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This Is Your Minstrelsy

Ilúvatar said again: “Behold your music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.”

The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I have a vivid memory of rocking my baby to sleep one spring evening, years ago. There were many nights I rocked her. She was a child who craved closeness. First-time mother though I was, I recall instinctively feeling that this was appropriate. But a large number of the parenting books I was reading suggested that after being changed, fed, and tended, my baby should be content without my presence. If she was not content, these published experts told me, something must be wrong—either with her health or with my parenting methods which could potentially harm her health. My little baby was rarely happy on her own and alone, and thus a small prodding concern led me to approach my pediatrician about it. He answered abruptly, almost dismissively, and with a sideways kind of chuckle: “She’s fine. She just likes you.”

Twenty some years later, looking back on my experiences as a mother, I now see that this was one among many instances in which I can perceive the hand of God in my life, and I thank Him for it. It is possible (perhaps) that I could have encountered a less laissez-faire doctor, one who might have sent me down a very different road from the one upon which I found myself as a parent. With that single answer, he affirmed for me that all was well; that it was perfectly normal for a newborn to yearn for her mother’s breast or her father’s cradling arms, and not only that, but that it was—as I instinctively knew it to be—good.

It was good that we should like one another.

We only saw that pediatrician a few times, moments that could be numbered on one hand beginning from the somewhat nervous interview my husband and I had with him before our baby’s birth through her fifth month of life. Yet had he answered that one question in another way, had he been a different sort of man, I might not be where I am today—a homeschooling mother who has listened to that doctor’s echoing voice over of the course of more than two decades confirming for me that spending lots of time with my children, being physically close to them, cultivating them in a home environment, and tending to their needs as they grow, is fine. It’s appropriate. We like each other.

We do not, of course, always get along. We do not always see eye-to-eye. But we perceive the idea of spending our days working side-by-side together as perfectly normal, natural, healthy, and suitable. We get on each other’s nerves sometimes. But who doesn’t? We hurt one another’s feelings, even…but again, who doesn’t? We step on each other’s toes, say the wrong things accidentally as well as rebelliously and on purpose, we misread and miscommunicate. We make mistakes. It is okay. We know that living and learning close to one another as a family means that at times things will be a little messy, because life is messy. We are messy. We forgive, extend grace, and work together to become better companions on life’s journey…for whatever portion of it is granted to us to share.

It is good that we should endeavor together.

So I rocked all my babies. I rocked them a lot. But on that particular evening that I remember so clearly, I also prayed. It was a prayer that I look back upon as pivotal. Just as that doctor’s answer gently nudged me down a path of assurance and blessing, I am convinced that prayer changed the course of my life. I remember the prayer because, to be honest, it was probably the first genuinely heartfelt petition I ever made that really wasn’t about me. It is difficult to explain, but I am sure the vast majority of parents will intuitively understand it: the kind of prayer that recognizes both one’s own very grave responsibility to another and at the same time recognizes one’s own complete inadequacy for the task.

As a new mother, I felt my identity—the very definition of my ‘self’—had undergone a transformation. I was still me, and yet somehow I had also participated in a metamorphosis: I was now someone else’s parent, a someone who was an extension of me in flesh and blood yet I could hold outside myself in my arms. Suddenly, I was both myself and simultaneously what seemed to have been in the very center of myself was outside me. The child whom I had dreamed and day-dreamed about, who had squirmed and kicked and prodded me, the child with whom I had already bonded and whom God had knit together within me while I had carried on with daily life, was now still the same, but different; an integral part of me had separated and become a radically-different-from me, authentic “other.”

My care of her would not stop now that she was beside me. In fact, more care would be required of me, and in a sharply different , conscious, and intentional way compared with how I had nurtured her in the womb. I was astounded by this miracle as well as overcome by it. One thing I knew as I rocked her was that just as the Lord had formed her by means so profound they were behind my comprehension, He would be necessary for her continued sustenance and growth outside of my body. I would feed, clothe, and sustain her physically. I would love her, nourish her, and cherish her. But without God’s supernatural presence in her life, without the very breath of His Spirit, I knew she would not live.

At the time I was unchurched; in fact I was in large part uninstructed. There was no discernible reason that I can see for what happened next. A prayer came, almost unbidden, from a deep well of yearning. I prayed that God would guide and guard this miracle of life; that He would lay and bless the stones of the path for me to follow, because I knew that I not only was fairly blind to the appropriate way but lacked the means. The prayer that day surprised me, rising out of me fully articulated, but unplanned and unanticipated, like a sudden melody that unexpectedly comes out in a song. So I sang as I prayed that I could teach her charity, loving-kindness, humility, mercy, justice, and above all truth. I asked that by God’s grace, He would help me aim her towards eternity.

I now realize that prayer was the beginning of our homeschooling; it was the pathway He laid for us. Looking back, that moment not only marked an ebenezer of my soul, but of my life and of my family. That was for me a completely unintended, revolutionary moment of submission, accompanied by a profound desire not just for my own obedience but for the obedience of my child…of all my children and my children’s children.

It is good that I should pray for my children.

That evening came at a point in my life when I used to write poems, when I thought perhaps I would cultivate that craft. Through that single spontaneous prayer, God gave me the gift of perceiving that poetry lives, breathes, speaks, embraces, feasts, laughs, loves, and sings: children are poetry; people are poems, conceived by God before the beginning of time and sustained daily in His form, meter, and harmony.

It is good that we should, in our different keys, subtly varying meters, and reverberating with the tones of our individual melodies, make music in fellowship.

You don’t need to home school, of course, to make such music. But it is, above all other reasons, why our family has chosen to home educate. We keep our children in close, tandem, composition for their instruction, sometimes forming chords and sometimes composing counterpoint, at times discordant but always moving towards resolution. We do it because one evening long ago, as I rocked my first-born, God granted me a prayer: it is as though He said to me, ‘This is your minstrelsy.’

It is good that I should teach my children.

Thus my husband and I educate our children, God’s poeima, not primarily to prepare them for anything that they might do, but to walk alongside them as they become who they are meant to be. As Archibald MacLeish once penned in Ars Poetica:

A poem should not mean
But be.

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