia blends into China, is not quite as large as the grandmother, but has by far the most dolls – the very last of which is no larger than a grain of rice.

Altogether, there are five sets, so that when placed properly on the shelf there are five matronly figures keeping watch. One can pick them up like teacups. Taken apart, they become a boisterous family full of children, adolescents, adults, men, women, big sisters, brothers, and whatever one’s imagination allows. Pema is certain that some of them, though plainly dressed like the others, are men. Me too.

The galaxy that these dolls open up is exquisite, and Pema, who has little to distract her, is fully-equipped to make use of them. It is not incidental that I, in the background, am humming a gentle tune, giving the reassuring taps and clinks of a kitchen at work. But more importantly, Pema has little interior distraction. She is not accosted by the external stories that shape and gnaw at many children’s play. She is free, at least as much as one can be in the 21st century.

As a kindergarten teacher, I bear witness daily to the children, the wonderful and lovely children, who simply cannot escape the vivid storylines fed to them by Disney and other creative dreamers. There is one little boy, a child I love and treasure, who spends much of his time recounting to me the world of Minecraft. I change the subject, more or less skillfully at times, but it’s little use. The hold this game has on his mind, literally the pathways of his neurons, his memory banks and strategic thinking, are so strong that he cannot be swayed from its course. “Okay, back to Minecraft,” he says to me after a minute or two of disruption. Harry Potter eats up almost the entire day of another child, as well as something called Dragon Riders. There are girls who endlessly repeat the basic themes of Frozen. “You really should see it,” parents sometimes say, with intentions as innocent and pure as flower essences. I don’t doubt them, but I do cultivate my own creativity, and that which belongs to my daughter. It is her birthright, and I won’t give it away.

There is much discussion these days amongst parents and educators, and people of all sorts, about how much screen time is enough, or too much. I would add books to the mix, which will probably offend some of my readers. Computers and iphones have brought us a new age, but the conversation is largely the same as it has been for decades. TV numbs your mind. Or it doesn’t. Marvel characters on t-shirts are just fine. Or they’re not. The best princesses are trademarked.

I read an article recently where a respected sociologist suggested that limiting screen time was equivalent to child abuse. My goodness. Pema watched Mary Poppins once, a good-natured movie if ever there was one, and if I enjoyed regret I would give myself freely to it.

My hiccup with TV and movies isn’t so much that they’re bad – in fact, they’re really good, right? – it’s that the goodness of it distracts me from myself. The emotional and narrative storylines capture my imagination in the full meaning of that word. Captured. My imagination and almost everything I do becomes tethered to these stories, like a song that’s stuck in my head. The images and scenes, the phrases and emotions, that play out in the movie show up in all kinds of ways, including rinsing my hands in the kitchen sink. Dyem-bum-bum-bayou…

It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve watched an episode of the Simpsons, but I can still think of a quip from one of its characters for nearly every life circumstance that presents itself. Mostly, we think this is harmless, or even good fun. I stopped watching TV in 2002, largely on a whim, after which it took me eight years – eight years! – to discover my singing voice. And that’s not counting the twenty-two I had lived up till then.

“The matryoshka’s going for a ride,” Pema said, pulling me from my reverie. She drew her clenched fists up to her shoulders, squeezing herself once more in that posture of excitement so precious to her, and me. She rarely interrupts her play to include me these days, but sometimes she’s so taken with what’s happening that she just has to share it.

In actuality, it was just a painted piece of wood spinning on a black office chair, but one look in her eyes revealed the lights and magic spinning inside. The entire living room was a landscape of story – that is, a mess – a forest of imagination. Matryoshkas were on the window sill, the couch, the table cloth, the chair. Not one of them was inadvertently placed there. Chairs were tipped over baskets. Blankets were draped over armrests. Everything, including the sewing bin, had been repurposed. And the face of each doll was explicitly turned in the right direction, its posture – whether standing, prone, or somewhere in between – precisely part of the story. Some were at school, some at work, some making breakfast, some asleep. The grandmother spun on. If I don’t interrupt Pema with dinner or a bath, she will do this for hours, like five. Five hours of uninterrupted story, weaving a world together from a small set of collapsible dolls, a few end tables and a throw pillow. It may sound foolish, or needlessly brash, but I honestly believe this is the answer – the answer – to the world’s intransigent problems, a healthy childhood for everyone, full of inner creativity and poise. But that's easier said than done.

There is one little girl in my class who, sweet as strawberry icing, never smiles so brightly as when she tells me I should come to her house. “I have so many movies,” she says, her eyes sparkling wider than at any other time, as if this were the most precious treasure she could imagine sharing with me. “You can watch them,” she tells me, “anyone you want.” Hundreds of times she has told me this. I smile and make the best of it – I know she means to share her joy with me, and there’s real sweetness in that – but inside I can’t help but feel a bit icky. Who is this sweet, innocent child going to grow into? I wish that treasure was inside of her, right here, right now.

Dyem-bum-bum-bayou… I set the spatula down in the pan, scraping its metallic noise into my vegetables, then turned to the kitchen island. In between pasta-making, I was mixing dough for bread, dough from flour the kids milled by hand that morning at school. The wheat berries were just from the co-op, but the rye was direct from Farmer Ron. Isn’t that cool? Isn’t this what I want? I’ll admit, it’s a lot of work.

I looked at Pema, now attending to her dolls on the window sill. The chicken had run off. Pema has a habit of speaking out loud almost nonstop during her play, giving voice to her creations. Mostly, she talks quietly to herself, but occasionally it gets very vigorous, often accompanied by her excitement posture. It’s hard to follow, jumping as she is from character to character, but I sometimes get the gist of what’s happening. In this case, the father was making breakfast and the children were repeatedly asking, “What’s for breakfast?” I loved that the different children had slightly different tones to their voice. Then, as I sang and mixed dough, she fell into a staccato rhythm repeating the same syllable over and over, at first accompanying and then very much in contrast to my voice. I wondered for a moment, then realized she was saying, “cook.” The dad was cooking. She was cooking for the dad. The story she imprinted upon the handful of wooden dolls lying on the dusty window sill needed her to say, “cook.” Her fists curled up once again, her fingers slowly kneading against themselves in a stimulating motion rarely talked about or understood, but which I read right to the core.

The activity of the brain is, in many places, laid right overtop the system of motor control. When we look up or down, or point when searching for a thought, it is not incidental. This is exactly the posture of mind. The characteristic movements of any individual, synchronized as they are with one’s memories and thoughts, are expressive in ways we hardly understand. This is hard to grasp simply for oneself, and considerably more so when we observe the movements of others. The largest and most expressive – as in Pema’s joyful squeezes – are usually, as adults, tamed and put under control. They are never utterly lost, but because we often wish to keep our inner thoughts hidden, so therefore are our expressions hidden, literally the movements of our body. But everything, every single movement a person makes, whether expressing some joy or grief, or just a casual opinion, is exploding with meaning and purpose. It just takes observation. And silence.

This is the inner life I so wish to cultivate in myself, my daughter and everyone. Honestly, I could care less whether children or adults watch movies or play video games. I do not think for one second that even one person on this planet is dull, insidious or stupid. We are all creatures of magnificent proportions. But we are suffering, not so much from hunger or cold, but an insidious and violent malaise. There are so few truly happy people. My brother, God help me if he reads this – I haven’t seen him rub his fists together for years. And where is my invisible posture of uncontainable freedom?

The matryoshkas are more than just dolls. That Pema has taken to them, far beyond any other toy or activity in her life, is curious to me. There are lots of reasons, I’m sure, but I can’t help thinking there is some fabulous symbol to it all. The inner life. Five simple objects which might easily fit on a dinner plate. I know children with rooms full of toys. Most of them have a hard time sparing more than a few minutes of attention, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they’ve already learned, by age four or five, that their interior stories are no match for storytellers like Disney and Pixar. It’s not that Harry Potter and Minecraft is wrong, it’s that they’re right, too right. In a world where we have instant access to the best singers and storytellers in the world, who wants to listen to the neighbor pluck a few tunes on her porch? Who believes their voice is worth hearing?

Dyem-bum-bum-bayou… The pot of water next to my vegetables began to boil, its lid clanging with escaping heat. Grasping a potholder, I took the metal lid off and listened to the roll of the boiling water, such a comforting sound. Pema mouthed something in the distance. The chickens, like the wind, were barely audible in the background. A teacher-mentor once said to me, paring down the essence of education into this one phrase, “fill them with music.” When he said it, his eyes were fixed on the earth where his foot played sheepishly over the dirt and rocks. His head moved back and forth, just barely, as if hinged on a vertebra. Then he looked up with piercing blue eyes, lips closed, and something of the innocence lost in childhood.