Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Que Sera Sera"? -- How do urban mothers cope with fear?

If you've heard Sly and the Family Stone's version of that Doris Day classic "Que Sera Sera," then you'll recognize that Corinne Bailey Rae is doing Sly's arrangement in the video above. I found her rendition particularly moving (as I do the Family Stone's rendition), but I feel that Rae's soulfulness, her bluesy clutching of her guitar later in the song, may have resulted, sadly, from the young singer suffering loss.

This is a 2010 performance. Her husband, Jason Rae, died in 2008 of a suspected drug overdose.

Considering that this blog is the Urban Mother's Book of Prayers, a reader may ask, "How does Corinne Bailey Rae singing "Que Sera Sera" relate to crime or attempts at spiritual evolution in New Orleans? Surely the blogger can't be saying "Que sera sera: whatever will be will be" about chaos and tragedy. That would be throwing up one's hands and giving up, right? If we say that, how shall we stand?

How can we stand in the face of tragedy or how do we stand day to day is indeed the question.

I have to give some context for approaches to the song "Que Sera Sera." I grew up as a black girl in New Orleans hearing that song at the beginning of The Doris Day Show during the late 1960s, and she seemed to sing it on almost every variety show at some point. Here are the lyrics by Ray Evans.

Que Sera Sera
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty, will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me.

Que Sera, Sera:
Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours, to see.
Que Sera, Sera.
What will be, will be.

When I was young, I fell in love;
I asked my sweetheart, What lies ahead?
Will we have rainbows day after day?
Here's what my sweetheart said.

Que Sera, Sera:
Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera.
What will be, will be.

Now I have children of my own.
They ask their mother, What will I be?
Will I be handsome, will I be rich?
I tell them tenderly.

Que Sera, Sera:
Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see.
Que Sera, Sera.
What will be, will be.

I knew the words when it was a Doris Day hit, and in my mind her version will always be lively and lovely sort of playful like Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." But I remember when, as a grown woman, I listened to Sly and the Family Stone's version again after not hearing it for many years. In my 40s and in the midst of a dying marriage, I recall thinking to myself that Sly's version was a black mother talking, a mother considering the pain to come that an innocent child would never expect. A black person or any other person who's known pain and loss will probably not sing a Doris Day version of this song.

In the original lyrics we hear a woman telling of her questions as first a child, then as a young woman entering marriage, and later as a mother herself answering her own child. The child and the young woman see only joy ahead. "Will I be pretty, will I be rich?" and "Will we have rainbows day after day?" The adult answering does not burst the bubble of naïveté. She merely answers,  "Whatever will be will be." (In Corrine's version the question is, Will I be lonesome day after day?) In the Doris Day version, the woman singing the song sounds as though her life must have been pretty happy-go-lucky. (Either it was joyful or she's been scarfing down a lot of Valium and vodka.) The woman in Sly's version (vocals by his sister Rosie Stone, I think) is much more contemplative and Sly's responding vocal erupts with plaintiveness.

Likewise, in Corinne Bailey Rae's rendition, as one can tell by the expression on her face in the video as well as by her vocals, there seems to be no Doris Day in her mind skipping through the daisies. There's loss. When her bass player (guitarist?) sings the response, there's sorrow. This version, which is also Sly's version, turns "Que Sera Sera" into the call and answer of bluesy prophecy: "the future's not ours to see", so prepare.

To say "que sera sera" to oneself is also a healthy response in some circumstances, such as during the long period of coming to terms with someone's death. In the context of Sly and Croinne's renditions it becomes a pillar of the "Serenity Prayer" -- "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to face the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

When we have the wisdom to recognize what we can't change, we may say "que sera sera" to that and move forward. If we move forward seeking the courage to change what we can change, then we move forward with hope. I've learned that often what we can change most effectively is our own attitude toward whatever we face. What I've been facing most lately, however, is undulating fear.

Recently, I felt the immense weight of New Orleans crime personally when I received a call that a relative had been shot in the neck while walking home. He is an only child, a fine young man of 22. A gang wanted his iPhone or some other gadget that is not worth human breath. It''s possible he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life, but we hope that is not true.

We pray with his parents that he will be whole again, that the doctors will perform something akin to a miracle, but in the meantime, what do we say to his parents? I cannot say, "I know what you're going through" because I do not know and hope I never will. Neither can I reveal my anger because how is my anger useful to them right now?

After I'd processed the news, I can't describe the rage I felt. If someone had asked me what should be done to the young men involved in the shooting, I would have said, "Lock them up. Throw a way the key. No hope for 'em." This kind of thinking goes against my tendency to hope that with the right resources and support almost anyone can change.

Despite hearing of horrific violent crimes daily on the news, there's nothing like hearing someone you know has been shot, and after the anger begins to subside, and you recall that you and your family live in the same city not too far from where the shooting occurred, you become aware of another emotion--fear. How do I deal with the fear that this too-close-for-comfort crime has planted in me, not fear for myself, but fear for my own children and their futures?

Whatever will be will be is the solace the mother in "Que Sera Sera" offers a child obsessing over her future, a saying that helps humans compartmentalize worry. The ability to box off such fear is valuable living in New Orleans or any other violence-stricken region, I suppose, such as Chicago, the Middle East, Mexico, or the Congo. However, I'm not convinced compartmentalizing works with no side effects given what medical science tells us about how the body handles repression and stress.

Compartmentalization may help us cope and move forward in our daily lives, but mishandled stress will manifest somewhere else either in how we interact with others (in irritability and callousness, for instance) or in our own bodies as obesity and other diseases. Knowing that kind of health information itself becomes a nugget for worry. Such fearfulness can lead to depression, to psychological paralysis,  and other psychoses; it must not go unchecked.

By unchecked, I mean unexamined fear. Unexamined fear is the fear that drives us to climb in bed and pull the covers over our heads or to buy a gun and begin shooting at shadows. When instead we examine our fears desiring to find solutions to whatever drives the fear (often some problem that we cannot control alone), then we at least may begin to seek healthy coping mechanisms.

I struggled with this need to find or return to healthy coping mechanism shortly after my young relative was shot because not thinking, my son, who is about the same age as the wounded relative, did something minor that forced me to look at my fear. Without telling me,he left the house the other morning on his bike while I was sleeping and rode to the Wendy's. Yes, we had food in the house, but out of the blue he decided he wanted a fast food breakfast. This scenario was eerily similar to what happened to our young relative whom I had visited in the hospital mere days before my son's Wendy's excursion. Seeing up close a young man in his prime with tubes in his nose and braces or casts from the lips down due to a gunshot wound makes the nightly news intimate.

I found out my son had left the house because I was awakened by my cell phone ringing. I picked it up and saw he was calling, but when I answered, the call was gone. Immediately I called back but he didn't pick up. I got up and when my daughter told me that her brother was out of the house, my heart shuddered in panic.

Fifteen minutes later he was home. He had dialed me accidentally, but I fussed anyway because I had imagined him stopped by a gang with some gangster snatching his phone before I answered, and then I saw him on the ground, bleeding. In an instant, upon waking and missing his call, I had replayed my relative's shooting in my mind and switched out the relative's face with my son's. It was not mother's intuition that engulfed me but terror, and I wanted my son to see and know that terror. I wanted him to see it and be more careful, to learn not to leave the house unnecessarily, to take no risks ever. I wanted him in a cocoon, an impossibility I realized because my son is 21 years old.

Frowning at him, I trudged back to my bedroom and tried exorcising my fear. It cannot be banished though because it is legitimate. That something could happen to either one of my chidlren--car accident, biking collision, gunshot wound to the head--is not a far-fetched irrational thought. Asking them to stop living their lives so I can be fear-free, however, is. Attempting to control others when we feel we have no control is a common reaction to fear, but I have to do better. I know that I must find more constructive ways to deal with possible darker futures over which I have no control.

My method is always to return to writing poetry for a while and to write prose, such as I am doing now. In other words, I use verbal art to process grief, loss, and fear the same way, perhaps, Sly and Corrine use music. Still, sometimes I wish I could move to the woods, way out away from people, away from danger and the potential for loss. After all, self-contemplation is beneficial, right?

And yet, too much isolation is rarely a good thing and never effective insulation from loss. If you are human, you will lose someone at some point. Voluntary isolation is really the self-imposed loss of human connection, the illusion of dodging bullets.

It would be easy for a writer to choose isolation. Writing poetry, essays, and fiction is not a team endeavor for most writers. But given where I've placed myself, home in the city of New Orleans, I cannot chooe such a segregated life. And as much as they fool themselves, neither can those who flee the city for its suburbs. So, I will continue to seek ways to plug myself into the community, finding moments  to help others more. In so doing, it's possible that I will be part of a solution, a conduit for progress and health.

I see that I must embrace the world and life and learn through improving my community (rather than simply complaining about it) how to release the tension of worrying about possible futures over which I have no control. In this way, I practice a control I can manage, self-control, which benefits us all because most of us can control how we relate to others if we choose to do so. The future is not ours to see, but if we can see ourselves changing ourselves to cope better with life now, then perhaps we will find the courage to make a future better than the violent past.


  1. I hope that your family member has a full recovery. What a terrible experience this is for him and your family circle.

    On the mornings that I watch the news and there is an announcement of a shooting or some other type of violent incident, I still find myself gasping for air if a male is involved. My maternal instinct is to call all three of my sons to make sure that they are alright. Then I have to stop and remind myself that if something wrong has happened, I would of been altered long before the newscast. (at least this is what I hope would happen)

    It is really quite difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that one of the greatest threats to our overall happiness is a person within our own race. We have to be the ones who generate solutions for the problems and the lack of mentality that spawns moments of pain and fear.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. My prayers are with you and your fam as you walk through this fire.

    You know that I tend to take a non-worrying stance, but as a mother of two young men, I know that is short-lived when a tragedy hits close to home. If I found myself in your situation, I'd be snarling and snapping after one of my sons had wandered off for some assinine (in my opinion) reason without letting me know.

    You also know that being a hermit is an area I struggle with. So, this blog is a reminder of all the things I must take a "courage to change the things I can," stance. Self-reflection is good, and I applaud how you handle the fact that it can be too much of a good thing.

    My urban experience came after my sons were grown and on their own. In fact, it was fear for my own safety in that environment that created my hermit tendencies. Well, that and an aversion to silly bitches. I would not go out after dark, and I found myself looking over my shoulder frequently.

    Now that I've commented, I'm going back to read it again with another cup of coffee in me.