Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Singing is all you Have

Imagine Vermont; population 620,000 living, for the most part, in relative peace and security.

Now imagine a major earthquake leveling every building in Chittenden County, damaging most others across the state, killing about 13,500 outright, and destroying all highways, ports, and airports. Imagine the suffering in the intense winter cold without fresh water, heat, food, or medicine. Imagine watching your loved ones slowly dying of flu, dysentery, and untreated wounds; or suffocated under tones of crushed concrete.

Except for the cold, this is the situation in Haiti, relatively speaking. It is a catastrophe that is almost unimaginable to those of us reading the news in the comfort of our living rooms.

To Jim and Ann McGarrell, the proportions of this disaster are not unimaginable. The loss of your child (artist Flo McGarrell) is all too real, and all too tragic to bear--the result of a terrible series of coincidences in a country that has known more than its share of despair and tragedy. Our hearts go out to you, your immediate family and close circle of friends.

There are dozens of stories circulating on NPR, on YouTube, and word of mouth about individual stories of heroism, of stoicism, and of survival.

The ones that have struck me the most are the stories of people gathering, usually at nighttime, in parking lots, fields, and even in roads; sharing what little food and water they have, and...


Sometimes they sing hymns, sometimes patriotic tunes like their national anthem, and sometimes simple folk-tunes handed down through the generations.

I am reminded of Jacques D'amboise, the well-known principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, who gave eloquent testimony to Sen. Jim Jeffords Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He told of an imaginary tribe of iron-age hominids, sleeping outside and seeing, for the first time, the Perseid Meteor Shower. The songs and dances they created to celebrate, or perhaps ward off this extra-terrestrial display of the gods, was something he started to re-enact in the senate committee room on Capitol Hill. "Ooh!" (step, step, step) "Ahh!" (step, step, step).

Singing, especially communal singing, creates community. It bridges relationships among people. It helps them to share their joys and their woes; to celebrate their successes and acknowledge their fears. It helps heal a wounded body. It certainly heals a wounded soul.

Clearly Haiti, and many other countries besides, need much more than singing in order to survive. But singing is what they are doing now. For many, it's all they have.

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