Lost & Found – Hymns and Shanties: Listening Still

When I was very young, I was a staggering toddler drunk on milk and wonder, and lullabies and nursery rhymes. My head was filled with songs that were mine alone. I would lie awake for hours in my crib, so I have been told, babbling in the singsong tongue of lunatics and infants. I was fascinated by the strange, gaping creature staring back at me from the silvered window behind my mother’s dresser, knowing instinctively to communicate with it only in song.

For a long time, I didn’t sing my own songs. I sang other people’s songs. The ones they taught me in church. I sang approved songs, formulated songs. All the ones they taught me in school. I chanted the times and elements tables. I sang anthems and nineteenth century hymns. I was told that in this life you must always sing for your supper, and the songs you sing must be the songs that are soothing to other people’s ears. Don’t sing too loudly or too softly. Make sure you memorize the words, and don’t you dare mangle the tune.

As I wandered around, I met many, many people who had given up singing altogether. They sat in the darkened corners of empty rooms, with their eyes cast down, hoping not to be seen, certainly not heard.

The more rebellious ones I met gathered beneath bridges and in vacant lots, warming their hands at oil drums filled with burning paper and rags. They sang raucous, disturbing songs filled with an insane beauty and logic all their own. Sometimes I would stop, on my way to or from someplace of enforced silence and listen to their crazy, dangerous rasping.

Later on (too much later on, but oh well) I noticed a strange kind of singing all around me. I noticed it in the laughter of the factory girls and office secretaries eating their sandwiches on summer days. I noticed it in the thwack of windshield wipers and the crunch of boots on snow. I heard it with my eyes in the cacophony of paint on canvas, and the rhythm of words on paper. I heard it in the sweet rich voices of the ones I love. I heard it in sacred hymns and in lusty shanties. I heard its high notes, drunk with wonder, calling to me across a sea of years. And I’m listening still.

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