If you listen to NPR, you may have already heard this story run during Weekend Edition yesterday. If you haven’t heard it, you can either give a quick listen through this link or read the audio transcript. It is a lovely piece about our Threshold Choir sisters singing for hospice patients in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville’s choir is fairly young. We’ve had a recent growth spurt in our eight year old Tucson choir that is very exciting and we keep welcoming new folks. If you just found us by googling and searching around the web, great! Please feel free to use the ‘contact us’ form on the blog and we’ll be in touch with you soon.
During our rehearsals, as we work on listening and blending our voices through our core songs, we are becoming more connected and committed to this work. It is true as one of the Threshold board members says in the NPR story, we are in many ways “reclaiming our humanity”. Simply by the acts of pausing, resting in silence together and then sharing songs during times of transition, we sense into being more present and more human, with each vibration of a new note.
Yesterday was a bright and sunny day in Tucson, balmy compared to much of the country who shivered with temps at or way below the zero degree mark. Six members of our choir gathered on the humble front steps of an adult care home to ‘warm up’ our voices for singing winter carols on what might have felt like a spring day to many folks. We went inside to find a semi-circle of elderly faces in the living room, some sleeping, some expectant, with a couple of caregivers present amongst them. Just what we hoped. We came to sing in honor of a woman who had recently transitioned in this home, to celebrate her life, and those who knew her and/or cared for her on her journey, all on behalf of her family.
We sang a few of our core Threshold Choir songs, yet realized quickly that on this ‘ninth day of Christmas’ the holiday spirit was still mighty present! We shifted into familiar tunes like Away in a Manger, Silent Night, Joy to the World . . . you know the stable of songs. Faces brightened, singing along opened up with cheer. Jingle Bells was likely the crowd favorite!
Then we went to the house next door and sang to a new group in the living room. One lady had a series of questions for us: “Where did you come from? What church do you go to? Do you know my minister?” I can see why she wondered from where on earth we appeared in her living room. Understandable! And as our ‘voice’ of the choir that day answered her questions with the response “we come from many faiths and our songs are written by members from various traditions or beliefs systems” – Baha’i to Jewish to Universalist to Baptist to well, you name it – I stood in quiet awe of what Threshold Choir does across this country.
We sing from a place without faith boundaries for people during fragile times. We sing openly from our hearts. We let ourselves be vulnerable. We sing into grace.
And hopefully, from there we issue peace.
(And yes, we learn something every single time.)
Then, this morning my meditation reading catalyzed this post. It relates so well to our experience yesterday and this sweet inquisitive lady’s questions. The author of my reading, Mark Nepo, writes:
“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot – free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry – an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.
To know this spot of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and inhabiting it.”
More and more through singing with Threshold Choir, it feels like we sense our place “in relation to the Infinite” because we honestly do stand at infinite thresholds. It matters little what faith we do or don’t bring into these spaces; what kind of clothes we wear or where we work. All that matters, really, is the grace we sing into along the way.
The week before Christmas, we were privileged to sing once again at a hospice where we regularly do. Since these visits are not associated with particular singing requests, we often sing softly in the hallways between rooms and ask at each room, after consulting with the staff, if patients or loved ones would like us to enter and sing. We have found that for us and for the places we support, both requests and this more improvisational style works.
On this visit, after warming up in the lobby and checking in with staff about which rooms might invite music, we went to those identified to introduce ourselves and ask if they wanted singing. We do not know what we will find when invited into a room. In what state are the people in the room? What do they want or need in this moment? What perspectives do they hold?
The staff suggested a particular room to begin. When we approached, the two people inside, a mother and daughter, were awake and eager for music. We asked if they had any holiday requests and based on their responses, we selected several of the more upbeat holiday songs that we had prepared, such as “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls”. Throughout the year, we sing almost strictly Threshold choir music, but during the holidays, we vary this as holiday music has great meaning for many. The women sang along with us, creating an atmosphere of impromptu caroling, bringing in the spirit of the season. After singing about three songs, the daughter thanked us, a usual sign that they release us, that it’s time for us to go. We thanked them and wished them the best for the holidays.
The next room the staff suggested was just down the hall. They had heard us singing and warmly invited us in. There were similarly two women in this room. However, both were about the same age, perhaps late 50’s, and here was a more somber atmosphere. After the two women and we briefly settled into the space and asked if they had any requests, we chose “What Child Is This” for them. Almost immediately, they both began to weep silently. One of the women, who had sat down on a chair across the room, went to the bedside of the other woman to hold her hand. We continued to sing as they wept together, holding hands. When we had finished the song, they thanked us, still with tears in their eyes. We wished them the best for the holidays, grasping their hands before walking out silently.
Our last two rooms had one woman each. The first was awake, alert, and sitting up in a chair. We selected some of the more secular holiday songs, such as “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow.” She gratefully listened and seemed to find nostalgia and peace in the songs. She shared some of her story with us, where she was from, and her extensive music and singing background. We sang about three pieces, she thanked us with a smile on her face as we departed. In the last room, we found a comatose woman. The staff had directed us to her, and we sang “Silent Night” to her very softly before wishing her peaceful journey and exiting. We asked at a couple more rooms and their tenants kindly declined music. Finally, we asked the nurse at the nursing station if he would like any music, and he declined, though he and they usually say yes. Their song is the often the last we sing on our visits.
During rehearsals, we not only practice learning music and singing, but holding space and connecting deeply with each other and with the person or persons for and with whom we sing. It is not uncommon for us to be met with tears, particularly when singing songs that have particular meaning for people, as many holiday songs do, or one of the Threshold choir songs with their powerful and simple messages. It is our privilege to carry this vehicle of respite or release, to respond to the suffering we meet or see not with shared suffering, but with compassion. This is our goal, at least, and we are grateful when we have listened well enough to achieve it together. Best wishes for a new year full of connection, community, and compassion.
This is so exciting: you can listen to our founder, Kate Munger, being interviewed on an “All Things Considered” segment here. As I listened to the radio this afternoon in my kitchen, I felt my heart race when I heard Kate’s voice and happily began singing along with Threshold Choir sisters as the piece aired.
During this season of gratitude, a path in my life for which I am most grateful to walk is being a part of the Tucson Threshold Choir. (Based on recent emails to each other over the holiday, I think many in our choir would agree!) When Kate mentions in the story how singing bedside is more of a form of prayer than ‘performance’, in response to Arun’s question about it being kind of stressful, I felt tears well up in my being.
“Yes. Thank you, Kate!” I said aloud. And felt a huge swell of gratefulness to her: thank you for bringing the possibility of your songs to so many of us across this country.
Whether our choir rehearses together in the Little Chapel of All Nations or sings in an ICU hospital room, care facility dining room, inpatient hospice hallway or silent bedroom of a home . . . singing for the dying and their caregivers – or even sometimes for ourselves – is a tender experience. A delicate and sacred unspoken kind of prayer is woven throughout our songs.
So, it was hot in the Sonoran Desert today. As in 106 degrees hot.
Important to note not because I’m whining. Rather notable because, by the end of singing our last song in rehearsal tonight, I was covered in goosebumps.
Nah, you say. How is that possible?
Well, maybe it’s magic. I don’t know. I’m never sure how to explain it. It may be from the angel wings flapping around us! It is surely divine, however it happens. There is this unquantifiable and indescribable shimmer, a kind of vibrational healing that occurs when we sing from our hearts, with intentions of love and healing.
To begin the rehearsal, Melissa and I admitted we felt tired and had icky heat-related headaches. We let ourselves be on the floor horizontally, to rest a bit and have fun with stream of consciousness singing, for the cooling humor of it. Somehow, we stumbled into a pretty gnarly rendition of “King of the Road” when a stranger walked into the Chapel and could easily have thought we were nuts. She was looking for a hospice meeting, one that had occurred last week. So as fate would have it, she is a hospice volunteer who offers body work to patients in their homes. She had just come from working with a 27 year old woman dying from cancer.
This is not an everyday task, that just anybody does, you know?
Naturally, Melissa and I sat up and asked this kind stranger, who we later learned has the name Jane, if she would like to receive a song or two. We could see she might be willing. “Now?” she asked. “Yes, now,” we replied.
She paused for a split second and exclaimed, “I would absolutely love that!” And we quickly made her a place to become comfortably horizontal on the floor herself. She readily claimed it. We chatted for a few moments, she mentioned something about angels. We instantly knew the song to begin: So Many Angels. She softened into receiving. When we checked in with her a few songs later she was comfortable, kind of glowing in a giddiness about this shift in experience and ‘turning off her mind’ in order to only BE and receive. Something so simple! And yet, so rare. Such an unexpected gift. For all three of us.
Forty-five minutes later, with quite a few songs covered, we three were strangers no more. We felt connected and known in a peaceful way that makes words feel flimsy.
A huge gift for Melissa and I came in hearing Jane’s unabashed joy and account of how she felt: “like angels were all around her” and a palpable sense of vibrational healing. She noticed very early on how different it was to hear voices coming from human hearts so near her (we were sitting on the floor on either side of her), unlike hearing music from an electronic source. She told us how “intimate, earthy and feminine” the experience felt – all at once – likely because our voices are untrained and soft, coming from a place that is like a mother singing her child a soft lullaby.
I’m barely doing this exchange any justice, although I’m trying so readers can get a glimpse. Singing in Threshold Choir is a total joy unlike any other in my life. Pure and simple. When we have these encounters, these wordlessly intimate and graceful times with people living and dying, I feel like we all come to a deep and nourishing well. It has sparkling water and we don’t just stand there looking at it longingly. We take long, deliciously satisfying gulps of our sense of our humanity, of our connectedness and our innate loving natures.
Like Jane said when she slowly stood up after receiving our songs, “I feel REFRESHED! I feel renewed and full of love.”
Yep. Melissa and I did, too! Thank you, Jane, for missing your meeting last week and showing up this week instead. We couldn’t be happier you found us.
P.S. Here is a tack-on gift for our readers. Try letting yourself be soft and receive a threshold choir song in this video. (Go ahead, turn it up and lay yourself down on the floor, even!) Perhaps you’ll have a small taste of the feeling I try to convey in this post.