My own origin story goes like this: I was born just before a snowstorm, a rare event in Seattle, even in January. When we left the hospital, we went to my grandparents’ house, instead of to my parents’ apartment, which was several miles further away. When it came time to go to bed, my mother held me and murmured lullabies all night long, so as not to let my crying wake her husband, her in-laws, or my older brother and sister. The way she told the story is that for the rest of my babyhood, I wanted to be held all night. How could I not? Who would want to leave the soft, warm arms of her mother, the sweet sounds of her lullaby?
A few years ago, my father told me his version of the story. Yes, there was a snowstorm, and yes, we stopped at my grandparents’ home to pick up my older brother and sister. Pictures were taken outside their snow-coveredbrick house of newborn me all wrapped up against the cold. But it was not until I was about six months old—summertime—that we lived there for a few months, while my parents searched for a house of their own. He can’t remember whether Mom held me all night or not, because he was asleep.
I want to believe my version, because there’s so much comfort in it. I want to believe that on my second or third day of life, I wascarried through the snow to the safety of my grandparents’ guest bedroom and held all night by my mother while she sang, “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” locking her eyes with mine until mine closed, holding me close until I sank into the featherbed of sleep. I must have created this version from those snowy photos I’d seen. And then mixed it with her story of having to keep me quiet all night, and then mixed it again, later, with the bliss I felt when I sang my own babies to sleep.
“Lullabies are the first love songs we hear,” says photojournalist Hannah Reyes Morales, who has traveled the world taking photos and recording sound of mothers singing to their babies. Along with love, lullabies embody hope. “They seem to hold the promise that on the other side awaits a bright morning.”
Morales was a presenter, via video, at the Frye Museum’s December 2021 Creative Aging Conference. The theme of this virtual gathering of artists, scientists, caregivers, and writers was “Cultivating Compassion.” Being held and rocked and sung to is our first experience, as humans, of pure compassion. We cry. Our mother or father, grandparent or caregiver responds by holding us and soothing us with a song. And we soothe them, too, by melting into sleep. As if to say, “Thank you.You see? I’m okay now. I’m going to sleep, which means you’ll get to rest, too.”
Morales’ presentation, based on her National Geographic photo essay, “Songs to Soothe,” included audio of what is believed to be the oldest known lullaby: a Babylonian song, at least 4,000 years old, inscribed on a clay tablet. “Little baby in the dark house, you have seen the sun rise,” it begins. “Why are you crying?Why are you screaming? You have disturbed the house god.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a Creative Aging Conference to include a presentation on lullabies. But the idea of lullabies as a root source of compassion—a deep well we can go back to, at any time in our lives, when we want or need to cultivate compassion—is powerful. Especially when you think of it all in the context of recent research on neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and develop not just during childhood, but over the entire span of our lives.
“Neuroplasticity is possible throughout life,” explained neurosurgeon James Doty, the keynote speaker at the conference, in an interview with UW Associate Professor of Neurology Kristoffer Rhoads. “Being of service changes you at any age. People say, ‘I don’t have power.’ But you can influence other people every day by being compassionate.” Doty is the founder and director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, a memoir charting his own journey from poverty and neglect to medical school and a career as a brain surgeon. It’s a journey he is convinced he could not have made without the brief presence in his life of an older woman he met by chance at a magic shop, who taught him not magic tricks but mindfulness meditation, which became the lifeboat that got him through the turbulent waters of a chaotic adolescence. Later, he realized that for him, meditation was also the first step toward cultivating compassion: “Being present and being connected with others is the most powerful thing we have.”
Rhoads, who has been offering weekly mindful meditation sessions at the Frye Museum (and on YouTube during the pandemic) for four years, concurs. “Kindness and compassion for self and others are such critical components to help maintain one’s ability to persist,” especially during stressful times, Rhoads said in a follow-up conversation. Meditation offers us a way to “shore up the foundation of resilience and our ability to stay engaged and stay connected and not shut down and become cold or hardened.” And “there is plenty of data that would suggest that as we engage in compassion or meditation practices, we’re activating different parts of our nervous system. To quiet down that ‘fight or flight.’”
Rhoads is adamant that anyone, at any age, can start a meditation practice, which is, he emphasized, “not a mastery event. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I’m not good at it! That’s not the point. It’s a practice.”
Compassion asks much of us during a time like this. “The pandemic has shown us we are not in control,” said Doty. “It’s made us understand the importance of relationships. It’s also made a lot of people very unhappy and lonely (because) it has interfered with our ability to connect.” And yet, as Doty pointed out, not only are we seeing stories of “extraordinary acts done by average people,” we’re seeing a narrative thread of compassion that is influencing our culture, including what we choose to watch, such as the wildly popular Ted Lasso series, featuring a main character who wants to be kind and help people.
When Doty was asked by a caregiver in the virtual audience whether boundaries can be a form of compassion, he was quick to say yes, that without self-care, without boundaries, you cannot give your patients or clients the full measure of your compassion. Especially in a time defined by a pandemic.
In Hannah Reyes Morales’ photo essay, we saw COVID ICU nurses singing lullabies, via FaceTime, to their children. In 2020, boundaries had suddenly become literal and critical to their babies’ health. But that first, primal form of compassion—a lullaby—was still possible. Even across the barrier of a screen, the nurses could comfort their babies, and themselves.
What an example for us all of cultivating compassion in the most difficult of times.
Ann Hedreen is an author (Her Beautiful Brain), teacher of memoir writing, and filmmaker. Ann and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer’s Story. Sherecently completed a second memoir, After Ecstasy: Memoir of an Observant Doubter.
Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales