Monday, November 13, 2017

Rise Up Singing

Soon as we all cook sweet potatoes/Sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes/Soon as we all cook sweet potatoes/Eat ‘em right straight up. I sang my boys to sleep with this song, rubbing their backs. In the car, I sang them Pete Seeger’s “Let’s Go Riding in the Car-car” and at their birthday parties, I had everyone make up animals and rhymes for “I Wish I Was a Lizard in the Stream.” I wanted Ben and Noah to be raised on singing, as I had been.

My mother filled our family with music--Joan Baez records, piano lessons, outings to symphonies and musicals. I loved helping her transform lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “My Fair Lady” into fanciful songs for story theater with her third graders. Thanks to her, I came of age harmonizing to the folk-rock and protest songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and joining in the counterpoint of classical choruses. 

I sang to my mother to distract her from the pain of cancer at 47, and I knew I had to at least try to sing at her memorial service. I chose a haunting tune, “Mayn Rue Platz (My Resting Place),” in the Yiddish of my mother’s childhood: And if you love me with true love/Then come to me, my beloved/And lift this burden from my heart/And make sweet my resting place. Somehow, I was able to stand up and sing, though I felt like crumpling to the floor. For years after, I’d go to my mother’s resting place in a maple grove by a lake and sing to her, Walk me out in the morning dew …

After I lost my son, Noah, to suicide in 2013, I lost my voice for a while. Songs I used to enjoy at synagogue left me gasping with grief and I’d have to stop. God, the soul you have given me is pure --for months, I couldn’t even begin the chant, so contaminated did my soul feel with guilt and remorse. Slowly, I made up verses for a lament for Noah that I sang with half a voice while staring at a stream: How I wished that I had told you/Every day and every night/That I loved you and would help you/And everything would be alright. It took a long time—a lot of yoga and mourning and conscious cultivation of breath--to feel the flow that I was watching by that stream move inside me again.

It helped to start singing in public before I was fully ready. Hesitantly at first, I joined the cantor and her prayer team on Saturday mornings at synagogue. Week after week, the rousing repertoire lifted my voice out of the place where it was stuck. I desperately needed to “rise up singing,” as the title of a favorite song book urges. I sought out voice lessons, where I learned to release my voice and find its power. 

The other day while having a singing Shabbat at home by myself, I suddenly missed Noah and grabbed a photo of him to gaze at while I sang. One line into the chant about the pure soul, my voice cracked into a croak and went down the hole again. I couldn’t meet Noah’s eyes or finish the prayer. Grief is never done and remorse still surfaces. The difference is that now, I know how to recover my breath and shape it back into the sound it wants to be. 

I’ve been cultivating my voice since Noah’s death through singing, writing, and public speaking. It’s a revelation when I bring that voice to light and others, like you, give it a soft place to land in the world.* I was recently paging through personal writings on suicide grief from a wide set of sources and realizing afresh that with this blog and my book, I add my voice to a chorus of survivors that’s been resounding for decades. We break the silence with our collective howling and soothing of the grieving soul. Though each one follows a different melody or rhythm, we’re all tuned to the key of sorrow, coming together in chords of dissonance and resolution. 

“The Power of Our Voice” was the inspired title of a suicide prevention conference in Los Angeles two years ago. Those whose lives have been touched by suicide need to break the silence, again and again. Someday at one of our gatherings, I’d like to rise up singing with my fellow survivors of suicide loss and feel the power of our collective voice.  

*Note: I’m honored to be reading from my book, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss, as part of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, Saturday, November 18, 2017, 11:30am-4pm, at Venice Church, 2241 Walgrove Ave., Venice, 90066; all survivors are welcome at this free event  (for more info about this and other Survivor Day events around the U.S., see American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). I’ll also be reading from and signing the book on Thursday, November 30, 7pm at Flintridge Bookstore, 1010 Foothill Bl. in La Canada. Please come and introduce yourself if you’re in the area.

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