Unexpected (and much needed) Moments of Peace by Jody Casella

Confession: I'm not a huge fan of the Christmas season.

Instead of feeling peace and good will toward men, I am usually stressing about elbowing my way through crowded stores to buy gifts that no one really needs, and hauling boxes of decorations up from the basement to festoon the house that a couple of weeks later I'll be unfestooning, and gearing myself up to host out-of-town guests which involves cleaning my train wreck of a home.

Fortunately, every year there are few happy glimmers of what the Christmas Season is all about.

Our family's annual watching of It's a Wonderful Life.

The fresh piney scent of the tree (every year I say I don't want a live tree because they make such a damn mess and every year we get one and I love it.)

Buying gifts for kids at a local community center and helping at their holiday party.

Hanging out with my family and the visiting relatives. Playing cards. Making puzzles. Listening to Bing Crosby and Charlie Brown Christmas. Cooking and eating tons of food. 

Okay, I'll admit it: I like Christmas, once I get into the swing of it. 

One year I didn't think I was going to. 

We'd just moved from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio a few weeks before. Money was tight. We hadn't sold our house in Lexington yet and it looked like weren't going to for a while. The furnace in the Lexington house broke and we were afraid the pipes were going to burst. My husband kept driving back (three hours away) to deal with each new maintenance issue. 

The house in Columbus was giving us other interesting maintenance issues. The place was drafty and old and cold. So cold we were walking around, inside, wearing our coats, hats, and mittens. Snow built up on the inside of the windows and we were glad because it meant that the icy wind could no longer blow in through the window cracks.  

We had radon in the basement. The guy installing the radon pump had to drill into the attic. He poked his head up there and came rushing back down to ask me, and I quote: "Did you know you have a Circle of Life type thing going on up in your attic?" Apparently, mice, birds, and raccoons had taken up residence and left behind a 3-foot high mound of straw and feces that the home inspector had failed to notice.

Our entire backyard flooded. And froze over. 

Our kids (in 8th and 5th grade) were stressed too. They were missing all of their Lexington friends and were trying to navigate new schools and routines and social groups. 

A week before Christmas things reached a breaking point. My husband had gone back to Lexington to fix the newly broken kitchen sink. It was 6:00, and my son informed me that his school was having an orchestra concert at 7:00. He had to be there in thirty minutes.

We ran around trying to finish up dinner and get out the door. My daughter started pitching a fit because she didn't want to go to the concert.  My son didn't know what he was supposed to wear. At his old school, orchestra kids always wore white shirts and black pants. But who knew about this place. I made him wear khakis and a blue collared shirt, figuring that would work no matter what. 

I still didn't know how to get to the school without looking at a map. I drove over in the dark (no streetlights in our little town. I know. What the HELL??) There were like two million people dropping off their kids and going off to park who knows where. My daughter was still whining in the back seat. My son mentioned that he thought he was supposed to play a viola solo and he was a little nervous about it. 

The kids being let out of the cars were all wearing black and white. 

Daughter and I joined the crowd of strangers streaming into the still unfamiliar middle school. We followed the mob to the auditorium. On the way I bumped into my son, who looked out of place in his khakis in the sea of black and white. 

"Can you go back home to get my black pants?" he asked me, voice quivery.

"No," I snapped. I barely knew the way home in the dark. I didn't think I'd make it back and forth in time. Daughter was still attitude-ing by my side and I couldn't bear to drag her back outside into the cold. I'm ashamed to admit that I berated my son, something along the lines of "This is your own damn fault for telling me at the last minute about the damn concert. You need to be more responsible." Blah blah bitchy bitch. 

He shrugged dejectedly and went off to find his class.

I remembered he had a solo and realized that I hadn't wished him good luck and what kind of crap mother was I making my kid feel crappy right before a concert?

But whatever.

Nobody even knew us in this stupid place. Daughter and I found a seat surrounded by strangers, all of these people calling each other by name and waving and chatting around us and I sank down into my chair thinking about my husband sleeping on the floor of our old house that I had loved so much and how later me, my whiney daughter, and irresponsible son would be going home to our Circle of Life Frozen Wasteland house that I hated.

The orchestra filed out in their black and white and there was my gangly 8th grader slumping and looking miserable. 

I've never felt so out of place and helpless and anxious and filled with self-loathing.

The music started. The usual kid orchestra deal. Decent music, but not what you'd probably choose to listen to for an hour if your kid wasn't one of the kids up there playing. 

The last song listed in the program was some song I'd never heard of called Dona Nobis Pacem. The music teacher introduced it, explaining that Dona Nobis Pacem, in Latin, means "Grant us peace." If the music is sung, those are the only words. 

Yeah yeah who cares, I was thinking, let's just get this show over with.

The 8th graders left the stage and scattered throughout the audience. I saw my son make his way down the aisle. He trudged upstairs to play somewhere in the balcony.

Suddenly I was nervous for him. What the hell kind of solo was he playing? I'd never heard him practice at home. Did he even know his part? 

The music started. One violin playing, and another, and another. Violas and cellos joining in. It was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. And it kept going, a round of the same tune, over and over. It ended as it began, one child after another playing their part and stopping, until it was just one. 

A viola. 

By then the music had risen to a crescendo and had fallen away and that one strand, by that one child, had me choking back tears. 

I don't know how I knew it, but I realized it was my child, playing, alone, up there in the balcony, in his khakis, surrounded, as my daughter and I were, by strangers. 

Does it seem silly to say that a three minute song could break a person down and fill her back up? 

For three minutes time stopped and there were no khakis or broken sinks or raccoons in the attic. No money worries or parental guilt or loneliness. 

When my son played the final note, there was another moment silence.



(Note: This video is the Jones Middle School Orchestra in Upper Arlington Ohio playing Dona Nobis Pacem in 2010. Daughter is the violist.) 


  1. Chills, Jody. You made me laugh and cry. May we all find peace this holiday season!

  2. Love this. Thank God for perfect little moments...

  3. Oh man, chills and teary. I remember singing that piece in chorus when I was in school. Beautiful. And beautiful post.

  4. What a lovely post. Tears of recognition!

  5. This is such a beautiful story! And oh, the image of the Circle of Life attic.... You made me laugh and cry, all before breakfast.

  6. Thanks, all. I just got a note from the orchestra teacher that she is conducting the winter concert--featuring that song-- tonight. I'm wondering if it would be weird if I sneaked in...

  7. What a great, heart-felt post. It's funny how these school holiday concerts, with all their off-key, out-of-tune moments, can bring you moments of transcendence.

    P.S. Have you ever heard the song "Pray Your Gods" by Toad the Wet Sprocket? It uses "dona nobis pacem" at the end. Beautiful.


Post a Comment