Introducing Samuel John Zelnick-CrowtherFebruary 4, 2017
My son Phil, 10, now has a younger brother. Leila gave birth to Sam on January 31st.
Me being me, I have been processing this event, in part, by writing a letter (below) and a lullaby.
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The circumstances surrounding your birth were both unique and universal.
While your mother was deep in the throes of labor, she listened to music played on the mbira, a “thumb piano” of metal keys that was developed in Africa thousands of years ago. In particular, she listened repeatedly to a song called “Tadzungaira” (“We Are Suffering”) as performed by the Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda.
Mbira songs like this one have a relatively short “theme” of what might be considered 8 to 16 measures of Western music. But those 8 to 16 measures are repeated over and over and over, with a seemingly infinite number of improvised variations. A single song may last 30 minutes or more.
Mbiras often defy time in another sense, too. Traditionally, they are played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to summon the spirits of ancestors. In other words, they connect the people of today with those of the past.
Here in the United States, mbiras are virtually unknown. If the doctors and nurses who attended your birth had given the matter any thought, they might have been incredulous that a white woman raised in Oklahoma and living in Seattle would, in the depths of her despair, draw strength and tranquility from the plucking of an African instrument that they had never heard of.
Yet she did. She was hurting profoundly, but she knew the stakes and soldiered on, steady and insistent, like an mbira melody that would not be stopped.
As I listened to your mother’s grunts and groans intermingled with Forward Kwenda’s ceaseless variations on “Tadzungaira,” I felt a rare solidarity with humankind. While your mother’s struggle to deliver you was specific to her situation — her life history, her anatomy, her hospital — it was also a struggle as old and as familiar as the human race itself. African women were giving birth long, long before the first mbira was a gleam in its maker’s eye.
Sam, you are here today as a unique descendant of your unique mother. There has never been another person quite like you, and there never will be. But you are also here as someone connected to those who have gone before you, those who are with you now, and those who will follow.
Sam, I will strive to love you both for what you share with these others and for what makes you different. You, in turn, should strive to love others this fully. At times this will be hard — perhaps as hard as childbirth itself, and just as important. Please do your best.
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Update, Feb. 16th: Here is Leila’s birth-day narrative.