Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Making a Joyful Noise

When I was in grade school, we had singing class each week. I remember lining up and walking down to the gym where we’d sit on the bottom row of the bleachers and sing songs from tattered blue books that had simple line drawings of singing, marching children wearing silly hats and wide smiles. I loved music class, a half hour break in the day. Besides, singing lifted my spirits, leaving me smiling and light-hearted.

For a long time, singing came naturally to me—as we got older, my sister and I enlivened dish washing time by singing the top ten tunes we heard every day on the radio. Three years older, she favored Elvis numbers, “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes,” while I preferred the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the girl singers who sang of unrequited love, “To know, know, know-o him, is to love, love, love-a him.”

After I turned twelve, I joined her in the choir at the little Baptist Church where I had been baptized that summer. We were the youngest choir members, surrounded by gray-haired ladies whose voices ranged from Mrs. Mallory’s strong alto to tiny Mrs. Adams’ shaky soprano. There really weren’t any “great” singers among us and I’m not sure what we sounded like on those long ago Sundays. I do remember that there were a few times when, there in that shabby little church, allowing my own tentative voice to mingle with theirs brought me a tiny glimpse of what it was like to stand on holy ground.

But I grew up and it wasn’t long after I left the church and that small town in Oregon that singing lost its lustre. It happened one sunny summer day. I was making lunch, my baby daughter in her high chair next to me, giggling and cooing. I was singing “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure and wear flowers in your hair” when I heard my husband’s low growl from the other room, “People who can’t sing really shouldn’t try.”

It was very a long time before I sang again, long after that marriage ended and years after I had married Zack. One evening, coming quietly into a room where I was singing as I worked, he asked me, “Why don’t you ever sing? You have a nice voice.” I didn’t tell him that I felt ashamed and embarrassed because I wasn’t “good enough.”

I just read a book written by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls duo and her father Don Saliers, a renowned church musician. In the introduction to “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live” the authors say: “It has become easy to forget that music deepens and makes more vivid the beauty, the delight, and yes, even the lamentable terrors and sufferings of our world. Music is rooted in the human body and the human soul, and it gives voice to the spirit of human communities. Without songs to sing, life would be diminished.”

“Without songs to sing”—it does not say “without songs to listen to.” Strangely enough, it is only some of the richer, “first world” nations that have forgotten that singing is part of what it means to be human. In many countries, the presumption is that everyone can sing and they do. Certainly there are those who have more naturally melodic voices, those who are trained and educated, but communal singing is as old as human history. Singing as a way to worship and praise the Holy is probably nearly as old.

This year my husband surprised me with a very special Christmas present. He paid the tuition for a four-session singing class taught by Katie Ketchum, the substitute musician at our church several years ago when Kira went to Russia. Katie is also a trained singing teacher. The class was for women, many of whom I discovered had similar experiences.

Waiting for that first class to start I paced and hyperventilated outside the classroom. However, once it began, with Katie’s calm presence, a sense of safety and peace came over me. The fifteen women talked and laughed and there were even a few teary-eyed moments. We shared our stories, Katie taught us exercises to help us loosen up, and we sang a few simple songs.

Last of all we practiced a traditional round together, a bit weak at first, then I heard the voices around me grow stronger and more beautiful by the moment. I closed my eyes and kept singing. Standing in that circle of women, most of whom had been strangers just an hour before, I realized we had crossed over onto holy ground, that place where people open their hearts to each other and share their deepest human connections.

Driving home from the last class of the series, I determined to do my best not to let the voices from the past silence my own voice any longer. I hope you do not let anyone silence yours. Scripture tells us to raise a joyful noise. May it be so.

Blessings from Country Woman


In a book titled “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by Paul Woodruff, the second paragraph begins with these words: “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death.”

Last week, after reading an article in the Press Democrat, my husband and I drove to a private school not far from Healdsburg to view a sight that I had never imagined. It was a lovely evening, shirtsleeve weather with a slight breeze. Rio Lindo Academy, a Seventh Day Adventist boarding high school, has a lovely campus with brick buildings, wide green lawns, and a sweeping view over acres of vineyards. We parked across from an older structure, its plaster walls dull and cracked, the windows dusty, a building long abandoned except for storage purposes. At one end, there was a large square chimney, the object that drew us to that place.

We were among the first arrivals, but obviously we had come unprepared, arriving empty-handed except for my husband’s camera bag and gear. Several couples had set up lawn chairs and there was a family, dad pushing a stroller with a small passenger and mom carrying a tiny baby. Another couple followed them and quickly spread a blanket and set down pizza boxes, the aroma wafting our direction. Soon more people arrived, couples, others who were alone, more families, and sometimes groups of five or six. The lane was lined for more than a block with people sitting or standing and children running and playing. While there was quiet conversation and the laughter of children, mostly people watched that chimney.

After about a half-hour, someone said, “Look, here they come.” Far above us we saw a few dark shapes against the sky, small birds, fluttering and circling in the air. They came down towards the chimney, circled it and then flew away. Minutes later, another group did the same, followed by another. We waited and during the next half hour, the groups grew larger and finally they began diving closer and disappeared inside the chimney. More and more came, hundreds of tiny birds swooping into the chimney. Finally there were thousands filling the sky, a living tornado of whirring wings, circling and descending out of sight.

One of the school’s staff walked through the crowd and passed out a paper that talked about the school on one side and described the birds on the other. I read that they are Vaux’s Swifts, known in some places as “chimney swifts” for their habit of using chimneys as their resting place, especially on their migration routes. The paper stated that some years there are as many as 20,000 birds that stop by the school campus, with 360 entering the chimney every minute during the most active landings.

Several days passed and Sunday morning came. As we were preparing to walk out of the house and get in the truck for the drive to Guerneville for church, the phone rang. Someone called to tell us the whales were running off Bodega Head, “So close,” she said, “they’re touching each other.”

After street church that afternoon, we made our way to Jenner and turned south towards Bodega. When we arrived we found that the cliffs above the ocean were lined with people, much like those who had gathered to watch the birds. We made our way to the edge and within a moment or two, I cried, “There’s one, Zack,” pointing to a large black shape that rose just above the waves. As long as we stood there, we could see them, their presence heralded by an arching spray of water, then an immense shadow that broke the surface, then disappeared.

Looking at the people gathered there and remembering those waiting so patiently in Healdsburg, I thought about how these small events had pulled each of us away from our regular routines. Dinners postponed, televisions turned off, work set aside, we had come to watch these mysterious, magical occurrences, events beyond our understanding and certainly beyond our control. As the last birds disappeared into that chimney, there was a sound that swept across the crowd, like a breeze ruffling through leaves, a deep sigh of appreciation, perhaps even of awe. On the cliff above the sea, again and again, I heard one person and another call out, “There’s one—I see one!” This world is full of amazing things, all of them part of the gift we have been given, the wondrous gift of being a small part of this intricately beautiful creation. Sometimes all we can do is stand in reverence, filled with an awe that goes beyond words.

blessings from Country Woman