That Time You Looked For Your Life -- Why I want a Reverend Mother
There’s this chunk in The Sound of Music that both excites and unnerves me. It’s when Maria is in Reverend Mother’s office after having bailed on the Von Trapp kids over her conflicted feelings for the Captain. Reverend Mother, in all of her hallowed wisdom, says to Maria that she must “go back, face her problems, and live the life she was born to live.” She then breaks into “Climb Every Mountain” for what can feel like fifteen minutes depending on one’s mood. Later on, Maria, in the Captain’s arms says, “The Reverend Mother always says, 'when the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window’ ” Then the Captain is all (in that super sensuous tone of his) “What else does the Reverend Mother say?” At which Maria responds, “That you have to look for your life.” "Is that why you came back?” the Captain asks. Maria nods. “And have you found it, Maria?” he further asks. “I think I have,” she says, and then she adds adamantly, “I know I have.”
As a child, none of this dialogue mattered to me. In fact, the passionate kissing that followed weirded me out. (Why was Mary Poppins kissing the pigeon from An American Tail?) I just wanted to get back to “The Lonely Goatherd.” Today, however, I get stuck on those loaded words: “you have to look for your life” as if the destiny they imply is something I may not have achieved, or worse, is something attainable only to a select number of worthy recipients.
At 42-years-old, I don’t have a Reverend Mother to push me toward the life I’m meant to live. I mostly wing my stint on this side of the bigger picture. I wish I did have a Reverend Mother, though -- someone who could nudge me along and reinforce what I think I hear my heart singing. My daughter is in a mega Sound of Music phase right now, determined to learn all the words to “The Lonely Goatherd” and master yodeling by the end of the fourth grade. That’s her destiny. That’s what moves her heart -- unquestionably. Meanwhile, stuck on “look for your life,” my questions are mounting: What does that even mean... “look for your life?” Will I know it when I find it? Have I already found it -- years ago -- and I’m living it right now? Moreover, do I have a “Captain?” -- something I’m avoiding, something right in front of me, that will breathe into me the life I was born to live? Like that little quote pinned to so many bulletin boards or taped to so many laptops: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figured out why.” Do I -- will I -- know life when I see it?
Reverend Mother, are you there?
It may sound silly to some to ask such questions in your forties, when family and home have been well established for years, and when life looks like and is frequently wrapped in a tight bow. But just as infrequently, life isn’t, and a woman in her forties, who has experienced plenty of happiness, who has lived with a heart full of music, who experiences sensations of happiness each day, might still find herself looking for more, expectant but equally timid.
I recently shared with someone my path over the last twenty years and how its twists and turns make me dizzy when I think about them. They aren’t even twists and turns, really. They’re more like contrasting choices and phases that resemble the complexity of a patchwork quilt. And yet, somehow these bold blotches of time -- various careers, babies, adventures -- make up my story. They are as whole as they are separate. But I think we eventually reach a point where we don’t want a patchwork quilt. We no longer want twists in the story. One day we just want to stop running to the next place -- sort of like when Forrest Gump suddenly quit running cross-country and went home. Yet, if you’re anything like me -- restless, unable to commit to a right or left turn for too long (unable to face tough questions), how do you know when the life you were meant to live is looking for you at the bend? And worse, what if you miss it?
When I was around seven-years-old, I sent a tape recording of myself singing all the songs from The Sound of Music (in full Julie Andrews English dialect no doubt) to my oldest sister, who was living in Utah at the time. I remember sitting there on my bed, surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals, making the tape and just bursting with music, unconcerned with how loud or how ridiculous I might have sounded. I was just me being me. I might as well have been Maria, alone on that mountain, so content was I in my own little corner of my own little life. And I think life, in moments like that, does look back at us and smile. I think it is there in the places where we forget time that life waits, hopeful and diligent, for us to follow. I’ve seen life’s unwavering glances back at me. When I write into the early morning, when my teenage son throws his arms around me and tells me he loves me, when my middle man, my rascal, laughs that rascally, middle man laugh of his, when my daughter asks for “one more chapter” at bedtime, when my sisters and I act like buffoons together during the holidays, and when my husband and I pop a bottle of extra dry champagne and look around at the sleeping dogs, silly children, and the home in which it all happens. Life does look back at us. Life does stop the hours and creates a pause long enough for us to hear its whisper to lean in for more. I know this because I’ve felt it before. You have, too, whenever you’ve lost yourself in a moment so authentic to your story that it makes your heart sing.
So why am I so scared? Why does the phrase, “look for your life,” rattle me with such intimidation?
I think the answer lies in those twists and turns and within the stitches of a path resembling a patchwork quilt. We know that we’ve ignored life’s look back at us before because of fear -- fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of settling, and fear of what success might mean. We also know that we’ve followed life before and found disappointment instead of opportunity. Life isn’t just the pretty notes in a song. So why would where life is beckoning us to follow this time be any less vulnerable?
The truth is, it wouldn’t be. Not if it’s anything worth seeking.
Maria’s romantic feelings threw her off course. Her plan all along was to be a nun. Then comes the suave Captain with his whistle and seven singing rugrats and Maria’s plan falls flat. I’ve read that the real story is that Maria didn’t love the Captain at all. She loved the children and married him anyway (at the urging of Reverend Mother) but eventually grew to love him deeply and went on to have three more children with him. How did the Reverend Mother know that was going to happen? Seriously, I gotta get me one of those all-knowing nuns... Maybe I should be a nun?!
The truth is that I shouldn’t be a nun and that what I couldn’t see as a child, studying Maria’s accent and memorizing lyrics, is that what led Maria to that mountain each morning and what opened her heart to another plan was the buoyancy in accepting risk. There’s just something about entering the unknown that keeps us on our toes. It may be scary as hell, but what’s scarier is never having ventured out at all -- missing the mountains, skipping out on love, and forgetting what it feels like to live. Maybe life is dizzying twists and turns and patchwork patterns. Maybe life is plans that fall flat but rebound as new ones that succeed in ways far too magnificent for our simple planning to predict.
I know enough to know that even Maria’s life definitely had its share of “suckage” after she found it. She had to flee Austria from the Nazis for one thing. I mean, that’s pretty hard to overlook. Life, wherever I find it, when I find it, won’t always be scripted with dandy little music numbers thrown in. I also know that Maria had a whole life before the Captain, a life filled with music and prayer and play and loads of all the tiny elements that prepared her for her second act as a Von Trapp. Like Maria, I will likely find life again and again. As will you. Some of us display the complexity of a patchwork quilt. Others have an astonishingly straight path. Neither is more worthy than the other for an even greater life.
Life looks back at us every day, probably so often that we needn’t look too hard to find it. Maybe we’re too busy questioning its validity to see it in its splendor.
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