As I stood at the lectern, my words were enlivened by the luminous slide show from our Seal Sitter photographer, Robin Lindsey. Looking out over the audience as I read, I felt both joy and gratitude at seeing my various communities come together to celebrate with me.
One of my students, a nature writer and musician herself, asked a provocative question:
“How are music and writing similar?”
“I wrote this book as a song,” I told her.
Music requires a search for common ground. As singers or musicians we must always listen to others to find our harmonies. The musical dialogue is not about debate or winning, it is all about listening. You have to really attune to one another when you sing. You can’t succeed to saying ‘My way or the highway’ as some dogmas or fundamentalists do in verbal dialogues.
To stay on pitch, we must all be mindful of everyone else’s notes. I come from a family of beautiful singers. My grandfather was an Irish tenor who bequeathed to us his mammy’s lullaby. “It’s the best I have to give you, girlie,” he told me. This family lullaby passed between races, between generations. We have sung Granddaddy’s lullaby to newborns, on cross-country trips, at funerals. When Granddaddy was dying, I would perch on his hospital bed and sing the old song to him through his oxygen tent. He would smile and nod and close his eyes – a babe again. Getting ready to be reborn.
My brother continues the Irish tenor tradition and his daughter, Charlotte, had her own rock band. She plays the piano by ear and has composed her own music. When she and I get together, one of the first things we do is harmonize on the hauntingly high Andrew Lloyd Weber song, “Pie Jesus.”
In my family, singing is a way to resolve our many disagreements over politics and religion. We might be in the middle of a pretty heated debate, say on abortion or health care. Just when I fear it might turn really toxic, someone drops into a song. Then, instead of shouting over each other with our opinions, we must tune in and find our part in the complex harmonies. Instead of divide and conquer, we must seek counterpoint and synchrony.
Singing together is the great salvation of my family. It is also the organizational intelligence behind my new book. Many chapter titles are actually songs – from the upbeat spiritual “I Love to Tell the Story” to the robust “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” to the plaintive “Shall We Gather at the River?”
Many times in the writing of this spiritual memoir, when I got lost, music found me. I’d wonder “How would I write this scene if it were music?” And then I’d know how to craft it, how to weave the characters and my own personal descant.
On my website, under the bicycle icon of Sound Stories there are several stories about singing and how it can heal. These range from my NPR commentaries, “Singing in Afghanistan” and “Singing on Alki Beach” to a Yiddish prayer, “K’erachaim’av,” that I sang at the insistence of Diana, our Metropolitan’s accompanist. She is Russian and a real taskmaster, but all in pursuit of the muse of music. “Music is its own country,” she tells me.
At the end of the Elliot Bay reading last night, I asked my Metropolitan singers, my students, and anyone else who knew the old hymn to sing along with me a chorus from “In the Garden.” This must be the most meditative and yet sexy gospel hymn ever written. And it is the title of one of my chapters about a family reunion resolved by singing. Here are the lyrics and a link to it:
and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known.~
Youtube video of In the Garden performed by a choir
I’ll be reading (and singing) at Third Place Books, Saturday, February 6 at 6:30 p.m. Come and join in the song.