Lessons from a Lullaby

I’m sure it’s safe to say that every culture across the globe has its own lullabies. And that mothers have been singing their children to sleep since the dawn of civilization. If your ancestors hail from a certain country or tribe, you may know the traditional lullabies. Or perhaps your mother made up her own songs. Or maybe she just hummed. But singing while rocking a child comes naturally.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that my three babies were choosy about their lullabies. I’d always assumed I would just sing the tried-and-true tunes I’d heard as a child, but when my son was born, he’d have none of those. In desperation, I started pulling all kinds of songs out of my memory banks, and guess which one he liked the best? A song I doubt many of you know, and even fewer of you can sing. It’s a wonder I can sing it. It’s called “I Still See Elisa,” and came from the movie musical Paint Your Wagon, which is anything but a kids’ show!  In the film, the song is sung (badly) by Clint Eastwood. He’s warbling about his lost love. And only to Elisa would my restless son settle down.

My oldest daughter was an easy baby from the moment she was born. She was perfectly happy just to hear me hum that old standard, “Brahms’ Lullaby.” But my younger daughter has always had a mind of her own. She tested and discarded every one of my ballads and ditties, until I finally resorted to a song I’d taught myself by rewinding a recording of a movie about Houdini. It’s called “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel,” and was written in 1893. Yes, the nineteenth century! Who knows, maybe my daughter had a previous life and remembered that tune in its heyday. But when I would sing Rosie, she would pop her thumb in her mouth and slowly close her eyes.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that art is so subjective that even babies have their preferences? We are hardwired to love the things we do, and while parents, peers, and community can influence our choices, there is something deep inside us that just knows what we like when we hear it. Or see it or write it or experience it.

So love the art you love, with no apologies. If you’re an adult who likes to read comic books, do so on the subway. Own it. If you’re a twelve-year old who prefers Shakespeare, go ahead and quote it to your friends. If your kid loves rap, and you just can’t imagine why, let him listen to it. Don’t judge. Who knows, maybe someone someday will introduce you to a type of art you’d always assumed you’d hate, and you’ll find that you like it. Be open, be curious, be accepting. Art is for everyone. It knows no time or cultural boundaries. So make the art you love and engage with the art you love, and if your kid won’t sleep, try an old Queen song. You never know.

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