The Axe and the Frozen Sea


Back when my two daughters were listening to Green Day, 98 Degrees and Blink 182, they had all the feelings surging through that music–anxiety, excitement, pouty anger, self-consciousness and of course an enormous need to be loved. Pop music gave voice to all those inexpressible feelings.

As a father I often felt helpless to reach my children, as though they were behind a glass wall. I wanted to assure them that all the problems they faced were real but ephemeral. I wanted to explain how most of their troubles were created from the inside, from fear and worry and doubt, and that the only way to banish those external troubles was to go deep inside, fearlessly, and meet your own self. But of course there is no way to say those things to young women, twelve and fourteen. Instead I introduced them to another heartthrob, Brahms.

I wanted them to hear music that didn’t simply express one’s raw feelings (as good as that is). I wanted them to hear a music that broke open the heart and revealed its depths. Franz Kafka said that a great book “must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I knew music could do that, could help you find your own soul so that all the problems swirling outside didn’t matter so much anymore. And I knew about the only thing that mattered to them was music.

Maggy and Sharon did not really want to hear Brahms, so I made an appointment, a date. I asked them to come with me after dinner one night, to lie on the floor in front of the woofing speakers, to turn off the lights and listen to Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” They accepted.

We lay in the dark, enveloped in sound. I whispered, “Here is the theme he stole from Haydn—just an oboe to start. Listen. It will come back, again and again.” They lay still for eighteen minutes, long enough to find the pattern, to go with the theme as it skittered and morphed, whimpered and roared, cried out and broke through into fulfillment, long enough so that Brahms’ axe battered at least a crack in the frozen adolescent sea within.

I am telling this story because last week Brahms’ “Variations” was playing on my Pandora station, and Sharon smiled. “Hey Dad,” she said, “our music!”

I was not very good at talking with my daughters. Their mother was much better. I wanted too much to talk sense to them, to point out what was obviously wrong, and no one wants to talk to someone like that. I had no language for the really big things I wanted to say–which was about my own fears for them and the choices they must make, my wish to give them all the experience I had fallen to find, my hope that they might grow into deeply souled women. A man with a heart full of such longings stands before his adolescent daughters mute. What to do when nothing can be said?

This once I did not try to tell someone what I knew, but to show them what I loved.

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