As is our annual practice, some of us gathered at the Meditation Shelter in the night of December 31 for a time of quiet, bringing whatever was in our hearts. Once again we walked through a moon-bathed forest to the Shelter, aglow in candlelight and warmed by the wood stove. The Shelter has wonderful acoustics, and I was eager to hear the sound of us singing in it. I had brought a new song, a simple chant from West Africa, that I learned from Michael Meade’s new cd A Song Is a Road. It is called “Azima”, and it is a song in praise of the Earth. But before (and in between) our singing it, I had a few reflections to share. Below is an adaptation of those thoughts:
As we have done for the past few years, the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community gathered at one of our homes about a week before Christmas to sing carols. Josh accompanied on guitar, Keith on banjo. Kate and Joy added sweet harmony; the rest of us sang along, some in dulcet tones, most just cheerfully doing our best.
It is a few weeks on and we are gathered in the Meditation Shelter at the turn of the year, enveloped in candlelight and fire glow. The dark trees and moonlit sky are all around us just beyond these old stone walls that hold so many stories and prayers. It is customary in this in between moment to pause and acknowledge the year past and the year to come. Perhaps in this particular turbulent moment in the story of the world, review and analysis, as well as resolve and hope are inadequate. Perhaps the only thing to do is sing.
I have been pondering the place of song and singing in our lives right now. A certain kind of song, like a certain kind of story or a particular poem, has the ability to take us to another realm, a place of imagination, a heart place. In that place beyond the hard edges and definitions of the world, it is possible to come to know and feel the connections that invisibly bind us to one another and to all the creatures and beings with whom we share our home. In times of great trouble, or great joy, there are thoughts, impulses, experiences, feelings, prayers that rise up full-throated from that heart place into voice.
Storyteller-mythologist Michael Meade points out that there are songs that began somewhere long ago and have a timeless resonance in the human heart and soul. He uses such songs in his community building workshops and activities. I am convinced that the history and melody and tones of songs like these can be paths to a place of grounding and healing; the contours and meanderings of each change from song to song, but the destination remains. I’m sure we have all experienced this with certain songs we have encountered and sung in times of celebration, or sorrow, or both.
Right now, the world seems to be churning and roiling, with upheavals and storms in nature and divisions and disruptions in culture …everything we’ve experienced this past year. It can be disorienting and dispiriting. A song is a way to feel grounded and inspirited again, to know we are connected to the earth, to one another, and even to the things we came to do in this world.
But the sweetest thing about a song is that not only can it help us feel grounded, connected, and held, but in Michael’s words: “you can take a song … and you can send it to anyone in the world. If there’s someone that we know who is having trouble all you do is think of them and sing [a] song to them and the song can travel all the way to where they are and wrap them in protection. At least that’s what the old people say and me, I like that idea, and I’m sticking with it.”
The truth is there are songs like this all around us, some we already know, some we learn from wise teachers, and some we hear in the sacred air. Just walking back from the Retreat House to the community, the wind whispers in the trees, a pileated woodpecker adds a raucous note, the leaves rustle in time underfoot. These songs are the music that accompanies us in this threshold time, not only tonight’s threshold between one year and the next, but the threshold we seem to be on as a people and a planet, when familiar things are crumbling all around but new patterns have yet to emerge. While our age feels edgy, dark, and dangerous, it is also a potent time, full of possibility; and it is in these times when we are given exactly the songs we need: deep songs of the earth, ancient songs that began long ago, and new songs rising out of our hearts. So may stand on the threshold singing.