I did not come from a singing family, yet I remember the day the piano was rolled
into our home. My parents neither lauded nor condemned my exploratory jaunts into sound.
This gave me a space that opened spontaneously to my life, where I did not have to announce
or even know what would happen. It was an immersion - without pretention or expectation.
What I do remember, and re-enact each time I sing, is the fluid quality with which I moved, melting into a terrain of sound. It was a place and a time of deep washing, a gentle though passionate rubbing of my being on the rocks of a river that soaked and embraced me, then some time later rode me back in its strong current to my place on that piano bench, in a room with walls, and a life that ticked with regularity and plan, distinctness and expectation.
though I have lived in New England for more than thirty years.
I grew up with one sister in a Southern Baptist family. My parents both came from people
rooted in the farmland and small towns of this rural state. Childhood was quiet, steady,
insular. My father worked with farmers through the Department of Agriculture. My mother
was a teacher and homemaker. Dad's work required frequent moves. Being shy and uninclined
to sports, I turned to my piano and my sister for friendship.
As I finished high school and studied to be a teacher in a small state college, I lay down my relationship with music, setting aside childish things to become adult. But music was more than a childhood pastime. It was my soul that shimmered in the timbre of my voice; my love of self and life was practiced in this deep and intimate relationship with song. My creativity listed. My heart gradually and ever so subtly closed down. I lost myself in those early adult years.
It was only by reclaiming my creative power in song and acting in social movement that I found health again. Gradually I made my way back to that piano bench, to the river that held it in such grace, that made song the essence of life, a deep prayer that permeated every cell and every space between cells with a fertile engagement with the simple act of living.
My singing as a child, what I know now as prayer, was freed from the language of church. It was buoyancy that held without confinement, that affirmed my capacity to shape my heart into sound, that took my burrowed and expansive treasure of being and poured it in real voice upon the air - air that touched my piano, solid and wood - air that floated my unexplainable self to whatever ears beyond the wall might hear. It was an act of childhood courage and innocence to sing.
What I know now - it is still an act of courage to sing - to really sing, in the way that disrobes the heart and lays its curve into the world, that leaves the soul whole and the body shining. Such singing as women leads us into confrontation with entrenched and unjust power. To be true to its timbre, the human voice requires authenticity of body, language, community. In this society, when we shape our body/sexual energy with integrity, tell what we know with candor, and create communities committed to the wellbeing of the whole, we invariably shake the status quo.
The generation of women with whom I have come to consciousness are a remarkable presence in my life. We each had our story and these stories eventually brought us together. For each of us, our lived experience gave us a particularity of entry into the circle.
War became my entry into social movements. Born in 1935, I was a child in World War II. The vulnerability and empathy that came with being a child, combined with the full exposure to broadcasts, newsreels, war movies, letters and conversations - in a community depleted of men, called to war, and held together by courageous and capable women - seeded anti-war and feminist consciousness as an adult.
In the South, the close exposure to one another of black people and white people, of rich and poor, gave me immediate and personal experience of the severity and cruelty of racism and economic injustice and how they intersected. This proximity also gave us the graced moments when the Spirit broke through the human structures and we saw ourselves in one another. The understanding of separation as loss - loss of relationship, human resource, and soul - seeded work for racial and economic justice.
Most institutions of my life - church, school, politics, economics - gave tight prescriptions of what it meant to be a woman. The women's movement broke this open. I began to see the lives of women in my family in a different light - their strength, insight, courage. They lived immersed in their society, yet in many ways pushed out the walls of the tents of their culture. Like the river that gathered me from my early piano bench, the current of liberating power came like a flooding rush on the dredged and banked shores of patriarchy.
Gathering in circles and telling our stories swung many of us into turbulent water. Seeing the patterns emerge from our separate tales brought the beginnings of social analysis, the early startling insights which became a journey, exciting, frightening, deeply compelling. Rage flared and embered. At the same time some inner garden within each of us emerged, revealing blooms. I found that rage rose where love was denied, when that which we loved most was desecrated. Singing helped us honor rage as a companion of women's love.
Over and over I turn back to that unrelenting and determined young woman who would not give in, who refused to continue on without herself, who dared through the pain to find and reclaim her generative energy of life. Through years I have witnessed in my own life and in the lives of so many other women what I can only call Life's Profound Strategy. There is a place of ultimate dignity which cannot be conquered or deformed. At our inner core we are affirmed to be for ourselves and one another who we need to be. Life intends that we hunger to live, to live with spontaneity and intent, in ways that will not betray us and all that has brought us thus far.
The profound energies that have formed galaxies and spread open the first pollen-hungry bud move within us. They have never once abandoned us, though we have abandoned ourselves and one another and have most tragically as humans succeeded in cutting certain ones of us off from self-determination of our vital capacities, which is the spawning of oppression. But always there is that which whispers through the chains, "There is more to life than this. It was never meant to stop here."
In 1970, a young woman student minister asked me to do the music for the first women's service at the Arlington Street Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Boston, where I had moved with my family. Her only request was that it be music written by women. Frustrated by how little music I found written by women, I sat at my piano late one night and sang all that I wanted to say to my three young daughters asleep upstairs. This was the great turning for me - I began to sing from my experience. My life changed significantly.
The women with whom I circled were eager to sing, especially to sing songs that honored our experiences as women - words, images, values. Women loved to sing together. All that we had thought would change quickly, instead entrenched and bore down on us, and we found hope, sustenance, inspiration, tenacity, clarity in singing. We bore witness to our time through song.
For nearly thirty years I have continued to circle with women singing our lives, living our song. I hope that we can engender beyond us the act of singing together as a profound power and heritage - singing as authentic community. To be a group of people is not enough. We need to know why we come together, how far down we must dig to come upon a common bedrock from which our lives are raised. We need to know how we differ and value this difference. This means understanding conflict as well as consensus. This means leaning into honest exchange, being willing to look at the ways we cause suffering and oppression in another's life, and to let this change our own.
Singing does not automatically carry us
there. When singers become the singing, however, some horizon, both inner and outer, opens and
we know, if only briefly, why we live. Such moments do not assure that our plans will succeed,
but we know what is worth doing. We have become part of the singing river, the long voice that
has held, washed, and laid down ten million mornings of song, yet still rises with her bag of
sounds and rubs the currents of river and wind over bare rock, bearing witness to all that
exists in that moment.
I now name myself simply a woman of faith seeking with others to touch what matters. My passion: freeing women's generative energies to act as social, planetary, cosmic beings on behalf of ourselves, one another, and the wellbeing of the whole. My ardent desire is that as a movement we nurture the myriad ways of creative expression as paths to deepen human consciousness, to envision a society worthy of this blessed Creation, to act in ways that are transformative.
I plant my songs where women seek to lean strongly, confidently, passionately into their love of life, knowing that it is our essence to create. Generativity is a natural state of life. Living our lives in ways that heal and uplift, that bring our human family to right relationship and reverence, is deep and beautiful purpose.
The river sings on. . .