My high school daughter's choir concert starts at the same time as my junior high son's playoff basketball game. My four kids are eager to know which one I'll choose. "Concerts only come once a year," I say. "More basketball games will come later." They look a little disappointed not to be able to interpret this logic as unfair, although my daughter chants, "I'm more important!"
I live in a small town, an island in Maine where fishing dominates - and starkness. Almost daily, I wonder why I'm raising four kids in such an isolated area. To get to our island, a bridge arches over a reach of lobster boats, with wives' names scrolled on the sterns for luck.
But it's when I come over this reach that I'm reminded why I chose to live here. I'm hoping to install within my children a deep appreciation for the ocean and wind, the dark islands of crimson berry bushes, and the boats gently floating on a cold blue sea.
It's not a community that gravitates toward the arts - literature, music, drama, dance, or innovation. Art talent exists in tiny pockets of women and men who, out of the vacuum, can sing so richly the rest of us are startled, a part of ourselves unlocked by the key of voice. But most of us are ruled by basketball.
Even I, the volunteer art teacher who makes kids draw, paint, sculpt, and perform, am disappointed to miss the playoffs to go to a concert instead.
I go because I should model support for the arts over sports, although up until the last minute I keep trying to figure out how I could do both. And envying my spouse who says, as if he weren't going to choose basketball anyway, "Well, since you're going to the concert, I'll go to the game." He laughs; I just look wistful.
I go to the concert in the gym and sit among the rows of empty metal seats. The dozen girls will sing, flutter, and chirp, their hair shining, clothes neat. High school girls. Five people attend. Five in the two towns, out of 100 kids' parents. No one is surprised.
"Come on in!" the girls call to the janitor, "Have a seat if you can find one!" Even though someone is saying the director should've put out more flyers, I know no amount of advertising would've made a difference. People are too busy with basketball to pay attention to music, a dismissed nonnecessity. Someone else can deal with its purposelessness. A minute ago, I wanted to go to the playoffs with everyone to cheer and watch the athletes; now I'm outraged at the empty gym. Where are the parents, at least!
The young women sing. They've learned to sing since last year's faltering, giggling attempt. Two of the girls have never needed to learn; their notes spring forth like a gift. They sing high and together, sweet and lovely, like angels, and they absorb me, make me shiver, as if this show is just for me, and it is. The game, my other kids, the absence of mothers slip away and nothing on Earth is present for the moment but song, which is the purpose of music, immersion for a small while into the deep running chord of beauty.
Although a large audience would've been nice for the girls singing in their dress-up clothes, what matters to me is that I got to be here, and that they sing at least once in their lives like this: together, blended, perfect. Like ripples from a stone dropped in water, their music goes forth into darkness as light, as youth, hopeful, incandescent, and subtly changing the world with a generosity of soul, of expression, no more payment expected than what the small purple finch expects, trilling at the top of a spruce by itself in the afternoon, and I the lucky audience below.