We were all done having babies, our big three now bright persons in their own right, when Maggie was born. We had to get a new crib, a new car seat, new baby clothes: everything new but the books. We have always kept the books and I imagine we always will: shelves of worn out board books beloved by all of the now-lanky Bessey babies remain until the end. That last little baby is a busy toddler and I’m understanding in a whole new way why babies are often a younger woman’s game. I look forward all day to this moment, the moment when she begins to settle and we find our way to the creaky old rocking chair in the corner of the room to page through these old favourites one last time. After reading “Good Night Moon” and “Guess How Much I Love You” tonight, I held onto her just a little longer and I sang into her hair because my heart was aching.
You Are My Sunshine and then Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird and then Amazing Grace. We finished with Lavender Blue, moving back-and-forth slowly together, lullabies. Maggie’s eyes were sleepy and she was still for the first time since her feet hit the floor twelve hours earlier as I quietly sang the old nonsense of “Lavender blue, dilly-dilly / Lavender green / when I am king dilly-dilly, you shall be queen. / who told you so, dilly-dilly? who told you so? / ’twas my own heart, dilly-dilly, that told me so.” Her blonde hair is as fine as silk, it lays flat on her head like a cap and the wisps move with each of my breaths over her head while I sing. By contrast, her sister Evie has a mop of thick golden-brown molasses curls which only gets bigger instead of longer: yesterday she plaintively asked why Maggie wakes up with her hair “already done” while she has to endure a de-tangling session every morning of her life. Those are the breaks, kid, I said easily, now hold still, I’m almost done here.
When you sing songs like lullabies, you hear that note of plaintive longing to the words, don’t you?
Yesterday a terrorist attacked a crowd of people at a pop concert in Manchester with a bomb. There were children in that crowd: a little eight-year-old girl was killed and she is the same age as my own sandy-haired son. There were parents my age in that crowd, waiting for their children. I imagine packs of teenaged girls, tottering on high heels, afraid and longing for the mums just outside the gate. That same day, I learned about more deaths in Syria, about a young man murdered by a white supremacist, about the impact of the famine in Sudan, about problems with my nation’s inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women right here at home. Everyone belongs to someone. I was rocking a beloved child here in my suburban home in Canada but for a minute it felt like all of the world was there on my lap.
Somehow becoming a mother also birthed a more bruised heart within me. It’s strange, really, how much one can get done while some subterranean part of one’s soul is holding a breath for the ones who can’t breathe. Even bedtimes become vigils.
I don’t have a good voice – I can carry the tune but that’s because I grew up in church. I grew up singing songs from an over-head projector in old gyms and community centres with terrible acoustics rather than from a hymn book in a chapel. I grew up clapping on the two-and-four and kicking my small heels in a make-shift Pentecostal polka with the songs we called “praise” because they were fast and I swayed like a mama with a baby on her hip during the slow “worship” songs (see, that’s why we called it praise and worship). My own children are well-acquainted with how my voice sounds when I sing-declare “great is thy faithfulness” and I hope someday they’ll ask me more about why I believe it down to my bones.
We don’t sing communally much in our culture anymore, not really. Oh, we warble along sometimes with the national anthems at the hockey games but we don’t get together to sing like previous generations. We don’t pass the evenings with songs in the kitchen and we rarely gather in churches to lift our voices. We watch people sing a lot: we pay people to sing to us. Like we did with most of what makes us human, we’ve professionalized singing. We leave it up to the ones who are really good at it or paid to do it. We often aren’t acquainted with the sound of our song unless we’re singing along with a professional in a concert hall or an arena or even in the car. Maybe that’s why we look forward to things like concerts: we have a chance to unabashedly sing along.
I read once that when people sing together, their heartbeats sync. It slows all of us down and we resonate with one another on a cellular level of our biology. It’s not just what we sing, it’s that we’re singing together. That’s part of what makes communal singing so amazing whether it’s at a concert in Manchester or a church service or a kitchen party: our hearts are literally beating as one.
I think that’s one reason – of many – why I still go to church. I want my children to feel their hearts beating with the people of God and with their mother’s heart while we sing the songs I hum in the rocking chair. My children are growing up in a different world than I grew up in: the technological revolution has guaranteed this. But I can give them an imperfect song to sing and a heartbeat to listen to while they rock.
Lament is its own sort of song. When we gather to grieve like they did in Manchester, we are also humming a song across the globe in our hearts and the song is this: love is stronger than fear. Blessings are stronger than curses. Unity is stronger than hate. Hope is rising. Peace has her work boots on today. We gather because we all belong to someone and so we belong to each other. Our hearts are singing the cord of our grief and our hope together and we’re all holding on tight.
I was rocking our youngest last night as she fell asleep, safe in her mother’s arms, and I was also singing along with the whole world, I think. There are things to do and we’ll rise to do them, I know. We’re rise to the questions of our time and we’ll be strong and brave and true. We’ll pass legislation and root out hate and play the long game of hearts and minds. We need poets and policy makers for this sort of work. We’re participating in setting things right and it’s not for the faint of heart.
But first, on nights like this, the nights of lament, we’re also singing along – nursery rhymes, hymns, anthems, whatever – with each other because it’s a form of prayer. We’ll hold our babies while we sing because somehow we know we’re also holding space in our hearts for other women’s babies. This is how we sync our heartbeats. We’ll light candles all over the world because the night is navy blue but we aren’t afraid of the dark: our heartbeats are a sanctuary of the light we’re tending together. We won’t back down and we won’t be silenced. Maggie fell asleep in arms and I stayed to pray a bit longer even though I still had three more to tuck into bed with books and songs and prayers, too.
The light is growing brighter, hope is rising still because we’re nothing if not stubborn about surviving, and we’re holding hands and still we’re singing because someday love wins, tears are wiped away, everything is made right and the truth will set us free. We long for it because we know it’s our birthright like we know the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst now – ’twas our own hearts, dilly-dilly, that told us so.