Monday, August 01, 2005

How can I keep from singing?

This has been a weekend of deep emotion. Our friend, Lou Ann, finally came to the end of her life last Saturday, and Friends have been sitting shiva with her partner all week; my turn was Friday morning. After which I went to Nightingales.

For 40 years or more, Friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa have been singing together under the name of Nightingales. Originally the singing was informal and spontaneous at scheduled Friends meetings – half-yearly, yearly meeting, etc. – but some time ago it settled into an at least three-times-a-year pattern: Spring in central Wisconsin or near Madison; summer near the Twin Cities; and autumn near Milwaukee, along with evenings at Northern and Illinois Yearly Meetings and, occasionally, at FGC Gatherings. The weekend sings are Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, with people sleeping on couches or the floor, under the stars or in tents; sharing food and chores, etc. Kind of a Brigadoon – the Kingdom of Heaven made visible on Earth for a few days a year.

The singing is ecumenical, eclectic, and enthusiastic. Listen around the table or the campfire and you could hear in any given hour: Hymns. Spirituals. Ballads. Broadway show tunes. Tin Pan Alley favorites; Folk songs; Rounds; Bawdy songs; Parodies; Camp songs; Chants; Rock-n-roll favorites; Made-up songs. Whole songs and fragments. Melodies no one can remember the words to. On-key or almost-on. With books or without them. The whole gamut. All with joy and vigor, for the love of singing, and each other.

The group is informal and fluid; several hundred on its mailing list, but perhaps 100 or so regularly attend one or more singings a year, always with new singers to replenish. There are now quite a handful of young adults in their 30s and 40s who grew up singing with Nightingales and whose children are now third-generation Nightingales.

But at the center are the Founding Mothers, or Celestial Mamas, who have for years provided the spiritual and emotional center of the group – and the logistical center in that we often met at their places.

Now, though, they are aging – some have already flown on – and this past weekend, the presence of some of them brought a bittersweet quality to the singing. One of the beloved Mothers – not yet 80 and the grandmother to a whole flock of young Nightingales – has already lost much of her strong, beautiful voice to thyroid cancer a couple of years ago. Now, the cancer has returned and the outcome is unknown. She looked strong, but had her limits. We know that she made a heroic effort to come, knowing that this might be her last time.

Another of them is well past 80, one of those wonderfully brilliant, creative, and crotchety Quaker women whose tongue is as sharp as her wit, and who is as likely to want to sing Beans in My Ears as Whispering Hope. She also came, but her physical frailty made her attendance possible only because of the faithful and extraordinary assistance of another Friend who lovingly ferried her to and from and around the farm on Saturday.

And then there was the one dearest to me, almost 81, at whose farm east of St. Paul the Nightingales have been singing for decades. She is an extraordinary woman in ways too many to note here or in a thousand pages. I hold her particularly dear because it was her offer of a job 14 years ago that brought me from my 20-year bondage in Indiana to the Promised Land of 10,000 Lakes and my true home.

For a variety of reasons, and in a variety of ways, she has let it be known that this may have been the last Nightingales weekend that will be at her farm -- the Last Homely House. She is beginning to show signs of weariness, and in our Saturday morning go-around reminded us to always live as if this was the last time you get to something – ride the John Deere mower around the trails on the farm, sing with a particular Friend, come to Nightingales at her farm.

This spring, she lost a giant box elder tree that had lived at least twice as long as it allotted two score years and ten before it succumbed to disease and the forester’s axe.

Because of her fondness of the tree, and because of our fondness for her, we collected money and purchased a 10-foot Autumn Blaze maple tree to plant near the box elder’s stump. On Saturday morning, four of us prepared the hole and that evening, after supper and before the campfire sing, we gathered in a circle around the new tree and the old stump. Our Friend told stories about the old tree, which once held a two-story treehouse, and why she loved it and hated to have it taken out (it posed a danger to the house and the electric line that ran under it).

We then sat in silent worship, said prayers, and then, as we sang songs composed for the occasion, planted the maple, each Friend shoveling in a spade-full of dirt or throwing in a handful of sawdust and shavings from the elder. By the end, the new tree stood straight and true, not yet filling the empty space, but claiming it for the future – we could all envision its mature years, though not all of us will be there to see them.

The ceremony symbolized for me the wistful, poignant character of the weekend. A time to mourn and a time to dance. Something lost, but something gained. Seeds scattered by the storm-shattered tree. So long, it’s been good to know ya. The sense was clear that some among us may not return to another sing, and that none of us may ever return to this place again, at least as a group. There were a lot of tears, more of joy than of sorrow.

But also a sharp and strong sense of rightness and presence, of joy and gratitude and contentment and the deep, deep love that binds us all together even after we have all flown home to our own nests, ready to move to the next stage.

One of the traditions that the Nightingales have is reading around the circle a particularly beautifully illustrated edition of The Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson. Near the end of the story, after the nightingale had returned to the emperor’s castle and saved him from Death, the emperor says,

“Thanks, thanks, you heavenly little bird. I know you well. I banished you from my kingdom once, and yet you have charmed away the evil faces from my bed, and banished Death from my heart, with your sweet song. How can I reward you?”

“You have already rewarded me,” said the nightingale. “I shall never forget that I drew tears from your eyes the first time I sang to you. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart.”
And so it is. Singing, particularly with others, has power to do miraculous things, like stave off Death -- for a time, at least -- and bring a strong man to tears. And the tears we tasted were indeed jewels to us all, and they make us rich beyond measure.

Singing also binds people together over time and space so that, when you sing, you can conjure up a host of kind faces to gaze back at you. For my friend, it’s the song It’s a long, long road to freedom that will always makes me think of her: The first time I ever heard it, she was standing in the cafeteria at the Carleton College FGC Gathering with a group of her neighbors who she had brought down for the day, singing it with her full alto voice, head tipped back, eyes closed, swinging her elbows in time: “But when you walk in love with the wind on your wings, and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the time flies by.” Yes it does fly, and sometimes too quickly.


Liz Opp said...

Oh Paul, Paul.

My heart was heavy in realizing I was not released from my travels to Iowa Conservative's annual sessions, and so I missed this Nightingales, knowing that it may well be the last one at the Last Homely House...

But your post paints and composes such a perfect scene for me, and I was with a handful of Nightingales myself in Iowa, and so I feel doubly blessed, to be close friends, too, with one of these Celestial Mamas.

When I'm on my journey don't you weep after me: an important declaration, as time and our dear, dear fly away.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Jeanne said...

Paul, this brought me to tears, my own jewels. Thank you for sharing it with us. It was a blessing to be able to be there Friday night and I'm sad to not have shared the rest of the weekend with everyone.

It also reminds me of a story I wrote that was published in my school literary journal. Have I shared that with you? It is online at

Paul L said...

No, Jeanne, I haven't read your story, and the link you include doesn't work. Perhaps you can send it to me by e-mail.

You got a flavor of the weekend on Friday, and became part of the whole thing just by being there for a short time. It was truly remarkable. One of the best new songs learned was a farewell round submitted by Cathy Angell, transcribed by Janet H. It was beautiful and should become part of our repitoire. I'll be sure you & Liz get a copy.

Liz Opp said...

Paul, if you or others want to read the piece Jeanne wrote, called "Amazing Grace," it should be here.

And yes, I know the round/song that Kathy has brought to Nightingales. She was at the spring one earlier this year...

The road is calling
and leaves are falling
I'm bound for home
My traveling is done

I'll sit by the fire
and drink a toast
to all of you

I must be gone

Liz, The Good Raised Up