To Samuel. Name the band and the place, I’m there.
Five years ago I did something that I very rarely do – I planned ahead. In July, I bought my son’s birthday present. His birthday is the day before mine in September. I have been known to be a “week of” birthday present purchaser who relies heavily on Amazon Prime and pure luck to get things on time. I can’t really explain it; I know that these holidays fall on the same day every year, but somehow I always feel like I’m living in the last-minute lane.
This year in particular, I read somewhere that we should give our children experiences and not ‘things.’
This year in particular, I knew I was staring down the beginnings of adolescence and was afraid that our days of simple connection were numbered.
This year in particular, Ed Sheeran was coming to town.
That summer ate me alive. I had already spent most of that year in single-parent mode as my husband was constantly away for work. Finding camps or babysitters for the kids while I was working was a nightmare. They spent a lot of time in front of a screen for entertainment. I hated it, so when we were in the car, there were no devices allowed, and so began their music education. As a lover of (most) all music, we listened to everything from oldies to 80s to R&B to classic rock. Eventually, they developed some favorites and Samuel started venturing out on his own, finding songs he liked, and playing them for us in the car. I know it sounds silly, but this little move of independence made me so happy. He played a song for Izzy and me one day called “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran. He said it reminded him of driving fast in the car, watching the world fly past you, and going home. It wasn’t my favorite. I don’t remember why, but the first time I heard it I kind of hoped he’d move on to something else. He didn’t. We listened to “Castle on the Hill” until we all knew all the words, whether we wanted to or not. It was one of his first “favorite songs” that I remember.
Short story, long, we devoured Ed Sheeran’s Divide album that summer and in July, I bought concert tickets for October. In September, on his 11th birthday, he was a little confused (and probably disappointed) that his ‘big present’ was a piece of paper. When I explained it was tickets to a big-arena concert in Nashville – that he was going to get to hear Ed Sheeran live – he thanked us and said he was excited. As the date drew closer and we continued to listen to Ed on repeat, I began to worry that the concert experience wouldn’t be for him what it was for me. He borrowed my phone and looked up parking and a place to eat dinner. The day of the show, we got dressed up and drove down to Nashville, parked in the deck of the Music City Center, and ate burgers at a spot down the street from Bridgestone Arena.
When we walked inside, I watched him like a hawk, looking for any sign of excitement and anticipation, or worse, boredom and disappointment. There were a couple of things I didn’t consider: the opening act and concessions. I should have warned Samuel about the first one and myself about the second. He didn’t know he’d have to sit through a couple hours of an opening act before the main show. The first thing he asked for? Food. We spent as much on concessions that night as we did at dinner. I was torn by desperation that he would have a good time and irritation that all he seemed to care about was popcorn and soda. James Blunt opened for Ed and I was immediately caught up, singing along, and swept up in the concert experience. Samuel was playing Angry Birds on my phone. At this point, I realized maybe 11 was too young to appreciate a big show like this one. I resolved to let him play the bleepity-bleep Angry Birds all night, but that I was going to enjoy the show. I gritted my teeth between sets when he asked for more popcorn. I remember watching the crew set up and noticed the stage was relatively small – not big enough for a full band – and mostly covered in speakers or amps or whatever. I started to think that this might be an acoustic show and looked back at our tickets. My inner monologue went something like: “Who goes to a big arena for an acoustic show? I am not buying anymore snacks. This was a mistake. He’s going to care more about snacks than the show. Oh my gosh, I did not pay this much for one dude and a guitar. I never should have downloaded Angry Birds. He’s going to spill that. Phones are the devil. I’m never going to be able to connect with my kids – they’d rather be on a phone. It’s Ed freaking Sheeran, he’s not going to perform without a band? NO. No more snacks…”
And then, it started to happen. The lights changed, the crowd started to clap and cheer, and for a moment, the air left the room while we waited for Ed to make his appearance. I stood and started scanning the floor area of the arena wondering how he would make his entrance. I forgot about snacks and Angry Birds and slowly let the waves of anticipation and excitement roll over me.
Ed Sheeran just walked out on stage. No fanfare, no dropping out of the ceiling or rising out of the floor. He just walked out with a guitar and started strumming. The whole place went ballistic. More strumming, tapping of pedals on the floor, a few seemingly random vocals and sound effects from his guitar, and I slowly began to realize he was building the song’s melody one piece at a time. My mind was blown – it was the biggest sound I’ve ever heard in concert – don’t sleep on Ed and a loop pedal. He is incredible. In the next moment, a felt a pull on my arm and a shout from beside me, “MOM! It’s Castle on the Hill! It’s Castle on the Hill!!! Oh my gosh, MOOOOOOM! Can you hear it!?!” I looked over just in time for the lights to wash over Samuel’s face to reveal pure, uninhibited joy. The ‘beat dropped’ and it was, indeed, “Castle on the Hill.”
I remember looking over at him again hours later, as he slept in the passenger seat, and thinking, “I will never forget this.” I listened to “Castle on the Hill” on repeat all the way home with new ears. It’s a nostalgic song – about growing up and going back home. It’s about looking back on the hard and seemingly terrible seasons of your childhood and seeing beauty in them; of feeling far from home and returning to the old familiar rhythms, sights, and people. Of belonging. That song and that night completely changed the way I looked at being a parent. Regardless of our own efforts, we can’t really control how our children will experience the world they’re growing up in. We can’t control who they become. Even in the moments that we create for them, their experience is their own. Our job is to create a consistent space where they can just be themselves and be loved. The older they get, the more this matters.
It’s not the “stuff” you buy and even the experiences turn out to be “things” that provide memories for us to cherish. The journey in all of it is building the castle that is your child – the person they are becoming – and the gift of their life in the world. Most of that work is for them to do while you, the parent, facilitate, encourage, (sometimes) force, and ultimately, accept. You may help to build the castle – but you’re not the castle – you are the hill. One day they’re going to go off the script and start listening to Juice WRLD and NF. You’re going to find out they have found their own way and that it’s nothing like you planned or expected. What then? Go back to that place of certainty and connection. Keep buying the concert tickets and learning the songs. Most of all, stop looking for your plan in them. Stop being the castle they live in and start being the hill they can grow on.
This past summer, I took Samuel to see one of his favorite bands, AJR. We were fighting our way through a tough, tumultuous season of life. I let him drive down to Nashville and by the time we parked, I was exhausted, and my nerves were shot. We had to go back to the car twice because the venue didn’t allow bags. The opening act was a dude who literally played a ukulele with a cookie monster-ish mask on. I hated it and went to the concession stand – twice. Samuel loved it. He talked between the opener and the main show – about the songs he hoped they would play and about the videos he had watched of their shows. I wanted to know what the hell he was talking about but the best I could do was listen and enjoy his excitement. The AJR concert wasn’t my choice and I only knew a few songs because he played them for me – on repeat – in the car.
And then, it started to happen. The lights changed, the energy moved through the crowd like electricity, and the beat dropped. I looked over to see Samuel’s face lit with that same pure, uninhibited joy and laughed when he said, “MOM!!! Holy shit!” The next 2 hours were full of lights, amazing music, dancing, cheering, and a mid-set pretzel break (for me – ha!). I became a BIG fan of AJR. He still fell asleep in the passenger seat and I still listened to “Castle on the Hill” on repeat all the way home.
He’ll choose his own path in more ways than just music one day soon.
They all will – no matter what we do, parents were always meant to send their children off into the world to be who they were created to be.
If we do it right, it’ll be the greatest show we’ve ever seen.
If we do it right, we’ll always be the hill they build their castle on. The one they look back on and see how the hardest times made them better and the best of times were just that – the best. The hill that gave them space to figure out who they are and what they want to be. The hill they can always come back to, belong to, and be loved on.
Be the hill. The castle will come to you.
“I’m on my way
I still remember these old country lanes
When we did not know the answers
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset
Over the castle on the hill..”