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“What are The Questions, mommy?”
I’m cuddling with my youngest son as he’s drifting slowly to sleep. I don’t know what he means by this meta-question. He clarifies.
“The questions. Five w’s and one atch.”
“Ah. Who, what, when, where, why, and how.” He asks me to repeat them, so I do–at least ten times.
“You know, sweetheart, some people say the universe is a question.”
He pauses. This is very new information. “What does that mean?”
“Well, I think it means something like what you just said– ‘what does this all mean?’ Only, we have to keep asking the question for our entire lives, because what answers that question when you’re seven feels different than what answers that question when you’re forty-two. Or what about this question…who am I? Who am I becoming? We keep asking ourselves that question all our lives if we want to grow.”
He is quiet, thinking. And then he is quiet, sleeping. And I am quiet, willing myself to get out of his bed, turning off lights in the house, brushing my teeth, glancing at the dirty dishes in the sink, silently promising I’ll wake up early to wash them.
I do not wake up early.
The morning is its usual rush and jumble. Fifteen years of morning-parenting and I still don’t have this down. My husband does most of the practical work. I try to stay patient as my Inner German makes endless internal notes to implement new systems, new strategies for efficiency, new plans to teach the teenager how to do his own laundry.
For years I tried to implement these systems. But they just made everyone anxious, me included. So now I placate The German by making the internal notes, but then I allow my Lazy Frenchman to take over and I don’t do anything about following through. It’s a complicated dance of European stereotypes and diplomacy.
The kids get on the bus mostly fed, mostly clothed, mostly ready for school, and anyway, that’s good enough.
I get another cup of coffee and look out at the garden. For the past few days I’ve been gradually cleaning up winter detritus and preparing the garden for spring planting.
This is the neverending happening, I think.
The phrase is Bill Fay’s–it’s the title of a song on the album Life is People. If you haven’t heard of Bill Fay, well, that’s not a surprise. He’s an English singer-songwriter who released two albums in the late sixties and early seventies and then was dropped from his label. The early albums are fascinating–sort of an English version of the hippie Jesus People movement–but they gathered only a few ardent fans. One of those fans, however, grew up to become a music producer, a music producer who reissued Fay’s albums more than 25 years later. Here’s Fay remembering that moment:
Up until 1998, when some people reissued my albums, as far as I was concerned, I was gone, deleted. No one was listening. But then I got the shock that people remembered my music. I was doing some gardening, and listening to some of my songs on cassette, and a part of me thought they were quite good. I thought, “Maybe somebody will hear them someday.” That same evening, 14 years ago, I got a call from a music writer telling me that my two albums were being reissued. A shock is not gonna get much bigger than that […] It was astonishing to me. I won’t ever really be able to believe that it happened. That’s how I feel about it. I had come to terms with the fact that I was deleted, but that I had always kept writing songs anyway and that was good enough.
Life is People (2012) was Fay’s first new album in 40 years. On the cover, he hunches over the piano, his gnarled hands humbly resting on the keys. His longish hair is grizzled, his glasses are not fashionable–scruffily bearded, conservatively attired–there is nothing splashy or shiny about him. He might as well be your aging hippie grandpa.
The lyrics are heartbreakingly beautiful in their simplicity, their lack of pyrotechnics, their straightforward gratitude.
The neverending happening
Of what’s to be and what has been
Just to be a part of it
Is astonishing to me
But it’s the music that breaks my heart open the most. A few bars before the end, Fay’s voice drops out and the cello–the instrument that most resembles the human voice–resonates from the depths, ascending in a slow-breathing sway toward the last measure, where she suddenly, in the penultimate note, disappears. The piano sounds the last, resolving chord, which lingers and then fades.
But that cello! She just drops out at the last moment. Why is that? What are you saying, Bill? That life could end in a moment? Or that life, like the piano, could linger for another measure?
I listen over and over again. Endless repeat.
Sometimes the Endless Repeat of The Questions feels like a long slog, a muddy field to cross on our way to Somewhere Else.
Call the long slog a muddy field; call it the Valley of the Shadow of Death; call it waking up midway through the dream of this life; call it the opportunity to touch bottom and then begin the ascent.
Whatever we call it, the Neverending Happening invites us to pay attention pay attention! to the Everything–the mud, the sleepy seven-year-old, the dirty dishes, the spring gardening, the second cup of coffee, the kids running to catch the school bus.
just to be a part of it
is astonishing to me
Between the mundane happenings of my day today, I will think about what you wrote. And be thankful.
Thank you. A very elegant and meaningful composition.
as usual thoughtful, subtle, and so beautifully written
Mmmmm… the observation that “the universe is a question” made me smile… and reminded me of another observation I recently read that seemed rather radical at the time… “God is a question, not an answer, the most radical thought we can entertain, that exposes the questionability of all the other answers we think we have, exposing the fragility of the raft, the revocability of the determinate structures within which the various religions conduct their business, forcing them to ask themselves again and again, ‘what do I love the I love my God?'” John Caputo, “On Religion”
I don’t know if it relates per say but that’s where my mind went. And I thank you for it!
Thank you for your thoughts. I heard many moons ago this: the greatest theological (read spiritual) statement ends not with an exclamation mark, but with a question mark. I think we are better for the question marks of our lives, especially the ones with no easy answers. And, yes, the Universe is a question… isn’t that grand.