"I've looked at life from both sides now,
from win and lose, and still somehow
it's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all"
-- Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now"
The lyrics from Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" have been embedded in my mind since the winter when I first sang the song to The Baby in lieu of her traditional lullabies. The song has haunted and awakened me over the years.
I used to sing it to my older three children when they were younger, too. And occasionally Henry, my 12-year-old, when riddled with school anxiety and longing to be wrapped in the comforts of simpler days, will request that I curl up with him and sing: "Sing the song about how you really don't know anything."
I remember when Henry was 4 years old and begging me to stay just a little longer in his bed with him, to sing "just one more song." I had pulled "Both Sides Now" out of my hat, having exhausted my repertoire of children's tunes. At the end of the song, he lifted his head off my shoulder where it had finally become heavy -- so close to yielding to sleep -- and, he looked me square in the eyes with the greatest concern.
"Mommy, do you really not know life, at all?" I laughed, because he was worried that I was confessing to being ill equipped to guide him, to parent him. At the time, I was convinced that I knew everything about life that I would ever need to know. I was a mother, after all. "It is just a song, honey. I didn't write it. It's not about me."
And, that was true, back then.
I would not be able to answer Henry's question today with the same assurance. For the first time in a very long time, I have been struggling to figure out my place in the world (yes, the whole gigantic world). I know that I am a mother, a role that I once played with the utmost confidence and ability. In their much younger years, I beheld my children in terms of the whimsical beings they were and the potential I dreamed them to hold for the future. They were little clouds, softly shaping into architects, doctors, professors.
But then, they started to grow up. They formed their own ideas about the world and the meaning of life. I realized that I could no longer teach, much less keep up with, the subjects they were studying in school. They would soon surpass me in breadth and depth of knowledge of all things worldly and otherworldly.
Of course, this is important, because I may one day need them to take care of me and help my feeble mind make sense of the changing world.
Then in the whirlwind of all of their growing, we welcomed The Baby into our family. She declared, in no uncertain terms, that the game had changed -- that all we held to be infallible in parenting over the past 14 years had to be abandoned in order to navigate through the muddle of her high needs. In the midst of fighting to press through exhaustion and then dealing with my own chronic ailments (vertigo, migraines, a persistent gnawing pain in my gut), I was left reeling under the realization that there were so many things I was no longer certain of.
There is a reason why certain songs resurface and stick at particular moments when we toil in our humanness. I believe this one is telling me to reconcile the dream and the reality and to make peace with the knowing and the not-knowing.
It is not an easy undertaking. But, I know it is an essential part of learning how to embrace who I am now and to be open to who I can become.
Now, when I cradle The Baby at night and "sing the song about how I really don't know anything," it means so much more to me, and the words catch in my throat.