From Both Sides Now

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Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now – I’ve had it in my head since Thanksgiving.

Rationale:

  • Thanksgiving begins the American holiday season.  (Duh.)
  • Love Actually is a Christmas movie.
  • Both Sides Now is in Love Actually.
  • Both Sides Now is now a Christmas song by proxy.
  • You can totally start playing Christmas music and movies after Thanksgiving.
  • Both Sides Now has been in my head since November.

I like this song.  It’s a little sadder and feels a shade more defeated than my typical world view, but I’m attracted to the premise, and I think the writing’s great.  Let’s talk about both sides, now.

Lately I’ve been thankful to God for the unique ways in which he’s allowed me to see and experience life from both sides of particular situations – it compounds my compassion, my empathy.  Any of us fortunate enough to grow up will see any number of things differently over time.  Life looks different as an adult than it did as a child, as a teenager – but I’m talking about really specific scenarios.  Those “I never thought I would be here, doing this” moments – I feel like I’ve had a few of those, and they often run in direct opposition to the place I thought I’d be.  Sometimes I find myself literally sitting on the other side of the table.

The scope of my views from the other side (oh hey, Adele.  Don’t worry, this post is positively packed with references to powerful words from female contributors, but this is the only cheesy nod.  I swear) ranges from simply humorous, to a strengthened ability to show grace to others because I’ve been in their shoes, to deeper, life-altering perceptions of the way I think about life, my faith, and my purpose.  I’m grateful for my time on both sides.  Because both can be so important.

Here are a few my-story-specific situations I’ve been thinking about.

When the pain that came with knowledge that Hayes would live with us forever was fresh and raw, and I would see mothers lamenting over their sons and daughters leaving for college, or indeed growing up and away in other ways, it was hard.  I didn’t see death; I didn’t recognize a veritable tragedy to lament here.  I admit, I struggled.

But a few nights ago, I found an old picture of Knox and missed him terribly – both the boy sleeping in the next room and every moment that had already passed with him.  The picture was just a few months old, but in that short time he’d grown up so much.  I reflected for the millionth time on the very short amount of time he will be little.  I can only gather him in my arms for so long, carry him to our bed when he has bad dreams for so long; and soon those days will be gone.  It’s not a tragedy, but it’s an ache.

I’ve attended countless meetings as a teacher to assess, review, and dismiss components of individualized education plans for my students with special needs.  I remember the determination in the eyes of the parents I’d meet.  When I attend these same meetings, now occupying the chair I once pitied, the same teacher’s heart beats inside my chest, and with my paperwork I carry in the memories of caring for someone else’s child as if they were mine.  I’m aware that interaction with their child’s teachers and school administrations isn’t always positive for parents, but I know from the other side there are still lots of teachers who aren’t just there to have summers off, who do believe in their students, and who try their best to help each one achieve.  (Too often, I see many of them exhaust themselves for their students and still be told they’re not doing enough, but that’s another post for another time.)  Now I look for the determination in the eyes of my son’s teachers.

I’ve been the frustrated, underpaid daycare worker and preschool teacher waiting on a mother (who may or may not have known my name) after I’ve held and cared for her child all day.  I’ve been the frazzled parent running late and forgetting, for the third time that week, more diapers when I pick my kids up in the afternoon.

I’ve been the working mother; I’ve been the stay-at-home mother.  I’ve wanted to help someone but been to scared to offer, and I’ve desperately needed help and benefited from those brave enough to reach out.  I’ve said “I’ll never” and then plopped my dirty-faced kid into the shopping cart at 9 PM at Walmart on a Tuesday night.

I don’t know how to grow without self-examination, and sometimes the process is really uncomfortable.  (I’ll probably read this post in a few years with absolute mortification.) A few nights ago I recorded a podcast with the guys over at Globe and Crown, and we touched on this a little bit.  Joey had a Both Sides, metamodern moment when a boy stopped him at work and he suddenly saw himself through the eyes of a youth he could have identified with/as.  When he says “I looked down at myself,” I can’t help but imagine this scene in a figurative sense, as he, the “Suit” stands before his own younger self, a kid bent on changing the world, squinting with skeptical eyes at the sell-out lawyer.  How does he measure up?

There’s a short story by Sandra Cisneros called “Eleven” that I read as a hormonal, sentimental preteen – and one particular comparison the narrator made has always stayed with me.  She’s recounting a memory from her eleventh birthday, but she doesn’t feel eleven yet.  She imagines the years she’s lived as pennies rattling around in a old tin.  In the moment, she’s eleven, but she’s also ten, nine, eight…  I can’t separate the years and experiences I’ve lived from the person I am today.  I can’t take the pennies out. In this moment I am twenty-nine, but the sixteen year old is in there somewhere.  So is the teacher, and the working mother, and the art student, and the girl who wanted to be Nancy Drew. I loved where the podcast went as we described tension in the moments when we compared the people we’d become to the ones we thought we’d be.

While it can be uncomfortable to confront and examine, I don’t begrudge the ignorance of my younger self – how can I?  The skeptical kid cannot imagine what would possess a good man to become a Suit, because he doesn’t really even know what it is to be a man at all. “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young…”  (Thanks, J.K. Rowling via Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.) I don’t resent the people who use the word “retarded” incorrectly as a casual insult, or the parents of typical children who simultaneously mourn and celebrate their children’s milestones, because I’m reminded a thousand times of the things of which I know nothing.  I have friends who have lost children, experienced divorce, and struggled with infertility inquire as to how I am doing. The fact that I cannot comprehend their journey does not matter – they extend grace to me.  I am still valuable to them, even if (when, probably) I may do things that are insensitive to their new realities.

I’ve come to realize it’s important to make room for both sides.  The mother of Hayes is different from the mother of Knox, and yet I am both at the same time.  I’m grateful for the first-hand understanding that independence is a priceless, beautiful gift not given to all and also for the knowledge that when granted, it comes with small, sharp wounds – because this makes me more compassionate.  I’m thankful for the wisdom that the absence of the gift is not necessarily a curse.  As we wait for eternal reconciliation and restoration while things seem to be crumbling into pieces all around us, maybe a little bit of that redemption plan happens even now when we use those things that barb and hurt us to help bring someone else a small moment of relief or understanding.  Even though it took me awhile to get here, I’m resting in the peace of knowing that finding yourself in the chair on the other side of the table (maybe wearing a suit) isn’t the end of the world.

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