How Can I Keep from Singing?

The Summer of Loss and Gain continues, dear Reader.  Only yesterday I remarked that a couple of years ago was the Season of the Wedding, in which I attended at least 8 in a 14-month span and knew of 3 or 4 more.  This year, I have attended 3 funerals within a month and known of 4 more in less.  I have now filled the Deaths and Marriages pages in the Bible given me as a graduation present from college—3 years ago.

Tomorrow will be such a day as this season has been.  It will be my great uncle’s memorial, the celebration of the last of my grandfather’s 12 siblings.  I am watching a generation die out, and the loss of their voices telling their stories is one I feel keenly.  I cannot go to Uncle’s service, but I do not grieve overmuch for it.  He and I were not close, which I find unfortunate as I learn more about who he was.  I am aware of this death, though, and am sorrowful in my own way.

Tomorrow is also the service of a man from my church—again, someone I knew but with whom I held no special connection.  His has been a hard road of late, but the end is never totally eclipsed by its own relief.  He, too, is in my memory, and I mark his passing with a weighted heart.

One of the hymns my grandfather requested at his memorial service was “How Can I Keep from Singing?”  It has been often on my mind as I find this loss side of love.  As I sat listening to the rain last night wash the world clean after having attended the funeral for Mr. Great-Heart’s mom that morning, I realized why I’ve been humming it so often.

What do we do when we are sad?  We sing laments, play the blues, listen to the music that makes us remember.  What do we do when we are happy?  We sing songs of celebration, dance jigs, stamp the beat of our acknowledged life-pulse.  And sometimes we swap actions, as when I danced out of my friend’s memorial last Saturday to a Brazilian tune he loved, as I play bluesy jazz when it rains and I want the world to be as joyously slow as the steeping of my peppermint tea.

Tomorrow is so many things; it is the celebration of my great-aunt’s 90th birthday—and a celebration it will indeed be, if she has anything to say about it.  And in all 3 occurrences tomorrow there will be singing, because we humans are a musical sort whether we have any talent at it or not.  In this is our prayer for all that is lost, all that is gained, all that dances in the darkness with the salt of tears shining as light.

How can I keep from singing?  How can I keep from expressing that which must be said and cannot be spoken?  How can I hold my grief, my love, my joy and that of those around me silent?

At the funeral for Mr. Great-Heart’s mom, he read some poems she had written.  It was somewhat odd to me to be at the funeral of someone I’d never met, but he and his family are very dear to me—and as he was there for me in my loss, so would I be there for him.  This friendship I am discovering, these rules that are in no way rules, continually surprise me, but I sat in that church and listened to him read, and I felt the power of who she had been.  This is the magic of writing, as with singing; it is not the skill, but the heart of it that reaches the reader, the speaker, the seeker.

One of her poems was about being in the church choir, a subject near and dear to my own heart.  It reminded me of a banner hanging in our choir room—“it doesn’t matter how well you sing, but why you sing.”  Her poem had that feeling to it; the worship is the thing, at the end.  All of the beautiful voices in the world mean nothing if there is not this prayer behind them, this joy that is not happiness but is undimmed by death, by grief, by sadness.

The lament and the celebration come together in this song, this voiced prayer of rhythm and hope, this metered cry that tomorrow will be life as well as death, the creation as well as the retelling of memories.  How can I keep from singing?


 Sing, barren woman who has borne no child; break forth into singing and cry out, you who were never in labor, for the children of the wife who has been deserted will be more numerous than the children of the married, says the LORD.  Enlarge the site of your tent, and stretch out the drapes of your dwellings; don’t hold back. Lengthen your tent ropes and strengthen your stakes.  To the right and to the left you will burst out, and your children will possess the nations’ land and settle their desolate cities.   (Isaiah 54:1-3, CEB)


6 thoughts on “How Can I Keep from Singing?

  1. Deanna says:

    Well said! So glad we could sing together today.


  2. It does indeed seem like we’re saying goodbye to an entire generation. I thought the same thing earlier this week. I don’t remember ever being so aware as I was this week of the importance of teaching young people who we are, and passing on to them what we feel it is important to remember about us. Strange thing for an educator to say, but I don’t recall ever thinking about it in such personal terms before. It’s not just a question of what we think “the younger generation” should be taught about the world around them, etc. It’s a question of what we want them to remember about US and about OUR parents and grandparents. Of course, you’re part of that “younger generation,” but I know you understand. Mr Great-Heart’s mom is an example: someone you never knew, yet you appreciate knowing that she lived and hearing who she was. This week I felt a renewed determination to pass some things on…



    • As someone who deals with really old history all the time, I think I’m keenly aware of the possibilities of being able to talk with the people who lived through the textbooks. I would love to be able to chat with medieval personages, but that’s not going to happen any time soon; in this knowledge, watching living history become stories on pages is hard, for me. And though I am the younger generation, I’ve already had occasions to talk about great historical events that have happened in my lifetime with kids who are too young—and I can pass on my grandfather’s stories, of which he had many.
      I would love to hear your stories, Magister. I imagine they are even better than the ones on your blog, which are themselves always gems.


  3. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Ah, Jenaba, what a year of ups and downs. Sending hugs to you and to the Costales family. I need to write to Jorge. I actually wrote 13 get-well/sympathy notes this week. I didn’t learn about Jorge’s mother until we were in Chicago. We’re home, but with family here, and are leaving again tomorrow morning, so we’re missing Cam’s memorial service, too.

    Hope the job is going well, at least. And keep on singing. You sing beautifully, even in a strange land.



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