How can I keep from singing?

Sunday was my first day back in any church since the end of July. PW generally takes the four Sundays of August off for vacation, for much needed rest and renewal. Usually, she continues to attend church, visiting a variety of different parishes or Quaker meetings in the area. In the past, I have gone to Quaker meetings with her, but this year, I gave myself the whole month off.

You might be thinking, “Hey, PW is the one doing all the heavy lifting on Sundays. Why do YOU need a month off, Joyhowie?” Let’s just say that I have my reasons, but if I trotted them all out, before you got to the end of this piece you’d likely be asleep or you’d be over at YouTube watching funny animal videos. You may need to nod off or seek some more lively diversion anyway, and if that’s the case, no worries. It’s not like I’d know, unless of course you told me, which would be, well, rude.

If you’ve been following my musings for more than a couple of whiles, it should be no surprise to you that my favorite part of church has always been the music. I initially found my way back to church in my late 20s because I missed the phenomenon that is congregational and choral singing. I love to sing, and I especially love to sing with other people. I discovered this in high school, when I auditioned for Concert Choir as a senior. To my astonishment, I made the cut. For all I know, anyone who worked up the nerve to audition was admitted, but I didn’t care. I was thrilled to make it, even as I suspected that the teacher only took me on because he thought I was funny.

In Concert Choir, I was an alto. I often sat between one of my best buddies, Greg, who sang baritone, and a girl named Lisa who had one of the most beautifully rich alto voices I had ever heard. I loved sitting on this fault line, feeling the two parts colliding in and on my ears, and my entire body. If the baritones were singing in the high part of their range, I often cheated over and sang with them. Mostly, though, I rode along on the broad wake of Lisa’s remarkable voice. As a side note, Lisa recently found me on Facebook and we are reconnected after more than 30 years of no contact whatsoever. I’ve told her this before, but I haven’t said it to Greg, and it’s worth repeating: Thank you Lisa and Greg for helping me learn how to sing.

This past Sunday morning, I was happy to re-join the small and occasionally mighty summer pickup choir after my month away. As we began our warmups, when I first opened my mouth to sing, I was taken aback at what came out. I was expecting more of a flabby, wobbly croak, since my only singing during my month off has either been of the goofy variety, or singing along with a CD or the radio. What came out of me felt less like a croak, and more like a boom. I love when that happens.

My boom was quickly trimmed down to size by my struggle with reading my part. I’ve never been a very good sight reader, relying more on what feels like a kind of vocal braille, moving along by feel, as opposed to sight. After a month away from sight reading, I slogged through the choral parts of the service, thankful for familiar hymns with alto and tenor parts that I can sing almost entirely from memory. There was a woman in the front row who was in church because it was the first anniversary of her husband’s death. She wept through most of the service, and when I decided to sing to her, for her, my boom came back.

I woke up this morning with the hymn “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (How Can I Keep From Singing?)” in my head. I have two powerful memories of this hymn.

The first is of singing this as the recessional hymn at my Mammaw’s funeral. My dad presided over the service, and he was suffering from a bout of Ménière’s disease, triggered as it often is by air travel. He alternated in color from green to ashy, and several times during the service looked like he might faint. The hymnal of my parents’ denomination has an almost peppy, syncopated arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, and when we got to the rousing chorus — “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging./Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” — I watched my queasy, dizzy dad begin to bounce on his toes. His eyes lit up, and his color went from ashy green to almost rosy. If he had been a light bulb, we would have been blinded by his radiance. I have preferred that arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing?” ever since, at least for choral/congregational singing.

Enya’s “Shepherd Moons” album has a breathy, new agey version of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, which I used to play a lot when I was learning massage therapy in a previous life. I spent a month in an intensive massage therapy class at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA in the late fall of 1993. At the end of our training, we had to give a massage to one of our instructors, so that they could give us feedback on how we were applying what we had learned.

View from a massage table at Esalen

The Esalen Institute sits on a cliffy slice of land between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. Most of the massage areas face the ocean, without any doors or windows. I gave my evaluation massage to one of our older instructors, Peggy, who had been affiliated with Esalen for decades. It was mid-afternoon on a gorgeous early December day, and it was warm enough to do the massage on one of the outdoor tables, overlooking the ocean.

As I worked my way around Peggy’s body, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks below, I found myself humming Enya’s arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing?” I worked and hummed slowly, almost dreamily, letting the sound of the surf set my tempo. I could feel the music filling up my body, spilling out of my arms and hands and into Peggy’s body. I saw a couple of tears fall onto the sheet under her face. When it was time for her to turn over onto her back, she didn’t move. I shook her gently, and she when she finally opened her eyes, Peggy smiled at me dreamily and said, “Whatever that was you were humming worked some kind of magic on me.”

Congregational and choral singing often have that effect on me, whether I’m listening to a group perform, or whether I’m singing along. A good massage, to good music, does the same thing, but those are fewer and farther between for me these days. My month away from church was an unintentional sabbath for my ears and my cells, which are so sensitive to music, especially choral music. As is often the case, I had no idea how thirsty I was for it, both as a listener and as a singer. It’s good to be back.

Eva Cassidy’s version of “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” is more like the version in my parents’ church hymnal.

Here’s Enya’s version. Trust me, it’s worth finding a massage therapist who can hum this, especially if she/he happens to have a massage table that overlooks an ocean.

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7 responses to “How can I keep from singing?

  1. Eva was from my old stomping grounds. Met her once. Was the best!!

  2. Enya’s and Eva’s versions, quite different in lyrics and style, also differ from the original Robert Lowry (1826-1899) text. The Quaker tune was powerfully harmonic, and this combination is the only way I’ve ever sung it. It would never have been in my church’s hymnal, published in 1981, but for the unforgettable experience of hearing it sung at a Plymouth Rock, MA Thanksgiving celebration in 1977. Barbara Howard, a member of the hymnal production committee, went home from that place on fire with getting “My Life Flows On…” in the new hymnal.
    And now, your revival of it stirs my memories of many things, including your colorful references to your mamaw’s funeral service in the South in 1991. What a splendid witness to the pervasive impact of singing you’ve given us today! Thanks.

  3. This hymn holds special meaning for me too. After thyroid surgery found cancer there was great concern that I wouldn’t be able to sing again. When in celebration that this was not the case I found myself in the Temple in Independence singing with the wonderful organ and an enthusiastic gathering of folks this very song. It reminded me that I had been given my voice back again and how could I ever keep from singing. I was so moved that the actual title of the song escaped my memory until now and I am so happy to have it back so that I can revisit it again in our hymnal. Please give my thanks to Barbara for insisting on it’s inclusion – my life would not be the same without it.

  4. Who doesn’t want a massage therapist who works on you overlooking the Pacific ocean humming anything at all but this is wonderful…. Once again your blog rocks….sing it sistah, or hum it softly to yourself and a friend, or belt it out for those who cannot belt it out anymore. BTW I remember the wonderful you gave me in your training….in that previous life…

  5. Thanks for another lovely post, Joy! I learned “How Can I…” when doing liturgical music with the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia. Years later, I made a piano and voice arrangement that contrasts with both of the versions you posted. Unfortunately, I can’t track down a digital recording of it at the moment – if I do, I will pass it along.

  6. Susie Martin-Wilson

    Joy, I love reading your blogs. You are so talented. I didn’t realize you were in choir at Truman. Keep up the wonderful work that you do. Love Ya, Your long time friend!

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