An Unexpected Gift

“Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing greet the morrow.” - Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (trad.)
“Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing greet the morrow.” - Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (trad.)

I was lucky to get sick this weekend. Not the sniffling, sneezing, so-you-can-rest kind of sick. The pillow over your head to keep out all light and sound, only able to make it between the bed and the toilet, sleeping for 14 hours straight and still feeling exhausted, pretty-sure-you're-going-to-die kind of sick.

This was lucky because it meant I had to sit out the choir concert I was supposed to be singing in tonight — a concert we've been rehearsing for weeks. I know that doesn't sound lucky, but it was.

As I sat listening to the music I realized something: we can't fully appreciate what we have while we're still in the day-to-day business of trying to make it happen. We're trying so hard to make our careers happen, our relationships happen, our happiness happen. We're trying and trying and it never quite seems finished or good enough or where we thought it should be until we wake up one day and realize — we had it all along, we just didn’t know it.

As Joni Mitchell sang: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

But that's what made tonight different. It wasn't gone. It was happening in that moment, and I was part of it. Yes, I had to sit out one performance, but I'm still a member of a choir that makes my heart want to burst wide open. What I felt tonight was not that I was missing out, but that I got the chance to experience the thing we so often fail to see: we are, right now, in the midst of creating what someday we will weep with joy at the memory of.

As I sat in the audience with my 76 year-old mother's soft, weathered hand in mine — a hand that has carried me through every important moment in my life — I knew I'd be able to travel back in my mind to this moment too after she is gone. I knew that embedded within the refrains of Infant Holy, Infant Lowly was now the shape and weight of my mother's hand and the sensation of her gently squeezing my fingers when she realized I was crying.

That is the power of creating art, of making music. Yes, it captures something true in textures, shades and lines. Yes, it tells a story, it challenges us, it comforts us. But the real magic is in the way it reminds us, the way it brings us back to ourselves.

I had another realization tonight, one that others who sleep under the blanket of depression may be able to relate with. Many days we want to just stay under that blanket. We set up camp there and start to question if anything exists outside of it. Some days we wonder if it's even worth trying to find out. That feeling can settle deep in one's bones at this time of year when the winter nights crowd out what's left of the daylight. It's the same feeling that accompanied my sickness this weekend.

But as I sat there in the concert hall tonight with my eyes closed, surrendering my sadness to the music-making while tears streamed down my face, I thought, "what if I'd missed this?" What if the endless nights had won and I'd stayed trapped under that blanket? What if I'd stopped showing up? Stopped trying? Opted out altogether? I wouldn't have been here to realize there is no happiness to rival hearing your choir sing Infant Holy, Infant Lowly while holding your mother's hand.

It may sound strange, but I think the sadness is what made tonight beautiful. I used to think I loved Rembrandt's paintings because of the way he captured light. I was looking at his depiction of the nativity this weekend and understood something I'd been missing. What makes the light of his manger scene so startling, so memorable, is the depth of the darkness that surrounds it.

Perhaps in that way not just bouts of illness, but darkness and depression can carry gifts too. You can't know the sweet relief of air filling up your lungs without first fighting to breathe. You can't understand the thrill of seeing the tender green curl of what is to become an iris flower breaking through hardened earth until you've known the interminable grey of winter. And maybe you can't realize the transformative power of music until an unbroken fever sidelines you in the audience seated next to the person whose voice is the first you ever heard singing. The colors of her voice comprising the one sound in all the world you hope, at the last, to remember.