I have an image of my child self that I often call to mind. I am probably 10 or 11 years old; it is the 1960s. I am sitting between our family kitchen and living room, my back against the door jamb, my knees pulled up in front of me, listening to the radio that used to live on a shelf underneath the kitchen counter. From where I sit I can see south through the kitchen window to the bush that surrounds our house. Beyond it, I know the fields roll half a mile to our neighbours. If I look east past the kitchen through the porch wall full of coats and the floor mats full of boots, through the back window I can see the barnyard, the cows, the dog, chickens scattered here and there. If I look west I can see the horizon beyond the picture window and the sky. The radio is on: news, music. Wonderful music. The Beatles. Peter, Paul and Mary. Elvis. Simon and Garfunkel. Bob Dylan. Every newscast, an explosion. The radio is the world to me then. I hear the news of riots, cars turned over, cities on fire, police with shields, shop windows smashed. Brutality. Protests, people standing their ground, speaking up. Defiant lyrics. The speeches of civil rights leaders and presidents. People fighting in the streets. Talk of pollution and acid rain. Threats of nuclear war, which my young self cannot fathom. And through it all, song. The adults hold a certain tension in their listening, in their talk. But there’s also an excitement undergirding it all. I feel electrified listening to this troubled, strange, mysterious world. I see the possibility of making things new, conscious that I, myself, am part of the new. I sing along.
I think about those times now when I listen to the radio, which I still do. The news over breakfast and supper, and the music which I hum along to when I can. But I am also the adult now, and I feel the anxiety that is weighing on the planet. The war talk and hate speech that I hear reported daily. The rhetoric and cheap sentimentality that passes as public policy. Even the weather is ominous. The smoke that has drifted our way all summer, from fires the scientists now assign a new category, past extreme, to catastrophic. Forest fires that even snow and sub-zero temperatures can’t put out. It is only the beginning of the hurricane season in the Atlantic and already we’ve had two once-in-a-hundred-year storms in quick succession: Harvey, Irma, and a close contender for the title, Maria. Whole nations are devastated.
Maybe that is why I felt an urgency this fall to get back to my community choir practice. Why, even though I have more commitments in my life than ever, I show up and sit in my chair among the second sopranos. Why I mark the music and listen to all the parts, low to high, and sing along for two hours every Monday night. To be one with the human voice, to carry within me those strains of hope and defiance. By the second week of practice, I am going to bed again to the music in my head: Mendelssohn, Bach, Vivaldi, fragments of choruses in languages I don’t understand, from other centuries and this one. Voices to dream by.
And so it dawns on me what I was doing as a 10-year-old, how powerful the human voice is in the cultivation of consciousness. Music, to lift the heart for the waking work for justice.