The other night, as I processed laundry in the basement, sorting soggy garments, transferring delicates to the drying rack and tossing un-delicates into the ancient Harvest Gold dryer, I found myself singing “Beautiful Savior,” a beloved old hymn from my childhood. It’s a lovely tune with resonant, comforting words. I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t yet know it.
It got me thinking.
My basement hymn-singing is one of my oldest habits, one of my first self-soothing strategies. As a girl, I was terrified of basements. The first had one friendly, semi-finished playroom, but also an unfinished concrete warren of scary furnace sounds and dark, spider-webbed corners. And once, a stray spark from the fireplace above fell through the hearth, smoldering in the ceiling below, nearly causing a devastating housefire and fusing my fear of basements with my even greater fear of fire. The second was darker, even scarier, with a terrifying octopus furnace from a long-gone era. When sent to these basements on errands for my mother, I took to singing or whistling “A Mighty Fortress is our God” while I scurried down and back, dragging my little brother with me if I could.
I used to sing all the time. In the shower, for a good 20 minutes to my girls at bedtime, as I cleaned and walked the dog and made supper in the kitchen. I knew the words to countless songs— folk songs and ballads, 60’s protest songs and protestant hymns, nursery rhymes and love songs—and accompanied myself during my days by singing them to a select audience of—myself.
I also listened to a lot of music, on CD, before that on cassette tape or LP. Music filled my life, informed my existence with singular energy and storytelling and metaphoric contemplation of various emotional and life states. My housecleaning jumpstart song was The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” my kitchen floor scrubbing soundtrack was provided on Saturday nights by Fiona Ritchie, Bruce was a great companion to all manner of chores.
And I have allowed this life-giving, sustaining music to largely leave my life.
About 10 years ago, I experienced a change in my voice, and not for the better; my awkward, limited range seemed to constrict further, and the top and bottom notes were even harder to eke out, making many of my favorite songs unsingable, even for myself. Gradually, I sang less and less. And listened less to music in the house, not wanting to disturb those working at the dining room table or slung across comfy living room chairs, (who had by now developed their own distinctive musical sensibilities and abilities), not wanting to bare, or perhaps declare, my own musical tastes.
Now, when I work in the kitchen, I usually listen to progressive talk radio, endless analysis and recounting of every aspect of our alarming national state of affairs: NPR, 1A, The Daily, Pod Save America. All of which, suddenly, seem unbearable, unconstructive, treading the same dismal territory in which we currently wander, leading nowhere.
I am resolved to restore the soulful, life-giving soundtrack of my life. We are living in a scary basement of a time. I, for one, will sing my hymns again, sacred and secular, as I travel this dark and dispiriting territory.
Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse