Every year we attend at least one school holiday concert, events which are as much a part of our family traditions at this time of year as seasonal music, books, and presents. School concerts are not my favorite special events. I find noisy, chaotic environments very stressful, I find it frustrating to have performances disrupted by restless toddlers and to see adults blatantly disregarding the principal’s directions to keep the aisles clear and to wait until the end of each piece for pictures (really! what kind of example does that set?), and I struggle with the ‘everyone participates’ ethos for band and choir that means there’s no baseline skill demanded — which, for the school band especially, means the playing is typically dreadful but must be applauded nonetheless. (I’m all for kids participating in band, don’t get me wrong, but not every beginning effort deserves a captive audience.) And then between the need to be inclusive and inoffensive and the difficulty (or so I assume) in acquiring rights, the music itself is hopelessly tedious pablum. Add in the likelihood of icy roads and you have a perfect storm of reasons for me to grumble and whine every time one of these events draws near.
And yet for all my grumbling, I’m always won over by the events themselves–not by any specific performance, but by the spirit they embody, by the ideal they bring so naively to life. There in the shabby school gym, on the uncomfortable plastic chairs lined up in rows that are always too close for comfort, with terrible acoustics and (except for the lucky winners of the ‘front row seat’ lottery) pretty poor visibility too, we are brought together because we love our children. Different as we may be from each other in some respects, this is something we in the gym share. We love them, and we want them to flourish. We cherish their innocence and the wide-eyed delight with which they look out at a familiar space transformed for them by our presence. On these occasions we also get a glimpse of the life they lead without us: we see their trust for their teachers and their friendships with each other. Though they sing for us, they sing with each other, and there is no more beautiful, more hopeful sound.
I was busy with work and put off writing about the concert we went to last week. Then on Friday, like everyone else I was overwhelmed with the news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then it has been very hard to think about how or what to write – not just about the school concerts, but about anything. There’s a sense, of course, in which that terrible event has nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t presume to have anything special or useful or important to say about it. But I don’t know how to not say anything about it at all and just go back to writing about my life and my books and all the rest of it without at least acknowledging it. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” says Donne in his famous Meditation. The deaths of these beautiful, innocent children and the brave, dedicated women who loved and cared for them diminish us all.