Sunday, May 27, 2012

Life review by means of musical memories

I purchased a CD featuring  Zamfir on his pan flute. I had been looking for it for a while. Wonderful stuff. When he played  “Lara’s Tune,”  I was transported back to the Student Union at Wichita State University in the late 1960s. My husband had died a few years earlier and I was taking summer school classes towards a master’s degree in English to improve my work prospects.  I had four children to support. 

I left for Wichita, about 60 miles away, early in the morning before the children were awake.  They had to get themselves up and make their own breakfast and lunch.  I returned shortly after lunch. But there, in the Student Union, “Somewhere my love,” or Lara’s Tune,  the theme song from the dramatic movie Dr. Zhivago floated from the juke box every noon as I ate my solitary lunch of one hamburger.   My thoughts were not with Dr. Z’s search for his lost Lara, but with my children, alone at home, wondering what they were doing, and why I wasn’t with them. 

That little return journey into the past reinforced for me that music, in any form,  is always more than just a group of notes set to a beat. Each remembered piece is a powerful symbol that evokes our inner journey, the part other people can’t see.  

When I was a child I learned “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me.”  That little tune still evokes good memories of vacation Bible school sword drills and flannel graph lessons. 
“The little brown church in the valley” also brings back good memories of driving in our over-packed car to church on Sunday mornings with everyone but Mother and the baby singing  “There’s a church in the valley.” We sang gleefully,  shouting with childish gusto at  the chorus:  “Come, come, come, come, come to the church in the valley.”  We were singing in parts. We were a family. We were whole. 

But on those trips Dad also sang Heimatlieder (Songs of heaven). They had a dimension I never understood until decades later. These hymns sung with great feeling by the Mennonites in the Ukraine during the  1917-19 Revolution and the famine that followed expressed a longing to move to a better place where  hunger, illness,  sorrow,  violence in indescribable forms,  and death would be no more. 

I remember best  Meine Heimat ist dort in der Hoeh” (My home is up higher), but my immigrant father sang many more of these songs  in the car and with the congregation in the little church we attended about twenty miles away, a good hour’s travel that included a ferry boat ride. Those songs said, “Get us out of here, Lord. Life is too painful.”

Growing up were songs we learned in school, all very British and Canadian.  “D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?”   We children knew nothing about Peel’s red coat or hunting foxes with hounds, but we sang with abandon about him, the  Men of Harlech,  and the Minstrel Boy who went off to war with “his father’s sad harp slung behind him.” 

The romantic music   of my youth like The Blue Danube, Skater’s Waltz, Beautiful Dreamer, and many more still makes me fairly swoon. Life was opening up. Life was delicious.  A  young man who had taken my fancy whistled “Mexicali Rose” every time  he strolled past our yard.  I rushed to the gate when I heard him coming. 

I recall the youth fellowship choruses  during my Saskatoon days, also the piano music,  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, my husband and I listened to together after the children were in bed – relaxing yet uplifting. 

When daughter Christine was dying she and I  played the Singing Nun’s “Joy Is Like the Rain,”  until I was sure we would wear the record out. That recprd  will always be  comfort but also a  sorrow.

As I get older I find myself turning to the old hymns and Gospel songs I sang earlier in life. They show me a well-worn path to God’s presence.  I still wait for the rolling basses to come in at the chorus of  “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”  And I sorrow for congregations who have never learned to sing four-part harmony and never heard a huge congregation sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” while knowing that you belonged to these people and that these people were yours. 
Hymns teach theology like preaching never can, especially those sung so often the words are imprinted indelibly on my mind. When we elders hear only praise choruses, sometimes with a disturbing beat that hurts our eardrums,  or even just the chorales  first sung  during the Reformation period, we feel disoriented.  We have lost powerful symbols of our faith that regularly drew us into the presence of God.  These old Gospel tunes  remind me of the familiar Lord to whom I committed myself years ago. 

Life review is an important exercise as we age I am told by gerontologists.  It can be done in many ways.  Through remembered, or re-entered music, is just one, a good one.

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