The Agony and the Sehnsucht: How I find the Fabulous in the Common

Laura’s beautiful post on sehnsucht got me thinking this week (if you haven’t read it yet, you should! My post will make much more sense!).

What is it that allows me to find fabulous in the common?

It has been a particularly challenging couple of weeks. So digging down to find beauty in cleaning up the 37th pile of cat puke or the 102nd glass of spilled soapy-glitter-water-fairy-dust-concoction may have produced a few mumbled expletives and much more yelling and fist pounding than was necessary.

So, I started watching for the transcendent beauty around me.

Sigh.

I wish I could say that I find all my inspiration in the sweet smell of sehnsucht wafting out of a panoramic sunset, woven through the tiny intricacies of a monarch resting in Nick’s garden, or intertwined with Lidia’s infectious laugh.

But I can’t.

Often now, this soul-nourishing beauty is crushing, deflating and debilitating. I return to my life, look around, and can only see the drabness, the endless monotony and frustrations. I think partly it is the season of life in which I find myself, where the sum of my daily efforts do not culminate in a beautiful aria that allows people to reach out to infinity. Right now, because of the huge number of pressing, urgent daily needs, it is so easy to get lost in the world that only surrounds my immediate family. However, over the past few days, I spent a lot of time thinking and rediscovering the lens through which I am able to discern the fabulous hiding in the common.

I need to see the agony of real life juxtaposed with the beautiful foreshadowing hope of sehnsucht. Then I need to let this juxtaposition inspire me to confront the agony and work to bring the reality closer to the hope.


I first experienced this my senior year of high school when I spent two weeks at The Channel, a school for kids living in a favela of Fortaleza, Brazil. I spent the entire trip completely dumbfounded. I had never before seen such extreme poverty right next to such extreme wealth. I had never seen such pain. Such despair. Yet, I honestly had never seen such hope, drive and joy as I did in the kids who attended the school. At the school, the kids were told they were important and their life had a purpose. They were given a hope, a glimpse of what should be. They all lived in a nightmare, but those kids did not let the darkness engulf them. They looked outside of themselves, saw the light in each other, and helped carry the pain of their friends and family. Despite the darkness, the sehnsucht let them see even the tiniest bit of light and beauty in the most common things – homework, laughing with a friend, a bowl of bland rice, a barefoot game of soccer.

 It completely changed me.

There is something forcefully moving for me when I am reminded of the depths of the darkness that exists in the world. It drives me out of my narcissistic pity party. It puts my challenges into perspective and helps me distinguish between real hardship and mere irritation. It allows me to see my prosperity more clearly and share it with others. It helps me identify, ask for and accept when I really need help. The menial, monotonous and mundane tasks that make up most of what I do each day suddenly seem like a gift, because the utter darkness makes even the faintest light seem like a beacon. Suddenly, sehnsucht is not a taunting spotlight that only serves to illuminates how lacking my life is, but is the aspiring hope that gives me the inspiration to fight the darkness.

I really only want to see the beautiful. But I realize that I need to accept them both together, the agony and the sehnsucht. The excruciating beauty that ignores the present reality makes my life seem unbearably common. Facing the agony without the hope leaves me utterly forlorn. Sehnsucht gives life meaning and hope. Agony forces me to have drive and purpose.


I think this is why we are called to bear each other’s burdens. It is why it is so important to us that we cultivate a habit of service and outward thinking in our girls. This is why we are filling up our garage with other people’s garbage. This is why I love organizations like The Channel and Preemptive Love Coalition, who confront the agony, but inspire us with the hope and beauty of sehnsucht.

Because it helps me to see the fabulous in my own common, and inspires me to diminish the agony of others. If I could only just remember. 😉

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Sehnsucht: The ultimate in finding Fabulous in the Common.

I’m not a particularly “feely” person. A friend of mine described how I function with emotions as a “low reactor”. It takes quite a bit to get me upset/mad/sad/lonely. I remember getting really mad for the first time in college. My poor, sweet (although totally deserving in the situation) brother was the first victim of Furious Laura. She hasn’t shown up much throughout my lifetime, although Disgusted Laura makes regular appearances (see Inside Out for more reference). I always say I feel positive emotions very deeply and find the negative emotions pointless and unhelpful. (This should help explain why the turmoil and frustration of the vocal transition has been so difficult for me. I HATE crying, especially when its over the same thing over and over and doesn’t fix what I’m crying about or when I wasn’t prepared to cry or don’t know exactly which issue is making me cry. Negative emotions are ridiculous. sigh)

HOWEVER, one of the most amazing parts of what I do is that it gives me regular access to one of my favorite emotional experiences.

The experience of Sehnsucht.
The word Sehnsucht is a word for which I haven’t found succinct English equivalent and brings together my Faith, (as spoken through my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis), love of my career in opera, and the beautiful and real experience I have when listening to music that touches my soul. Sehnsucht is a German word that embodies a huge theme in all of Lewis’s writings. For Lewis, Sehnsucht was the sense of deep, inconsolable longing, yearning, the feeling of intensely missing something when we don’t even know what it is. I found a blog post that explains his ideas on it pretty well. It is also related to his experiences of joy:

“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” – Surprised by Joy

I think most people have experienced this sometime in their life. I describe this intangible concept as a moment of sheer bliss or contentment, that only lasts a moment, but begs for more. I often feel it when driving through beautiful areas with the windows down. Also, when I get engulfed by a piece of music I’m listening to that is especially beautiful or meaningful. It can even happen when I’m overwhelmed by warm, fresh wind. I love wind. I love standing in the impact of something I cannot see, but obviously know is there. It is such a beautiful representation of my experience with God.

The opera world also uses this concept. I remember learning about it back in undergrad at St. Olaf. Alice Hanson, the BEST and most terrifying teacher I have ever had (who passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of St. Olaf music majors who remember more from her lectures than all of our other classes combined), explained it as a concept of the Romantic Era, especially in regards to Wagner. Richard Wagner used themes or “leitmotifs” in his operas; these are musical melodies or chords that represent characters, items, or concepts. They are the groundwork for his operas. He introduces a leitmotif, repeats it, develops it, and combines it with other leitmotifs to represent the coming together of two people, or an object with its owner, or a character and the emotion they are feeling. It is brilliant. This made Wagner my favorite composer to study. The more you learn about the music, the more you love it.

Wagner wrote a “Sehnsucht” motif in The opera, Tristan und Isolde. Sehnsucht is also connected with the romantic concept of “Liebestod”, which refers to the theme of erotic death or “love death” meaning the two lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. It is also representative of sexual fulfillment/climax. Yep, opera is basically about sex and death. It’s super sexy. Go buy tickets.

I love that this concept is not only felt when listening to music, but also in the construct of it. This is why it is one of my favorite words. I am toying with the idea of getting a very small tattoo of this word. Yes, mom and opera world, it would be done so it is easy to cover up or hidden from others.

I recently found this quote about one of THE great sopranos, Maria Callas:

“Of all the female singers, Callas’s expressiveness, the intensity of her performance ‘was such that for him time stood momentarily still, keeping at bay fear – even fear of death – and thereby promoting a state of happiness and a feeling of immortality’ Callas embodied the most extreme feeling of “Sehnsucht” (yearning), yet simultaneously the fulfillment of “Sehnsucht”.”

I LOVE this. Callas was a complete performer. She threw herself into every character and every performance. Even if her singing wasn’t perfect, she left the audience in tears. When I lived in Italy, Claudia, the mother of the family I stayed with, put on a recording of Callas singing Bellini’s “Casta Diva”. She sat with me, doing some sewing, and silently cried at the beauty of the music pouring through the speakers. This memory will never leave me. It inspires me to continue trying to “let go” when singing and to barrel forward with complete and genuine commitment to each moment, with each character. THIS is how Callas gave the world Sehnsucht. It does not come from technical perfection or mechanically calculated singing. My brain that desires those things needs to take a back seat to my love of the Sehnsucht experience and my desire to give this to others. It’s time for Joyful Laura to take the reins. 

The Dirty Truth About Working From Home

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The start of this blog fell smack in the middle of a grant-writing consultancy. I knew it. I thought about it for about 14 seconds. Then I shrugged my shoulders and decided to start the blog anyway, knowing I wouldn’t be able to post anything until I turned in my draft. In a way, it was a good reminder of the dirty truth about working from home.

When I first started working from home, I thought, “This is amazing! I don’t have to pay for daycare, I get to spend wonderful quality time doing all kinds of inspiring projects with my kids and I get to have the freedom to work whenever and pick and choose my jobs! I can have it all!”

Wrong.

The dirty truth is, working from home while trying to stay home full time with the girls is a lot less fun and much, much harder than I ever expected.

Being home full time, in particular, is very challenging. It’s actually really hard for me to admit this. I have a LOT of fun at home with my kids. We go to the beach in the middle of the week. I get to have coffee with friends on play dates. I can hang out in my jammies all day and sleep in on those rare days that my kids also sleep in. Nick and I both gladly made the choice together that we would make financial sacrifices so I could stay home.

But…

I find myself constantly feeling I need to validate my usefulness to society, justify the thousands of dollars spent on my master’s degree, and to do something each day that cannot be undone by sticky, boogery little hands.

I grew up desperately wanting to stay home to raise children while simultaneously travel to exciting places and do big, important things. I knew somewhere in my subconscious that these two things were simultaneously incompatible. But the desire for both is still there. So when Nick started his graduate program 5 years ago, partly out of the necessity to bring in supplemental income and partly to satisfy my need to feel useful, I created a watered down version of both these desires. I found myself trying hard to do both things and doing neither very well.

I plunked my kids in front of the TV or, when I felt guilty about the amount of TV they were watching, I would stay up into the wee hours of the morning while I worked frantically on meeting a grant deadline. Cleaning stopped. Doing dishes stopped. Laundry stopped. Cooking stopped. Enjoying my children and husband stopped.  Exercise stopped. Sleeping stopped. Enjoying life stopped.

Then I would spend the next two weeks after a consultancy trying to piece our life back together and cleaning up the mess left behind. If I had enough time in between consultancies, we would reestablish some sense of routine and normalcy, and enjoy some beautiful time together before everything started all over again.

Surviving.

I feel like we’ve been just surviving for years now, probably due to the lethal combination of my terrible habit of overcommitting myself, Nick’s incredibly intense doctoral program, being very financially strapped, and discovering all three children have some major health issue.

Everything came to an explosive halt this past fall. I completely broke down. Nick shut down.  The girls melted down. It was ugly. Something had to change.

We are slowly working out a new normal. I am spending time alone NOT working. I started running and taking pilates. Nick and I started having dates again. I started doing creative projects with the girls again. I am cultivating friendships. I am working on saying no to projects that have too short of a deadline and trust that the money will come when we need it. I am considering other work possibilities. I am spending more time in prayer.

But mostly, I am changing my attitude. There was a time when I was focused on living vibrantly in the now – realizing that every moment is a gift that may not be here tomorrow. I easily forget these things when my survival mentality creeps back in. But then I read something that reminds me, like a punch to the gut.

I am looking for the joy and sacredness in the tediousness of things I do not enjoy and am not very good at – never-ending laundry, wiping poopy butts, washing dirty dishes, constantly dumping pee out of the little potty, the endless cooking and living in a house that is never quite organized or clean.

Much like my sister, I am working on being patient with myself when I work really hard at things that feel like they are never going to change.

It’s a work in progress. But I’m learning to realize that is okay, too.

 

Two sisters. Divergent lives. Exposing the fabulous. Savoring the common. Eliminating the Fear Of Missing Out.